August
16th 2008
Mad men: cutting-edge TV, or an excuse to let racism and sexism run free?

Posted under: American history, European history, Gender, race

UPDATED BELOW

Chez Historianndoesn’t have cable–at least, not beyond very, very basic cable, and only then because we couldn’t get a wi-fi connection without it.  So, we therefore don’t have HBO or any of the other cool channels we might actually like to watch (as opposed to re-runs of Full House and Saved By the Bell on our local WB CW affiliate.)

Since a member of the family is under the weather, and that weather is one of our twice-annual onslaughts of rain that lasts for days, I rented the first DVD of the first season of Mad Men, HBO’sAMC’s latestheavily-promoted and critically acclaimed series.  For those of you who missed the weeks-long promotion of the premiere of the show’s second season, it’s about Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1950s 1960s and the women who serve them as girlfriends, wives, and secretaries.  The main characters are all white, and the few African American characters in the pilot episode appear only as elevator operators and waiters.  Aside from admiring the attention to detail of the costume and set designers, who have crafted a world that is full of mid-century modern design, I don’t really understand the popularity of this show.  (As usual though with historical dramas, the hair is all wrong.  Hair is something that’s much more particular to an era than just about anything else.)  Recent historical scholarship has revealed a 1950s 1950s and early 1960s that was much more varied, complex, and contested than Mad Men suggests, so it just seems too flat and simplistic.

Historical dramas are tricky, because either they run the risk of distorting race and sex relations in order to conform to modern notions of acceptable behavior (The Patriot, anyone?), or they run the risk of upsetting viewers by portraying historical truths too realistically.  (Remember all of the controversy about the supposedly upsetting realism of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List?)  But, some movies and TV shows get it right, and some don’t.  In my opinion, Mad Men was full of the offensive entitlement of wealthy, young- and young-ish white male advertising executives, without any redeeming social critique.  The only thing that signaled that we’re not supposed to like these guys very much is that the main character and his cronies are working on a cigarette account, and most of the main characters are smoking constantly and are shot through a scrim of smoke.  Ooohh–smoking!  Smoking is bad bad bad!  We get it.  We shut it off mid-way through the first episode.  We just didn’t care whether or not the main character came up with a brilliant idea to save the account or not.  His problems were too trivial to drive the drama.

As my fellow viewer said, “Roots was compelling and successful because it wasn’t about the masters,” and that about sums up my wariness of and boredom with Mad Men.  Those of you who have seen more of it, let me know what you think, and if you like it, why you like it.  Should we give it another chance?  (We’ve got 4 more days to see the next 2-1/2 episodes.)  Beyond that, how do you think TV and movies should deal with the prejudices and realities of the historical period they’re set in?  What are examples of shows you think got it right, and of those you think got it all tragically wrong?  (I’m considering giving Deadwood a try.)

UPDATED 8/18/08:  Last night, inspired by all of you who are fans and wrote so persuasively about how compelling you find the show, I watched another episode and a half.  (I think it was episode 8, when Don smokes pot with his girlfriend and her Beatnik pals, and has flashbacks to his Depression-era childhood.  I feel asleep during the next episode, which was about Don’s wife getting back into modeling while he was being courted by a big ad agency.)  For a TV show it’s above average, but I still found it very stiff, like a big 1960-themed dressup party with all of the stock characters performing lines that are more about the 2000s than about 1960.  (Sorry about the errors above in thinking that the show was set in the late 1950s–I saw several references to the 1960 Presidential campaign after writing that.  If Shaun is correct–see his informative comment below–and the show will end ca. 1972, it’s clearly meant to span the “long 1960s,” starting with the 1950s-ish early 1960s and ending with the late 1960s, which actually only ended in the 1970s.)  Finally, I found the writing (in these episodes) sounds like a David Mamet impersonation.  (The philosophical Hobo whose insights are more eloquent and profound than anybody?  Please.)  Don I suppose Mamet sounded edgy and cool in the 1980s, but twenty-five years on, not so much.

I may watch a few more episodes, to keep my ailing family member company.  (Ze’s the reason I was sent out yesterday to rent episodes 4-6 and 7-9, as ze’s becoming quite a fan!)  But so far, count me among the phillistines who doesn’t really get this one. 

