In Defense of the Strategic Marginalization of Blackness within Mad Men
The dearth of blacks in television programming is an old story. Season after season, watchdog groups cry foul as the broadcast and cable networks produce television shows without thinking about casting black actors. In many cases, the blacks who are cast function as filler—they walk across the screen and fill up space. Of course this lack of racial difference is a problem that needs to be addressed and not in the more pedantic measures that network executives have peddled, e.g., adding the “token” black to an already established white cast or the more recent process of blindcasting where race is not explicitly written into the casting breakdowns which grants non-white actors the possibility of employment. The problem with the latter is that the role is written as normatively white, thus cultural specificity is both lost and conflated with skin color. These are the systems at work in contemporary television programming which is why the title and purpose of this essay seem counterintuitive. Why in the world would anyone defend the strategic marginalization of blackness?
I began to put together my thoughts on this issue in 2008 during Mad Men’s second season. Set in 1962, I had great hope for what this program could become. Two years later, this essay wrestles with those thoughts and the issues I incorrectly predicted.
First, let me be clear: this is not a generalizable defense of all shows that exclude blacks. Mad Men is an exceptional case because of its very rigid time period and object of study: advertising agencies in 1960s America. In season two, several important events had yet to occur that would make my argument differ: JFK’s death and the election of Lyndon B. Johnson which eventually beget the Civil Rights Act of 1964. African-Americans in particular had yet to gain equality in the workplace. Thus, it made little sense to “see” blacks outside of the positions they dominated at this time. The black elevator operator, the black lunch lady, the black janitor, and the black maid represented the various types of minority presence on the show. Initially off-put by the exclusion, I reconsidered once I realized the show’s desire to recreate that America in all of its ugliness.
Unlike other recreations of this era — I am thinking particularly of Hairspray (2008) — Mad Men does not carry the same kind of “hindsight smugness”; that is, a show’s ability to re-interpret an era’s ideology through a contemporarily superior lens. For example, Hairspray‘s seemingly easy integration of blacks and whites overwhelmingly contains hindsight smugness. That film’s thesis posits that people can just get together regardless of racial backgrounds and dance but that is a 21st century belief and not a 1950s one. Conversely, Mad Men‘s strategic exclusion of blacks in key character roles works because integration had not occurred in the way it would in the late 1960s and 70s. To place a black man in the offices of Sterling Cooper would be more to comfort ourselves as contemporary audience members than to give a more accurate depiction of that overtly racist era.
The future of race politics in American culture leads to my final point concerning the possible ways we can understand Mad Men‘s exclusion of blacks as central characters. Two years ago, I believed that as the show continued there would be African-American characters in key positions based on the steady increase of their presence in season two. And I was partially correct: season two found Paul Kinsey dating Sheila, the black grocery store clerk. While she only had two lines of dialogue, her presence was necessary to illustrate Kinsey’s superficial attempt at non-comformity and potentially brought Mad Men one step closer to negotiating racial conflict. As it is now, the show strategically places blacks and issues of blackness in the periphery—always present, always watching, always knowing the white characters think of them as invisible. However, is that enough? Is it enough to view the characters watching television’s coverage of Civil Rights? Is it enough that Betty dreams of Medgar Evers? At this point, blackness should not consist of a random black couple passing Don, as in last night’s episode. But maybe the answer speaks to a larger issue that queries if the show is imitating life or if life is imitating the show: what happens when a white showrunner and a staff of white writers review history through the eyes of characters who are wholly invested in white privilege? What does that suggest about the writers’ own privilege?
In closing, I still have hope that this strategic exclusion will pay off. But I have grave concerns that we will be satisfied with the nudges and winks at Don Draper’s world being turned upside down at the expense of a story about those who are doing the turning.