“You’re Not Going to Kill This Account”: Mad Men, Racial Prejudice, and History

August 24, 2010
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“Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” Roger asks towards the end of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” It’s an important question for a character on Mad Men to pose, since forgiveness implies an ability to move forward, loyalty a deliberate tethering to the past. One of the conceits of the entire series has been how history, especially the parts of it that have been omitted from our popular memory, still structure our present. Don himself is a synecdoche for the historical revisionism of the series: though he tries to pretend as though his past as Dick Whitman never happened, it continues to play a determinative role in the decisions he makes and the emotional scars he bears; similarly, by recuperating an alternate narrative of the 1960s—one that counters celebratory images of heroic civil rights activists, counter-cultural rebels or anti-war activists—Mad Men begs the question of how the 1960s embodied by our characters informs the present world that we now inhabit. What would it mean if we are the inheritors not of only the brave triumphs of the Freedom Riders, but also of the indifference or disinterest of people who felt unaffected by them?

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” seems to propel this question, as it strikes me as both an anomalous and representative Mad Men episode, especially in regard to how it engages with the history of race relations and cultural difference in the 1960s. The Roger/Honda storyline marks the first time I can recall that racial prejudice is condemned within the program’s diegesis. Over the course of the episode, Roger is roundly attacked and castigated for his anti-Japanese racism. In contrast, Roger’s blackface performance in season three shocked and appalled viewers, though, with the exception of Don and Pete, his derby party audience smiled on in approval; anti-Semitic slurs were common in season one when Sterling Cooper attempted to land both the Menken’s and Israeli tourism accounts. In this week’s episode, no one is amused by Roger’s anti-Japanese vitriol, no one sympathetic to the war service that informed it, no one tolerant or indulgent of his feelings. His jabs read not as cute, but embarrassing and inappropriate, indicative of how Roger himself—along with his prejudices—are by 1965 anachronisms for which no one else has much patience. And they’re bad for business.

In addition, Don’s ability to best nemesis Ted Shaw and win back Honda’s interest requires him to learn something deeper about Japanese culture than a visit to Benihana’s affords. His ruse, formed after reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is premised on the cultural differences between American and Japanese businessmen, distinctions that he will honor and manipulate knowing that competitor Shaw will not. In other words, it is a plan that requires not only the kind of hijinks that are becoming the signature of SCDP, but also the willingness to try to see things through a different cultural lens and the humility to recognize the cultural specificity of one’s own interpretations. It’s a theme that is at the center of Benedict’s book and is repeated over the course of the episode, the gang at SCDP needing Bert to function as a cultural interpreter as much as the Honda execs require Akira to be a linguistic one.

On the other hand, the episode’s treatment of the civil rights movement is consistent with how the series has approached the topic up to this point. By and large, Mad Men doesn’t deal with the movement as much as mention it. This week’s episode prefaces the introduction of the Honda account and Roger’s anti-Japanese outburst with a brief discussion of Selma, though it relies on audience familiarity with what “Selma” signifies: the vicious police brutality against civil rights activists as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to Montgomery. Gesturing to a newspaper headline, Roger asks Bert whether he still believes there is no need for a civil rights law, to which Bert responds “they got what they wanted, what else do they want?” Don arrives, Pete raises the possibility of a Honda account, to which Roger evokes his war service, derides Honda execs as Pete’s “little yellow buddies,” and sets in motion a principle dramatic tension of the episode. Once the scene ends, the camera cuts to Don’s apartment where Sally and Bobby watch the news unsupervised, as the anchor discusses what I believe is the funeral of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had traveled to Selma to support civil rights activists and who subsequently had been beaten to death by local white supremacists.

Though there are rare exceptions—Medgar Evers appearing in Betty’s birth hallucinations, Kinsey traveling to Mississippi to register voters—the iconic events of civil rights in Mad Men are dropped in via newspaper headlines and brief glimpses of newscasts, sometimes briefly discussed by our characters until the more pressing concerns of office politics or interpersonal dramas grab their attention, or via quick conversational references, as in the season premiere when Bethany mentions the three civil rights workers murdered in the summer of 1964. Mad Men typically does not provide much more than these signposts, and rewards viewers who recognize the events they reference. It’s as though the series is reminding us that these things are going on but, by how quickly these references come and go in the narrative, that they aren’t having much of an impact on our characters, save tepid condemnations of southern violence or quick assessments of civil rights legislation. To underline how little has changed up in NY, the only African American people we see in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” are a black waiter who passes by as Don waits to meet with the guys from Honda, and Carla who accompanies Sally to her appointment with Dr. Edna.

Because of the temporal juxtapositions, it seems reasonable that the episode invites a comparison between these different forms of racial intolerance, between Roger’s aggressive anti-Japanese tirades and Bert’s dismissal of the legitimacy of civil rights at home, Don paging through Benedict’s book but ignoring entirely the news report of Reeb’s murder. And it is perhaps this take on racism and cultural difference, that it mattered to many white Americans only when profitable, that instantiates one of the show’s most cynical takes on the 1960s and, accordingly, on the progressive and celebratory history of racial equality that we continue to narrate in the present.


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