“Mad Men” Salon: America’s Struggle with Race, Shaken Not Stirred

Welcome to our RH Reality Check roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff
writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicked
off our salon Wednesday
, Amanda responded on Thursday, and Pamela adds her thoughts below. After the premiere (August 16),
we’ll start a second round of conversation!

I loved Mad Men from the first scene of the pilot episode "Smoke
Gets In Your Eyes," which presents an awkward-as-hell exchange at a bar between
Don Draper and a black man waiting tables. 
Draper tries to engage the man in a discussion of cigarette brands; after a few moments a supervisor comes bustling over to make sure the black
man isn’t "bothering" Mr. Draper.  The establishment
of discomfort within that scene is amazingly well done.  The viewer feels the the black
waiter’s concern, his expression anxious and his eyes averted, that Don Draper may have
just cost him his job by acknowledging him as a human being and asking for his
opinion.  But we also witness the lack of
concern, the lack of discomfort from the other patrons over the dismissive tone
and paternal language used by the supervisor toward the waiter.  In that one exchange, Mad Men served up a mixed
drink of America’s
struggle with race and class, shaken not stirred. 

I was hooked and have been since. 

The cast of Mad Men isn’t racially diverse.  As a matter of fact there were few characters
of color in the first two seasons.  Mad
doesn’t present an uplifting or empowering view of race nor does it hit a
viewer over the head with 1960s Civil Rights history. Rather, Mad Men keeps it
painfully and often awkwardly real by exploring race issues within the
framework of Sterling Cooper and the people connected to the advertising

From that first smoky scene in the first episode, to a later
scene when employees at the agency were asked if they were okay with a black
maintenance worker riding with them because the service elevator at the
building was out, onward to the acknowledgement of Civil Rights work through
the character Paul Kinsey’s interest in it, and the introduction of Paul Kinsey’s
black girlfriend as part love interest part liberal affectation,  Mad Men presents an exploration of race, class, and gender in the not-so-distant past that challenges the notion that all
was well back in the day and keeps this fan coming back for more.

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  • http://megbonbon.blogspot.com invalid-0

    Do you remember the episode where Don enacts revenge on Roger for making a pass at Betty by convincing him to overeat and over-drink at lunch and then arranging for the elevator to be out of order? To do this, Don has to go into what he thinks are cahoots with the elevator operator, who’s black. If the scheme is uncovered, the elevator operator will get fired. But he also can’t refuse Don. Don is blithely unaware of the effect of his little scheme on the elevator operator. And, you know, he’s a smart guy. He just can’t be bothered to even look at the elevator operator’s face who’s totally telegraphing his discomfiture.

    They do do those moments really well, don’t they?

  • http://www.very-simple.com/blog/ invalid-0

    following on Megbon’s comment, there’s also the scene halfway through the first season where Pete and Peggy “get to work early”. They, of course, have sex in Pete’s office because no one is around. Except, of course, for the black (invisible) custodial staff. There are so many layers to the show, even in the ways it uses the absence or invisibility of people, that it astounds me every time I watch it.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

    Re: The first scene in the first episode.

    I agree, that scene really did provide an “in a nutshell” view of everyday racial stratification in the northern US circa 1960. On the other hand, its now been two seasons, and that scene may have been the strongest treatment of the subject of race over the two seasons. True, there’s the regular, pointed showing of black faces in service class roles, the civil rights movement backdrop, etc.

    On the other hand, the show deals with evolving gender issues at length. Why more time put into gender than race issues? This picture of the Mad Men writing staff kind of clued me in.

    Then again, we’ll see what the third season brings.