Someone who does get the show, and who wrote an extremely interesting response to this post, is Clio Bluestocking–go read it.  I think she’s right that “writers [of historical fiction] are not so much trying to create a historically accurate world — although they must adhere to certain rules of history much as science fiction writers must adhere to rules of science — as they are trying to explore a contemporary subject,” although I still think that historians should evaluate historical TV, movies, and fiction as historians, with an eye to accuracy, period details, and overall mood.  (Again, The Patriot, anyone?)  Her post raises questions about the uses of contemporary movies and TV shows set in the past, and how we can use them responsibly in the classroom.  Although I don’t teach the 20th century any more, it seems like having students watch Desk Set (1957) rather than Mad Men would be a better assignment.  But, what are those of us who teach before motion pictures supposed to do?  Can period movies and TV shows play any role at all in our teaching, other than perhaps giving students a glimpse of how the past might have looked (albeit cleaner and with much better lighting and dental health), and to have discussions about how movies reflect more the world in which they were created than the world they purport to re-create?

30 Comments »

30 Responses to “Mad men: cutting-edge TV, or an excuse to let racism and sexism run free?”

  1. The_Myth on 16 Aug 2008 at 11:56 am #

    You hit the proverbial nail on the head with my criticism of Mad Men. It’s sexist, racist, etc. and I really, really wanted to hate it.

    But it’s just so damn well written. And there are hints of deeper things to emerge. [For instance, there's an anti-Semitic sub-current to the show, yet not a few of us think the main character may, indeed, turn out to be a Jew].

    I haven’t yet started watching season 2, but my sister rented the first 3 eps and the last 3: she liked them. You might want to try that strategy if you feel like you can slog through the first few. It really isn’t all about the advertising industry, so you could always fast-forward through the dull parts.

    I’d recommend giving it another shot. There’s a lot there to critique, but I think you might find it rewarding.

  2. The_Myth on 16 Aug 2008 at 11:59 am #

    P.S. Mad Men is on AMC, which is usually part of “basic” cable.

    http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/

  3. Historiann on 16 Aug 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    Oops–I’ll make that correction above! (My basic cable is really just basic cable: ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, WB, two Spanish channels, and some home shopping–that’s it! So, no AMC for me.)

    I’ll consider giving it another go…

  4. mary on 16 Aug 2008 at 12:42 pm #

    I haven’t seen Mad Men. But Deadwood is a favorite of several friends whose movie taste I generally agree with.

  5. Anne-Marie on 16 Aug 2008 at 12:56 pm #

    Hi -

    I’ve seen all there is to see of Mad Men, except for the last episode which is waiting for me, and I agree with everything you say about the racism, sexism and overall entitlement of these young (and not young) white male characters, except for the conclusion. I love this show.

    I don’t think there is any way that half of an episode is enough to know all of the things that are going on here. January Jones’ Betty ends up being one of my favorite characters, but the reasons for that don’t emerge for a long time. That said, I’m not sure more episodes will make you like it more?

    Because the attitudes and behaviors you mention don’t go away, nor are they ever marked by any kind of big red “this is bad” arrows. They’re there throughout and they’re inextricable from characters that sometimes you do find yourself liking. And that’s one of the things I like best about the show. If it gave the impression that only unlikeable people were racist and sexist I don’t think I would have watched much beyond the first disc. To me, part of the point and the power is that it wasn’t just nasty people who had nasty attitudes. And watching how the women, in this show (including some you haven’t met yet) find ways – different ways – to navigate and negotiate this landscape is to me completely compelling and fascinating.

    My husband wrote a pretty good review, though I’m biased, of the show on PopMatters which is a lot more specific and a lot more coherent than this comment is, if you’re interested in more — Mad Men, Sad Men

    Anne-Marie

  6. Anne-Marie on 16 Aug 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    (sorry – I should have mentioned that there are spoilers in the review posted above)

  7. Historiann on 16 Aug 2008 at 3:25 pm #

    Hi Anne-Marie–maybe I’ll give it another chance–but I can’t shake the feeling I have sometimes that the writer/producers chose to set a show in a historical period so that they could offer characters with retrograde values and attitudes. Kind of like “The Man Show,” only without any of the pretend irony.

    Complexity is good, and I frequently root for the bad guys because they tend to be the more interesting charcters. But, I don’t really care if Ted or Don or whoever lost the account! It’s just not a dramatic hook, at least for me.

