It’s 1965 in AMC’s “Mad Men” and it has barely dealt with the issue of race. What’s up?
I love the show, but when the issue has come up, it’s usually regarding a client at the ad agency: How they will sell their products to blacks (“Negroes”), why clients won’t hire blacks, etc. There have been very few blacks or any people of color with speaking roles on the show that is set in New York City. In Season 2, Paul Kinsey did have a minor story arc that involved a black girlfriend, but blacks on the show have been mostly in the background: the Draper’s maid Carla, elevator operators or sandwich vendors.
Yes, the show needs to be realistic. The show is about sex, sexism and relationships. It would be tricky, but not impossible, to introduce the issue of race and intelligently combine it with sex: the ultimate taboo when it came to race. So, the writers need to be smart.
In the last few weeks, though, race has become more visible. In last night’s episode, “The Beautiful Girls,” it’s revealed one of the firm’s clients won’t hire blacks. Peggy raises the issue in a meeting, but she was quickly shot down. More importantly, though, she tells a guy at a bar, “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either.” It’s an acknowledgment that the fight for equality is about fighting both sexism and racism.
And then there was the mugger: The black mugger in the bad neighborhood whose face was obscured by shadows that demanded money and jewelry from Roger and Joan. It was disappointing that the first on-screen black character with a speaking part in weeks had to be a criminal. The obscured face made it clear the mugger was just supposed to be a faceless black man to Roger, Joan and the viewers. Was he supposed to be an Invisible Man?
I really hope so. I hope the writers and producers were doing something smart last night and not being lazy. “Mad Men” is an intelligent show. As it moves into the late 1960′s they’re going to have to address the changing nature of race in society and in the lives of the people at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, while continuing to substantively explore the sex and relationships of those people. I hope last night’s episode was the beginning of that.
Photo credit: AMC/”Mad Men”