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'Mad Men,' Its Women and the Scary Black Guy

5 years ago
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Though "Mad Men," a show with more than its share of 1960's repression and angst, was created by a man, it's been celebrated for its many female writers. Their payoff for detailing all the deliciously decadent sexism the show's period alpha males reflexively display? A Sunday episode that explored the complicated journeys of the show's mad women. While the "Mad Men" architects have shown an ease when it comes to the cads, their careful construction on how the other half copes seemed a bit self-conscious.
A little girl with Daddy issues? Check.
Little Sally Draper wants Daddy's attention and she'll do anything to get it: run away, throw screaming fits at a buttoned-down ad agency, insult daddy's new "friend." Her in-control smirk as she lolls on the couch in daddy's bachelor pad looks awfully familiar. The little girl who hates her cruel mommy is – at certain angles – a pint-sized Betty Draper. That realization is sure to send her to a cult.
A strong woman who can't quite hide her vulnerabilities? Check.
Dr. Faye Miller has Don Draper's affection, but the woman who has chosen career over children is resentful, then insecure when she fails Sally's – and maybe Don's -- motherhood test. She's not good with children; after viewing Sally as though through a microscope, she doesn't need to tell us.
Cranky comic relief? Check.
When "Mad Men" goes gory, watch out. Someone in the writer's room likes to shock. We've had one foot lacerated by lawn equipment. This week, we got Miss Blankenship keeling over at her desk. She of the impolite one-liners asked her boss if he was going to the bathroom before she left Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce for good. Rest in peace, Miss B. Personally, I'm glad they killed you off before you turned into a complete cartoon.
An in-control bombshell loses her way? Check.
Joan Harris thought she had it figured out. But marriage to a doctor has turned sour. She still has to be the strong one and endure his unexpected enlistment as he heads to Vietnam. And the dance with Roger Sterling? He may understand her but he doesn't deserve her. In the office, she has to compete with women with real power and young men who treat her like bad Mommy.
Peggy Olson as confused stand-in for social change? Check.
Perceiving the glass ceiling and wondering what to do about it gives our young copy writer the willies. A socially conscious suitor doesn't think much of an ambitious woman's plight. When he rants about social justice, she wonders why Negroes can't claw their way up as she has. Then, she thinks about it and tries to raise the consciousness of a racist client. Bad move. She's the only one with a soft spot for the calypso king, Harry Belafonte. "It's a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are," Miss Blankenship told her. Does she?
Total cluelessness when it comes to the defining movement of the 1960's? Double check.
"Mad Men" has tiptoed around the subject of race: a reference to the Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman civil rights murders, a race-tinged debate of the Liston-Ali fight, the soothing presence of mad maid Carla, teaching Sally how to make French toast while mommy smokes. In Peggy's rant we get the tension that has existed since abolitionists and suffragists made cautious common cause. But why must she then argue both sides? Better to make it a fair fight with a pioneering African American ad man to shake the foundations and the preconceptions of the boys at SCDP. Yes, they did exist, as a smart piece on The Root detailed. (Georg Olden, in 1963 a VP and senior art director at the prestigious McCann Erickson agency, went on to win seven CLIOs and design the CLIO statuette. Don and his crew have won just one.)
Instead, the show's new black character was an unnamed gun-wielding mugger. It's not that he was black. It's that he wasn't even a character, merely a device to trigger Joan and Roger's moment while serving as a symbol of New York's urban decay. The writers can push regressive, politically incorrect buttons, as my colleague Donna Trussell says, and can do so without censure because it's a period piece. But aren't they more nimble or imaginative than that?
The final scene – a carefully composed elevator tableau of Joan, Peggy and Faye – catches "The Beautiful Girls" of the episode's title caught up in their own problems and not yet ready for solidarity. The beauty of the scene recalls the first season of "Mad Men" in a troubling way. Back then, the show was more art direction than art. Like life in the 1960's, moving backward for an intriguing TV tale is not an option.
Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Culture

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I also raised an eyebrow at these current scenes. To show history we have to show all aspects, the negative, and the positive,which there were plenty. First of all there were African American agencies during that time period doing damn good work. Vince Cullers, Reynold Ruffins, Archie Boston to name a few. I think this could be a good opportunity and platform to talk about race, but I miss the creative thinking of Don Draper. The reason I was drawn to the show in the first place. I like how it draws one the think, and the acting and writing is superb.

October 01 2010 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Showing a black man as a mugger is that any more racist than every commerical for home burgery safety systems only show a white intruder. It doesn't matter which way you show it someone will play the race card. Blacks do commit crimes weather you admit it or not. As do whites.

September 27 2010 at 8:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I've had the misfortune to be mugged several times. Perhaps, one too many in a lifetime but urban life, despite it relative safety, has its downside, too. One had a gun; the other a knife (which he used leaving a long white scar that continues to provoke peoples curiosity) and the last, a bottle of ketchup. No kidding. Anyhow, the gist of all this flashback is they were all white. All men. All average in appearance: they didn't LOOK as if they harbored any ill intentions toward their fellow men. So the appearance of this black male gun-wielding mugger says more about the writers and the casting director than it does about wielding creative license in a period piece. It's a stereotype, mindlessly trotted out. What makes it particularly repellent is that it is so readily accepted and so rarely disputed. Though I'm glad the actor received a paycheck, this particular scene should have been questioned.

September 26 2010 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have no nostalgia for the race inequalities of the 1960s.

September 22 2010 at 10:27 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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