    (And, I caught the anti-semitism setup, and what looked like a secretly gay guy setup…not that subtle!)

  8. Sisyphus on 16 Aug 2008 at 4:32 pm #

    I totally agree with you on the hair thing: historical shows/films never use period-accurate hair if they want you to find the characters sexy. Hair is so tied to the vagaries of beauty and how really culturally specific they are.

    So, I haven’t watched any episodes of Mad Men but that hasn’t stopped me from participating in several conversations about it with people who have. Some friends argued that it really opens a window on the sexism and how women dealt with it in a wonderful, eye-opening way, and other friends felt that by portraying really over-the-top sexism, the show kinda gives a pass to all the more subtle variations of it that pervade today’s culture. Basically, we disagreed over whether it would be a teaching tool, or an absolution (hey, I can’t be sexist, I’m not that bad!).

    And as a big fan of Deadwood (and Carnivale, too, sorta despite myself), I say give it a chance, but remember that what makes it so cool is that it isn’t really so much about being historically accurate as it is about _translating_ or _stylizing_ details to give modern audiences a historically accurate sense of shock. I would argue that the show takes the “wildness” of the Wild West totally over the top in order to give us modern people a real window into Victorian _gentility._ There’s no way we would even notice someone abusing the Lord’s name or not censoring the word “damn,” but blanketing the show with the word “cocksucker” gets at the same reaction.

    Now the obsession with the dirt and filth I think is a separate pattern that’s been going on in Westerns and such for a long time —- there’s something there about our need to aestheticize dirt now that most of us can escape it. I think Jane Tompkins wrote something along these lines about the rise of the Western at the same time as the rise of the office clerk.

    Oookay, have patience with this very long comment!

  9. Knitting Clio on 16 Aug 2008 at 5:21 pm #

    I saw a few episodes during a “marathon” before the premiere of the second season. I have to say I was very impressed by the writing and the acting. It’s an intriguing and complex show. My understanding is that the series is supposed to capture and illustrate the rampant sexism, racism, whatever of the era — which it does quite well. Too bad it’s on past my bedtime (i.e. I usually fall asleep around 9:30) otherwise I’d watch more if it.

  10. Dr. Crazy on 16 Aug 2008 at 5:24 pm #

    Ok, so I’ve watched nearly every episode of Mad Men, and I am both terribly compelled by it – great writing, great clothes, the constant smoking and drinking, the drama, the sex – and terribly disturbed by it (mainly the sexism, which pervades all episodes, but the racism and anti-semitism, too). The issue for me is that this is a contemporary text, and I think that texts – maybe especially ones that reflect on a historical period prior to our own? – have something to say about the historical context in which they are produced (written, filmed, whatever). I don’t think that we can call it a “teaching tool” that gives us insight into the time period (early 60s) because it’s obviously a representation of the early 60s from our current vantage point: it’s not a historical document. We maybe could call it a teaching tool for looking at how contemporary culture appropriates a given historical moment to explore its own moment, but that’s not how I’ve seen most people talking about the show. Why I think I find the show troubling is because it seems, to me, to be both an absolution in the sense that Sisyphus notes (“I can’t be sexist; I’m not that bad!”) and an absolution in the opposite direction: the show lets its viewers vicariously participate in blatant misogyny that contemporary culture (political correctness?) disallows. As I watch the women on this show, I’m both compelled by their performances _and_ I’m sucked into victimizing them from the point of view of our protagonists, who are the men of the show. I can be a resisting reader (or viewer), true, but at the end of the day, that resistance can only happen after I’ve been complicit in the initial premise of the show, which is one that I really do think is a misogynistic one. I keep watching, in spite of my discomfort, because I’m interested in thinking about why such a show appears at this particular moment, about what it says about people today, both who write it and who watch it. I’m going on too long – I may post about this over at my place, because I think I could say more.

  11. ej on 16 Aug 2008 at 6:26 pm #

    I totally agree with you, Historiann. I found the first few episodes irritating at best. But then things got interesting, the characters more sympathetic, and they really started spending more time developing the female characters. If you can hang in there until the end of the first season and the beginning of the second (in spite of the delay for them to show up on DVD) I think things will improve.

