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A Final Appraisal Of The Black Presence On ‘Mad Men’ Season 6

A Final Appraisal Of The Black Presence On 'Mad Men' Season 6

Mad Men, that
often vague, always compelling opus on the American Dream, has over the years
become one of the most lauded shows in a television renaissance of quality,
complex storytelling. Alongside programs like Breaking Bad and Homeland,
it’s proven (if there was any doubt before) that TV entertainment doesn’t have
to be mindless – it can also be an artform. But despite all its critical
praise, despite the fifteen Emmys, four Golden Globes, and legions of fans who
over-analyze and over-investigate the minutiae of the Mad Men universe, there’s often been the complaint that has arisen
season after season: Where are the black
characters
?

It’s a valid question, since the show takes place during the
days of the height of the Civil Rights movement in America, a time when people
of color were fighting more than ever before for equality and representation.
The defense of some fans is that the series is set in a world where the
presence of black characters at a Madison Avenue ad agency simply wouldn’t fit,
a world where most blacks were the stock archetypes of elevator operators,
nannies, and maids.

The defense of showrunner Matthew Weiner is slightly more
nuanced. During Season 5 of the show, in an interview on Charlie Rose, Weiner addressed complaints about the lack of
diversity on Mad Men by saying that
his aim was not to tell “a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of
white America and black America.” For Weiner, historical accuracy was important
–  it seemed disingenuous to include more
developed black characters on the show too early, during a time when most
(white) people were still experiencing the civil rights movement not firsthand
but through the images they saw on TV. Weiner added: “Hopefully when we get to
the part of the ’60s [where race is more clearly addressed on the show], you
won’t have trivialized the contribution of someone like Martin Luther King.”

Where a show like Girls
operates with a willful lack of self-awareness about its diversity problem,
Weiner seemed to insinuate that the exclusion of minority characters in the
early seasons of Mad Men is on some
level a conscious, calculated decision. But it’s significant, I think, that
Weiner added during the Rose interview that his approach to the use of black
characters on Mad Men would have been different, “if I was telling a story of the black experience.”

To my mind, while Jon Hamm’s enigmatic Don Draper has always
stood as the center of the story, Mad Men
as a whole has been about the American experience and American identity as
a whole. To say that the black experience, that black identity, has no place in that story, that the only
way it could have a place is if the story was exclusively about black people, is the type of ideology that has
resulted in a Hollywood industry where well-written roles for people of color
continue to be scarce. For six years, we’ve had mere glimpses of black
characters on the show, some regulated to recurring but mostly silent roles.
There was Harry Crane’s black girlfriend, and of course the Drapers’ maid Carla,
unceremoniously fired by Betty in season four. And then there was Dawn.

Played with quiet reserve by the talented Teyonah Parris,
Dawn made her first appearance on the show towards the end of season five, as
Don’s new secretary. Her addition marked the shift that Weiner claimed was his
plan all along, that slow burn towards a more pronounced black presence. But a
final appraisal of where that shift has taken us in season six can actually be
represented by an episode last season, ‘Mystery Date’, where Dawn spends the
night on Peggy’s couch to avoid riots in Harlem and the two share an awkward
conversation. The scene ends with a moment where Peggy reconsiders leaving her
purse, filled with money, next to Dawn that night. It’s a scene about white
privilege and white guilt. We learn very little, if anything at all, about
Dawn.

It was a tone-setting scene, as we continue to learn little
about Dawn or any of the black characters we see in this past season of Mad Men. Season six has had three
“significant” black characters: Grandma Ida, the creepy burglar in the
cracked-out fever-dream of an episode that was ‘The Crash’,  the silent prostitute in ‘For Immediate
Release’ who Pete describes as the “biggest, blackest” hooker he’s ever seen,
and Dawn.

