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News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

Maddening Mad Men?

Melissa Witkowsi has a thought provoking blog post in the Guardian about her perception of racism and sexism in Mad Men. I don’t think she deserves all the vitriol in the comments, but I don’t entirely agree with her viewpoint either. Here’s what I posted to the blog:

Mad Men is, at its heart, about generational change – about that tipping point between the old world and the new, modern one. Yes, things are exaggerated to support this theme. I don’t think this is a problem in a work of fiction.

Peggy routinely struggles to be taken seriously by both her clients and co-workers. It’s a huge part of her story. She also struggles with finding a place in the world as a ‘new woman’. MM’s female characters are some of the most complex and realistic I’ve come across on TV, and they routinely make me consider the relationship between the women of the past and those of the present – contrary to your assertion that the show distracts us from today’s struggles. Sal’s storyline, which you don’t mention, has a similar effect on me, leading me to wonder how many gay people still feel uncomfortable about coming out in the workplace.

Weiner has – as yet – chosen not to focus his attention on the civil rights movement (although it is alluded to) or the emergence of black people in business. Some will fault him on that, and I can’t blame you for feeling like that story is being ignored. However, there will hopefully be future series in which the story of black success in advertising can be explored. I would hope that it would be included as part of MM’s continuing themes and plotlines and not through tokenism.

I have an essay about change in Mad Men brewing, and I shall post it as soon as I write it. The old/new dichotomy is one of my favourite things about the show, and I think Melissa is viewing it rather too simply by saying that the show trivialises today’s attitudes by framing those of the past as antiquated. On the contrary, I feel like the show is constantly reminding us that the 1960s weren’t really that long ago – from the brands they represent to the foundations of modern capitalist culture that the advertisers are laying down – and the tension raised by the spectre of change prompts us to consider its very nature.

It’s hard to ignore the invisibility of ethnic minorities in the show, that’s true. Season 1 examined the position of Jews in society, but in part used that to explore Don’s outsider status and identity issues (like practically everything in the show). As I mentioned in my comment, the civil rights struggle has been briefly touched upon, but is not in the foreground. That’s because the majority of the characters don’t care about the struggles of black people. Unlike Life on Mars, where Sam provided a touchstone for modern audiences to assess the values of 1970s Britain, Mad Men has no intruding reference point. On a day to day basis these characters don’t even consider the issue.

As I also mention in the comment, this would be remedied by the inclusion of a black character (with a larger role than Carla the maid or Kinsey’s girlfriend). I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of the show’s burden to do this, however. I mean, I’d like to see a black character take an important role and explore the same nuances we’ve seen with all the other characters in the show. On the other hand, there are lots of other groups that Mad Men does not portray in depth – most of its characters are middle to upper class, for example – and if Weiner ultimately chooses to focus his lens on only a fraction of what happened in the era, I think I will be okay with that, as long as (and this is where I think Melissa has a point) the existence of other experiences is not totally ignored. My apologies for all the white privilege this viewpoint exposes – I am totally aware of that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so conflicted on this issue!

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