    Though I would like to know if all the alcohol consumption during the workday (sometimes they bust out the scotch before 11am!) is accurate. If so, I really don’t know how anyone got anything done…

  12. Mother of ALL on 16 Aug 2008 at 8:44 pm #

    As you well know I am an afficionado of all things television, and being a survivor of the 50′s era, I can tell you that they got it right. Mad Men happens to be one of my latest passions. I remember living in a smoke haze as we gathered in family settings as everybody smoked. Even though I was rather youngish during this period, my mother was in an office setting and she had many tales of the sexism that was rampant in offices at this time. I agree with Sisyphus as regards the translating and/or stylizing of the eras. Deadwood was one of the very best HBO offerings. It was so gritty and compelling/repelling that each episode was riveting. The characters in Deadwood were more likable or disgusting than those in MadMen. MadMen’s appeal is not the likability of characters as much as just the character study. I personally have an affection of the character of Joan, the office manager. She’s got the inside track on everybody and uses it, but you still want her to not have to play the games she needs to to get what she wants. She’s very smart and it will be very interesting to see how she deals with Don as his secretary now. Hang in there and give it a real chance. You know everything doesn’t need to have social redeeming value. It can just be great voyeuristic fun!

  13. Historiann on 17 Aug 2008 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks for all of your comments–I just might finish watching the DVD today, as it’s rainy here still, and there’s only so much jingoism one can stand (The 2008 Olympics as brought to you by NBC.) All of your comments on the women characters make it seem like they’re worth seeing–but I turned off the first episode after seeing only a few in action. (Joan seemed the most interesting. I like her zaftig figure–that seems authentic to the period, as opposed to today’s Social X-Ray aesthetic for women actors!)

    Dr. Crazy wrote, Why I think I find the show troubling is because it seems, to me, to be both an absolution in the sense that Sisyphus notes (”I can’t be sexist; I’m not that bad!”) and an absolution in the opposite direction: the show lets its viewers vicariously participate in blatant misogyny that contemporary culture (political correctness?) disallows.

    I think that’s what I was suspicious of–the thrill that the (largely male) writers, producers, and (male and female) viewers may get from seeing characters say and do things they couldn’t allow a modern character to say or do. My viewing companion at home watched the rest of the first 3 shows, and reacted the way that all of you have, which is to say that the show is compelling, although my companion feels that (as Dr. Crazy suggested) the show may offer a little too much comfort to the modern viewer (in the “gee, things were really awful then, and isn’t it great we live in the modern world free of prejudice” way.)

    And, Mother of ALL, yes–entertainment is good! I’m all for it–as you know, I’m a huge Reno 911 fan, a show that is just stupid and wrong in all kinds of ways. But, as Historiann, I can’t NOT think about the issues that period dramas present.

  14. Shaun Huston on 17 Aug 2008 at 10:25 am #

    This comment now feels a little belated, but Anne-Marie (the one above) and I have been talking about this post and the questions it raises for the better part of the past twenty-four hours and it’s taken about as long for my contribution to take shape. Sorry, this is going to be long.

    My biggest stumbling block with this discussion is that I can’t get my head around the idea that the series was made so as to allow the producers and the audience to a) justify their own sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. by comparison and/or b) to vicariously live in a world of largely unchecked privilege for white, heterosexual, affluent males. Maybe this is because I’ve seen and heard creator Matthew Weiner talk about the show a number of times now and this doesn’t seem to have been his interest (or, if it is, he hides it pretty well). He seems to have be drawn into the world of advertising for what it can tell us about American capitalism and consumerism. The late 50s and early 60s are the period where advertising really begins to emerge as a social force and as a “profession”. The norms and behaviors that seem to be prompting feelings of doubt and ambivalence about the show are not the point of the series, but stem from a desire to represent and explore a very particular group of people in an equally particular time and place.

    In addition, if anything, he seems more interested in showing how recent this kind of sexism, racism, etc. was more than he is in saying to the audience, “see, how bad people used to be.” Many Americans take comfort in the idea that in the U.S. “we” are beyond such things as race and gender. Mad Men can be read as stating, “not so fast” as easily as it can be read as somehow affirming the present as “clean”.

    Of course, audiences can do what they want, but I honestly believe that most who may have tuned in because they’ve heard, “dude, men rule on that show,” are likely to be turned off by its deliberate pacing and the disquiet of the characters. No one on the series is entirely happy or fulfilled in their life. The lacks that different people feel are not all the same in quantity or quality, but everyone has them. I can’t really see someone holding onto the show so as to experience the relative advantages of having been a white man in the early 60s.

