Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mad Men, cookies, and the marginalization of characters of color [Television Tuesday]


I tried to avoid writing about Mad Men again this week for Television Tuesday, but dammit, it's everywhere. And this quote in an interview with creator Matt Weiner with fan site Basket of Kisses jumped out at me:

DL: She’s wondering if it’s possible to do a story about race in the early 60s without having it become cliché.
MW: I don’t know... Because the whole thing about, let’s not even call it race, let’s just say racism—it’s the same as sexism or whatever—[is] thinking of people as other. It’s literally about thinking of people as other.

They don’t have the same feelings and thoughts as you do, they don’t have the same desires. It’s the way men are with women about sex, the way Greg was with Joan. Like why would she be that way? She’s a woman! You’re not supposed to want sex. You’re not supposed to be horny. Or want to have power, or have experience, or have thought sex out. So I look at the race issue, it all comes down to knowing individuals. As individuals become more ingrained in each other’s lives. That’s what the great thing is about integration and everything, the generation that’s after me, my kids, it’s not an exaggeration, they don’t know the difference. They do not see it because they are surrounded by people of all different kinds, especially in Los Angeles, and they’re just people....
My favorite line in that whole story line is Paul saying to her, “Can’t it wait? Why can’t it wait?” That’s the understanding of it. And by the way, privileged white people who have good politics have made a huge difference in that world. They were very, very important to the world changing. I wasn’t just trying to ridicule him. They were the people that actually, I was trying to show, why do you go down there? It’s more complicated.
RL: It’s sort of like, the straight women speaking up about AIDS is what helped move that along.
MW: Right, absolutely. And the fact that the people who are activists are often, intolerant or insufferable or egotistical or whatever else it is, or privileged, y’know?
DL: You kind of have to be privileged to be part of a movement because otherwise you can’t take time off of work.
MW: Well, yeah. They talk about this with the Russian Revolution, it wasn’t made out of people growing up in poverty, it was a lot of sons of doctors that made the revolution happen.
I don't think anyone's going to quibble with the argument that Mad Men is a feminist show. Weiner and his writing staff clearly make the role of women and the societal challenges facing them a major focus of the show - it's not accidental, it's a byproduct of a concerted effort to make this show about women and feminism. His language above reflects that fact - he is able to clearly and easily use feminist language such as "othering" and "privilege".

However, and very very like feminism, Mad Men also practices silencing and erasing of persons of color. Yes, there are black characters and the occasional Asian character. Yes, they occasionally speak or have conversations among themselves. And I think that Weiner is definitely trying very, very hard to get a cookie and include civil rights in the show.

He's ignoring it completely, but he has almost never made it a focus: the only specific story (rather than individual scene or interaction) centering on race was a C storyline, B at best. The lack of stories about civil rights, about persons of color, about the changes their community was going through, stands in stark contrast to the constant and able sympathy for white women.

I'm going to turn it over to the best feminist analysis I've read thus far of Mad Men, by LaToya Peterson, to explain:

Although Draper has a gift for engaging and seeing through marginalized types—the unwed mother, the Jewish heiress, the closeted gay man—in the case of the black characters, the relationship never goes beyond shallow conversation. Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early ’60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission... The white patriarchy is breaking apart, the rush of the ’60s are upon us. But the black characters are still trapped in a romantic haze of noble, silent suffering...
[M]inorities are shown in glimpses around the edges of narrative. They include the two black women that are ladies’ room attendants, the black sandwich seller, the Chinese family used as a prank on Pete Campbell, Carla, the Draper's black maid, the black delivery men dropping off the copier, the elevator operator Hollis, and the Asian American waitress. For the most part, they pop up and say one or two lines... Black characters remain silent enigmas, and Asian Americans are barely noticed at all.

Here's the thing. Matt Weiner is very deeply sympathetic towards women's rights and feminism and what was going on with women in that period. This is reflected by the makeup of his writing staff - five women out of nine writers.


But something else is reflected by the writing staff: there are NO persons of color.

When you don't have any people directly affected by racism writing the show, how are you supposed to accurately and sensitively communicate the experience?

Matt Weiner is not really concerned with using his privilege to directly address the changing role of persons of color in the area. From the interview:
They are parallel universes. They’re not based on hatred, and it’s not In the Heat of the Night. This is not Birmingham, Alabama, this is New York City, people are living side-by-side, but they are parallel universes. And this is how they intersect...So I look at the race issue, it all comes down to knowing individuals. As individuals become more ingrained in each other’s lives. That’s what the great thing is about integration and everything, the generation that’s after me, my kids, it’s not an exaggeration, they don’t know the difference.
But individuals are already there. You've made very sure to have some persons of color in disempowered positions - I'm thinking specifically of Hollis, the elevator operator, here - but you don't do anything with him, except show him or Carla once in a while to show your viewers that you remember that black people exist.

