One discussion about Mad Men which has cropped up recently is race: people are wondering just where all the minority characters are. Or, rather, where the significant minority characters are: by and large, minority characters are set aside—they are waiters or elevator operators or (barely-seen) girlfriends. One side of the debate argues that the lack of minority characters is historically accurate: there aren’t many minority characters around Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) because there weren’t many in advertising as a whole, and less so at Sterling Cooper, which is generally portrayed as being a bunch of lumbering dinosaurs waiting for the asteroid strike. The other side of the debate—as an example, this The Root article about the history of blacks on Madison Avenue—argues that in fact there were significant black people in the advertising industry and that they should be portrayed. I’m no expert on the history of Madison Avenue so I’ll refrain from comment—except to note that in many ways The Root article is less than convincing: it cites important figures but doesn’t cite any statistics; remember that while several important figures were black that Sterling Cooper is very much a doddering institution—but I think the argument is missing the point a little bit.
Start with the observation that Mad Men is frequently less than historically accurate. It’s fine that it’s not; it’s fine that it promotes the impression that it is supremely accurate as this helps the audience get lost in the story, always a welcome effect. But we shouldn’t confuse its seeming penchant for historical accuracy for its actual goals: that is, I think the dearth of significant black characters (so far) has a specific purpose in mind that’s something of a commentary on the characters as a whole.
Black characters in Mad Men are generally off-to-the-side, and by and large when they are interacted with by various characters, they’re more bemused than anything else. (The Drapers’ housekeeper, Carla, becomes more bemused as the show goes on.) They’re generally bemused by whatever neuroses the white characters have, and they’re bemused because the white people live in a bubble.
Last episode, Malcolm X died...very much off-screen. The next day Peggy asks her friend, “Did you hear Malcolm X died? Did you know who Malcolm X was?” Peggy, the naïf, either didn’t know or thinks her friend might not know who Malcolm X is, despite his evident fame and notability. That’s because Peggy, like the rest of the characters, lives in a bubble, a personal bubble, that doesn’t acknowledge things that have been put outside of it. And those things include black people, among other things. They simply aren’t part of the mental makeup of the characters.
Hence most of the black characters (or, similarly, black-related material) appear to demonstrate various character’s bubbleworld. So Roger Sterling signing “My Old Kentucky Home” in blackface…well, Roger, like everyone else, is smart, witty, but very much in the bubble. Kinsey is dating a black woman to show off how smart he is? Well, he’s not smart—he’s pretentious—but he’s also walled off, guarded.
The theme is so prevalent they’ve designed their seasons’ promotional art around the idea: take a look at season three’s.
Don Draper: determined to pretend he’s in charge. Of course he’s not. Events are in the course of proving him wrong, just as events are in the course of proving the mind-my-own-business attitude wrong also. It’s poignant, perhaps, that last episode’s Malcolm X-ignorance coincided with reminders of Peggy’s pregnancy in season one. Draper told Peggy, “It never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” This repression is par for the course for Draper, and Peggy comes to adopt his attitude—but just as black people steadily become more prominent, so too are these attitudes untenable…
Now, if there is a question here, it’s this: why, exactly, is it the black characters who must be used as a prop? It’s clumsy writing to insert characters mostly to prove a point or to contrast with the flaws and foibles of another; characters, after all, are an imitation of life and no real person’s sole role in life is to act as a mirror to one’s own. You might term this racially suspect writing, and there’s a grain of truth to it. But the chauvinist attitudes of the day, held by the kinds of white people who would be in Mad Men’s position, were often about these kinds of views, of black people as bystanders, and hence I think there’s some truth on that side also. Fortunately, the show isn’t over, and the subject, just like the uncomfortable subjects for Mad Men’s characters, will prove unavoidable, and the treatment of future black characters will certainly be very interesting. In light of the past—it’s always about the past in Mad Men.