    And that timing is important. To me, the series is written with a palpable sense of the social changes to come, and I have not seen anything, from its creators or in the show itself, to indicate that the point of it all is going to that those changes were somehow regrettable. In fact, the first season is full of signs of push back, particularly from women. None of it is revolutionary, “you go girl” kinds of stuff, but resistance to and a questioning of the way things are is there in a number of characters and actions that they take.

    Nonetheless, and I guess you can see this as either a virtue or a problem, I doubt the series is going to be cheerleading for the future either. I think that Weiner et al are more interested in the fact of how American society is changing during the period, and exploring how different people react to and negotiate those changes, than they are in passing judgment or signposting whose good, whose bad, whose a winner, whose a loser. But everyone’s experience is going to be treated as legitimate, even those who are most privileged by how things are at the beginning of the series.

    Along those lines, I would second Mother of ALL’s point that Mad Men does not read like a show that expects audiences to develop rooting interests in the characters. In the pilot, for example, I don’t actually think we are supposed to care about *whether* Don Draper saves the tobacco account or not. I think we’re supposed to be interested in *how* he saves it. The purpose of that story is to set up the character, not make us like him. No character is going to be above anything “bad” or beneath anything “good” (although if you’re looking for a villain, I’d consider Bert Cooper, the senior partner at the agency; he represents the amoral rapaciousness of American capitalism. However, even Cooper is more complicated than that).

    I think that Mad Men, and comparable shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Big Love, and Deadwood, is designed for purposes other than delivering “satisfaction” on an episode-to-episode basis. I think that the series, and the other examples I’ve given, are interested in exploring and provoking thought about how people live, often in circumstances that are very different from how many in the audience probably live (although, with the contemporary settings especially, a show may serve as a representation of how some in the audience live, just not everyone). Where it applies, that sense of difference is undoubtedly part of the appeal, but I don’t think its about uncomplicated escapism or affirmation.

    My understanding is that Mad Men is on a five season plan intended to end in 1972. Think of the first episode as you would the first, I dunno, ten pages of a 1,000 page novel. If you’d keep reading the book, then keep watching the show. If you’d put the book aside, never to pick it up again, then maybe the show isn’t worth watching either.

  15. Historiann on 17 Aug 2008 at 10:43 am #

    Shaun, thanks for your thoughts. No one has claimed that this show was invented only so that the privileged white male characters can be ventriloquized to express racist and sexist ideas that can’t be expressed by contemporary characters unless they’re purely villains. I think it’s a reasonable question to ask about historical dramas. The post is only incidentally about Mad Men, because that’s the latest period drama I’ve seen anything of, and more about the problems of creating period dramas without either making the characters too modern in their attitudes on the one hand, or without exploiting outdated prejudices on the other. The commenters here, who have seen much more of the show than I admittedly have, seem to think that it’s a show worth watching because of its complexity, although most of the commenters here are disturbed by some of the issues the show deals with (and how they’re dealt with.)

    One point of correction: as I understand it, historians of the U.S. in the 1920s have made similar arguements about advertising and public relations in that era. I am not a 20th C historian, so I can’t really adjudicate which claim is more valid, but there’s no question that Madison Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s was as much invested in the myth of its own cultural importance as it was in any accounts that it managed!

  16. Clio Bluestocking on 17 Aug 2008 at 4:00 pm #

    You know, I was going to comment, but it got so long that I’m making it a post. Obviously, this show gets people going!

  17. Historiann on 18 Aug 2008 at 7:31 am #

    Great post, Clio B. In case others haven’t seen my update yet, go read Clio Bluestocking now. Super-smart!

  18. Knitting Clio on 18 Aug 2008 at 11:32 am #

    For some reason, I found myself looking at the following website — http://jumptheshark.com/topic/Mad-Men/Mad-Men-General-Comments/700000044 — and found an interesting comment with which I totally agree:

    “This show has done more to show why feminists fought hard to get equal rights for women. I love this show. Gloria Steinem should be thrilled that younger audiences will get a chance to see what their mothers and grandmothers put up with. I know not all workplaces were like this but some were. People did smoke and drink all the time. In the early 80′s we would go to lunch and drink and then go back to work. Unheard of today. One could smoke most places. The characters are complex and interesting.”