White minor characters, like Michael Ginsberg, Bob Benson,
and Stan Rizzo, have maintained a constant presence throughout the season. That
presence can obviously be chalked up to the fact that their roles in the agency
are slightly more integral than secretaries. But there’s still something to be
said for the fact that while they command less of the plot and less screen-time
than the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the show, we get more glimpses into
their personalities and inner worlds (especially with Ginsberg and Benson) than
we ever do with any person of color, especially Dawn. What does that
storytelling choice, really, have to do with maintaining historical accuracy
about black and white relations in the 1960s?

To be fair, Dawn does get moments to shine in two key
episodes. In ‘To Have and to Hold’, she runs into trouble with Joan when she
agrees to punch in for a white secretary who skips out on work. Two brief
scenes in that episode show her meeting up with a girlfriend at a diner where
she talks about how she hardly ever sees “us” up on Madison Avenue. Her friend
warns her not to get too chummy with her white coworkers, who may take
advantage of her. It’s the first glimpse we get of what Dawn’s experience must
be like as the only black person working at Sterling Cooper & Partners (or
whatever it is).

Then, in ‘The Flood’, Martin-Luther King is shot and we see
the varying degrees of shock, disgust, confusion, and indifference from the
white characters on the show. We get the black perspective on King’s death from
a brief moment with Peggy’s secretary, who is sent home early. Dawn gets an
awkward hug from Joan. Once again, it’s about guilt, it’s about privilege, it’s
about Dawn and the civil rights climate being used to gauge the racial
attitudes of the white characters. She’s more the idea of a character than a
character in her own right, a noble negro with no personality.

For Weiner, presumably, this may in fact be the point:
excluding his black characters in order to 
mimic and highlight the overall exclusion and oppression of people of
color during America’s (more blatantly) racist past. Of course, the show also
examines America’s sexist past – and the depiction of women on the show
(through Sally, Peggy, Betty, Joan, Megan, all of Don’s conquests) doesn’t
sacrifice character in order to make the same point.

While Don Draper’s life got worse on the season finale of Mad Men Sunday night, across the
television airwaves a roundtable discussion featuring black actresses Viola
Davis, Gabrielle Union, Phylicia Rashad, and Alfre Woodard premiered on Oprah’s
OWN network. Davis addressed the uproar over her docile maid character in The Help, a role that won her a
history-making Oscar nomination. For Davis, the outrage over The Help was about people getting
wrapped up in “the image rather than celebrating the artistry,” more concerned
with the potential offensiveness of having a black woman play a “mammy”
archetype than with the potential for subverting and transcending that
stereotype.

While I’m still not
sure what I think of The Help, I do
believe the sentiment of Davis’s statement speaks a lot to the issues I have
with Mad Men. It’s never been about
wanting to disturb the supposed historical integrity of the show by populating
Sterling Cooper with an army of anachronistic black copywriters and execs
(though, I  might add, there were black people in advertising in the
60s – check the receipts). It was never strictly about black characters being
regulated to servant and nanny roles. It’s been about the quality of the
characters, the potential for that artistry Davis mentions, being consistently
denied to the black artists on the show.

Season six of Mad Men has
been dynamic, unsettling, and illuminating. But in terms of black
representation, it’s been a resounding disappointment. Dawn’s introduction
seemed like the answer to a question, but all its done has prompted yet another
question: in light of all that criticism, what was the point of including Dawn
at all if there was no intention of fleshing her out? Or will we have to wait
another several seasons, in that slow burn that Weiner is so fond of, before we
finally get beneath the surface? At the end of the day, it’s Weiner’s
prerogative in how he chooses to continue to portray the impact of the Civil
Rights movement in the next season of the show. White writers often take that
“write what you know” approach, after all (funny how Shonda doesn’t seem to
have that struggle). Hopefully, while we wait for season seven, other shows
will work to fill the void that both the TV and film worlds continue to ignore.

 

Zeba Blay is a
Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular
contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She
runs the movie blog
Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls.
Follow her on Twitter
@zblay.

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