Why can't Hollis have a storyline? Why can't he come up with a great idea by chance, his own "basket of kisses", and be given a chance to show himself to the world? Why can't he be involved with one of the secretaries (or executives) at work? Why wasn't Shelia given significant personality characteristics? Why can't Carla have a close relationship with the Draper kids? Why didn't Paul's co-workers express the racism that they surely would have?

"The worlds just didn't cross!" is a sorry excuse, because they did cross. People had lives. Sal gets to have a crush on Ken and [spoiler] almost fuck a bellboy.[/spoiler] Carol comes out to Joan. Peggy gets ahead - she shouldn't have, but she did, somehow. These things weren't supposed to happen, but they did. Hollis would have had a life, would have had ideas and things to say. But he doesn't, really, on the show. Maybe he's not comfortable talking much around the white folks who work at Sterling-Cooper, but Mad Men puts no effort into finding a situation where he would talk, would act, would be involved in the story.

Race was a big deal in the sixties. Maybe it wasn't talked about a whole whole lot by the people who work at Sterling Cooper, but you know what else wasn't talked about? Date rape. Unhappy housewives. Extramarital affairs and children.

When you've gained a LOT of attention and sympathy for addressing the oppression of class and race privileged women and class and race privileged LBG men and women, it kind of seems odd that you're not discussing the other big upheaval in power structures that was seething by 1960 and just as much on the precipice of explosion as Betty by 1962. When you're making a show that's critical of the power structure, but specifically not very critical of race, that's marginalization, and that's silencing.

He's a white liberal who wants that cookie. From the interview:
And by the way, privileged white people who have good politics have made a huge difference in that world. They were very, very important to the world changing. I wasn’t just trying to ridicule him.
I really hope that I'm wrong. Maybe season 3 will mimic season 2 and make race a focus instead of a footnote - or maybe Weiner will put it off until season 4, or 5, or never.

From the piece by Ms. Peterson quoted above:
If the show ignores race again, then it is truly written by cowards. Would it be so difficult to show Carla crying for the little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church? Would we get a different glimpse of this rarefied world if Hollis gets promoted beyond elevator boy? Could the show's writers and producers stomach having one of their characters—Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling—drop a racial epithet with the same ease which with they do misogynistic comments? Or is it, as a friend of mine summarized, that "misogynists are cads and racists are monsters?"

5 comments:

  1. Yeah, you know, I was wondering why they could do such a good job showing the lives of women while also making it clear that they were othered in 1960s society, and I think you may have hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that the writing team as no people of colour. Maybe the white, socially conscious writing team is nervous about actually exploring people of colour? Worried about making mistakes? Not really sure about how to accurately portray them?

    Of course, the easy solution to this problem would be widening the diversity of the writing team...

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  2. Exactly! It's not that hard to hire a couple of writers of color - and it would probably prevent the show from becoming stale. I think some black directors would be helpful as well...

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  3. I don't think you can call Mathew Weiner "white". He's Jewish-American, and I think it belittles the struggles that Jews had to go through in America to simply say he's a white liberal.

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  4. Fair point, Will. Calling a Jewish person white is simplifying things a bit, and I left out how MM addressed anti-Semitism in the first season.

    However, Matt Weiner is a beneficiary of white privilege. While I probably should have been more specific and intersectional, my main point - that Weiner's privilege and the white privilege of his writing team are preventing them from being critical of race as they are of the position of race and class privileged women - stands.

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  5. Mad Men is amusing, but I don't find much to analyze. For starters, there were enclaves of POCs with wealth and power, and NOT just in the south. My mother spent summers on Martha's Vineyard (the upper middle class black nook) most of her youth. And in the 60s she was in nursing school in Connecticut - large prestigious university to be exact, which last I checked wasn't too far from NYC. My father graduated from both med school AND law school. Oh yeah, he's also a retired Air Force Col. And he's nearly 75, so clearly his accomplishments, which are quite impressive, weren't - you know - recent. "Julia" was on TV and there were a host of publications/products/companies owned by black folks. It's not that hard if one is willing to do some legwork. Since clearly MW is not, his free ride is over. At this point, I'm not inclined to be a Mad Men apologist. He wants the show exactly how it is, and folks are fooling themselves to think otherwise.

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