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  20. Shaun Huston on 18 Aug 2008 at 12:37 pm #

    To take what I wrote about Mad Men and apply it to the larger questions about historical fiction, both as an artistic practice and as a potential teaching tool, I think that period pieces are at their best, or at least their most interesting, when they attempt to give viewers/readers a sense of what it might have been like to live in a different time and place. This is more than a question of aesthetics, or “look and feel”, it goes to how people acted, the choices they made, and so on. In fact, to build on Sisyphus’ comment and Clio Bluestocking’s blog post, in order to communicate effectively with contemporary audiences, creators of historical fiction will stylize the past, and in so doing, may do a better job of conveying how it “really” was than if they hewed to a strictly accurate recreation of the period in question.

    I think that Deadwood is an excellent example of this. The language employed there is likely far more profane than was in fact the case (although there is some dispute about that), but what the creators are trying to convey is that the people who went to Deadwood, especially at first when it was an illegal settlement, were often from the legal and social margins of the time. They would not have behaved, by and large, as “normal” people. Victorian-age profanity would be lost on contemporary audiences and to rely on it here would be more accurate historically, but less effective in conveying a sense of who the people of Deadwood were to modern audiences.

    When thinking about whether and how to use historical fiction to teach, I do think there can be a role for period recreations. I will use Deadwood, and similar kinds of “revisionist” film and television, in comparison to Westerns from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, to discuss different creative strategies for representing the 1800s West, but also to discuss the relationship between “actual” histories and “imagined” histories. Deadwood is far more informed by the “historical” West than are many classic Westerns, which offer, both morally and literally, a far more neat and clean image of the region than was “actually” the case. It is, however, no less of a representation shaped by its time and place than are the older texts. When considering whether to use this kind of fiction for teaching history, I think the key lies in whether students are adequately prepared to understand how a particular text may be “inaccurate” in some senses, but useful for understanding a particular historical period in spite of those “inaccuracies”.

    I also have to confess that I think that historical scholarship is no less “about its time” than is historical fiction. Obviously, professional historians have different interests in their material and how to represent it than do the creators of TV shows and films, but the kinds of questions that historians ask, what they see as important from the past, what they see as “evidence”, who they study and who they don’t study, these are all conditioned by when and where the historian is working just as with the artist, and, in that regard, historical scholarship is also as much about contemporary concerns as it is about the past. Clio Bluestocking’s idea of different “rules” is a useful way of thinking about how the two are different, but I don’t think that’s the same as suggesting that historical fiction should only be looked at in terms of what it tells about the time and place in which it was made, while reserving “real” examinations of the past to works produced by professional historians. I think the primary implication here is that you need to read different texts differently, but that’s not the same as treating fictions as if they were unrelated to the histories they represent (ultimately, don’t all professional histories also become primary sources about the times and places in which they were made?)

    Of course, I write this as a geographer, not as a historian, and all apologies in advance if I’ve simply rehashed a discussion that is already implicit in the dialogue between the people here who are historians.

  21. Historiann on 18 Aug 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    Thanks, Shaun, for your further comments, and for the endorsement of Deadwood. Your description of it conforms to the contours of current scholarship on the western U.S., which might make it useful in some classes. (Has anyone used Deadwood in class?) And, I agree with your point that books too are artifacts of the times in which they were written, as much as movies or TV shows. But, of course, books (usually) offer more depth and complexity than TV shows and movies…

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  23. Laxton on 19 Oct 2008 at 5:47 pm #

    This show is amazing, there are great subliminal messages through out the series, great reflection on contemporary western culture, Mr. Cooper is like the wise old philosipher, pay attention to things he says, the books he choses to read and the art he decides to hang on his walls. There is definitely alot more going on in this program than is right on the surface. pay attention people, wake up

  24. Historiann on 19 Oct 2008 at 6:43 pm #

    Um, Laxton–I don’t watch TV for “great reflection on contemporary western culture.” When I want to do that, I read books.

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    [...] nearly all-white cast makes occasional reference to the Civil Rights movement, but I’m afraid some of my initial suspicions about the show appear to have been justified:  the two black characters (Hollis the elevator operator and Carla, the [...]

  28. Peter on 20 Oct 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    A show like this makes me wonder, When is hiding in the castle too removed for making an effective drama out of it? In Season 1, the show follows the 24/7 lives of whites, however not the sprinkling of non-whites in the service industries. We get to become acquainted with what is essentially the ruling class, and naturally the writers let us find some nuance and humanness in them, but not its victims. The AMC webpage for the Cast & Characters of “Mad Men” shows 26 white people, no minorities, and I’d say that typifies the show. That’s one lopsided ball game for depicting America, any slice of it, in the Civil Rights era. I just don’t care. If you watch Roberto Rossellini’s historical film “The Taking of Power by Louis XIV” (you can rent it), you will see great period design and lots of court intrigue, but also everyday merchants and peasants who make up the bulk of the society. The fictional world is indeed compressed, but not to the point that those socially excluded have no voice and life to demonstrate on screen.

  29. Life-Size Brett Doll 1953 on 19 Apr 2011 at 2:20 am #

    Why do you think most TV and movies today BLOW CHUNKS???
    As always,the big-and small-screen big-wigs are attempting to turn back the racial progress clock by casting black men as side-kicks to white stars,comic relief,thugs/cops/attorneys in the criminal justice system,and the latset stereotype,black man as intellectually challenged/peverted pity or opprobrium objets.Good work,boys;now just remove your sheets and hoods,I mean,suits and ties,and wear your Tea Bagger-err,
    Tea Partier garb and join your fellow bigots!!!

  30. Dr. Dee on 30 May 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    I have watched all four seasons of this show. Though there is plenty of talk on this blog about the show’s explorations into gender issues then and now; there has yet to be any comment about the only re-occurring Black-identified female character–the Draper’s maid. The conversation here reflects America’s understanding of itself as a normatively White society. However, I do not mean that non-White men and women have not made extra-ordinary gains in education, employment, housing, and so forth. I’m identified as Black, have a Ph.D. and teach rhetoric at a university in the Northeast. What I mean is that non-Whites, and especially people identified as Black, are perceived (and often perceive themselves) in very limited ways that make Whiteness and White people the normative standard for varied experiences. The show, though based in the 1960s, has a lot to say about attitudes toward Black-identified people that still exist today. Though White-identified women are portrayed as wives, sex objects, girlfriends, and business women, Black-identified women are largely absent. The only reoccuring character is middle-aged, frumpy, somewhat overweight, domestic. She speaks very little and is mostly passive. She has no life beyond what is seen when she is on screen in the Draper household. Others are dark backdrops in party scenes, which is very telling. Overall, they have no roles other than the ones White-identified people are comfortable seeing them in, hence, perpetuating stereotypes of Black-identified women many people in America–regardless of race–still believe. Where is the Shirley Chisholm-esque character? Educated, attractive, stylish, ambitious, and politically aware Black-identified women existed in the 1960s. They exist now but many people don’t believe we do or ever have. Ask Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or any of the thousands of Black-identified women who attended college, pursued careers, and attempted to break both gender and race barriers in the workforce in the 1960s. Oh yes, Mad Men had one–kind of. She played the teacher-girlfriend-civil rights activist to one of the White-identfied male characters at Sterling and Cooper, and then was written out of the show after a couple of episodes. Why? I have my theories. She could not be sustained as a character because Black-identified women were/are not real people. They cannot be represented as multi-dimensional and complex because this is a society (now and then) that does not recognize non-stereotypical complexity in non-Whites and especially in Non-White women. Ostensibly, the stereotypes of Black-identified women are much narrower than the stereotypes that apply to White-identified men and women. She wasn’t a prostitute or a single mother or an unemployed, poverty-stricken, uneducated ghetto dweller so there was really no dialogue for her, no real opportunity to explore her character. She wasn’t a maid so she couldn’t be used as a backdrop to highlight the normalcy of a White class privilege that commodified Black bodies. What would the writers have her talking about? Where would she live? How would she live? What were the issues that concerned Black-identified, educated, middle-class single women in the 1960s? These are difficult questions to answer because very few historians have bothered accounting for these women’s lives. Only White-identified people–male and female–can be complex in ways audiences will find authentic. Indeed, had the show’s producers and writers been able to contextualize this character historically, there would have been the accusation of “inauthenticity” from viewers of all races.