Don Draper is a man with problems. As season six (and each prior season) has reminded us, he has problems with women, with drinking, with his co-workers, with handling his hashish. Yet for all his difficulties, Don doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with people of color. More than that, like most of the other affluent, white characters on the show, he gives little thought to the racial struggles that define his 1960s setting. For many critics, that is the problem.
In past seasons, reviewers and recappers have occasionally voiced a general unease about the way Mad Men and its showrunner, Matthew Weiner, have dealt with — or more accurately, failed to deal with — racial issues in a show set in the same time period as the Civil Rights movement. This current season has certainly sustained the protests through episodes featuring both the MLK, Jr. assassination and Grandma Ida (a disturbing amalgam of racial stereotypes) and no substantive storylines or characters of color. Writers from the Atlantic, Slate, and Vulture have all decried this season’s particular resistance to earnestly exploring the perspective of at least one African American character, or inserting more of the Civil Rights movement into the main storylines. Writing about this season’s fifth episode, “The Flood,” which revolved around the King assassination, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: “Matthew Weiner has not engaged with race as enthusiastically as he’s engaged with feminism, anti-Semitism, the changing of the generational guard, and other subjects. I think he’s afraid of it. He’s afraid of doing it wrong. He’s afraid of doing it badly. And this fear has come through in the show.”
However, I’m not as persuaded it is Weiner’s fear that has seeped into and hampered the show’s storytelling. Rather, the fear seems to be coming from reviewers like Seitz, and it is a fear that the show ultimately won’t give them what they want: the self-satisfaction that comes from hindsight. That is, as good as Mad Men has been, for instance, in providing strong female characters as a counterpoint to the misogyny that often permeates the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners, there has been no similar attempt at resolving the casual, enculturated — if not institutionalized — prejudiced attitudes of its main characters. And without such resolution, the audience, safe from its 2013 vantage point, cannot scoff and chide the ignorant, unsophisticated America of 1968. We don’t get to solemnly nod at each other and claim, “look how far we’ve come.”
Of course, I suggest, in terms of race, we have not come all that far. Certainly, Don Draper would have found the idea of a black president to be unfathomable, but I find claims that we are now living in a “post-racial” society to be just as inconceivable. The articles decrying Weiner and company’s poor handling of racial issues connect to a valid point: television is whitewashed. It is depressingly rare to see characters of color in lead roles instead of stereotype-perpetuating, bit parts. Indeed, pointing out that Mad Men is perhaps even more whitewashed than its cable counterparts is really another way of saying the dialog about race in America remains subdued, obscured by shallow depictions of African American “mammy” home-invaders.
Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced that Mad Men is the television show that should be starting that conversation. At its core, Mad Men is about the death and rebirth of identities, but it focuses on a particular type of identity: white, elite, moderate-to-liberal urbanites during the 1960s. While some characters express a halting, clumsy sympathy for the struggles of their African American contemporaries, they all mostly remain unconscious to the struggles of anyone outside of themselves, which in turns seems true to the cultural, social, and political milieu Weiner has set the show in.
The Civil Rights fight was a fight preciously because these were the type of people — those with power — that withheld their largesse, their influence. Introducing a significant black character (sorry, Dawn) to the cast might help highlight the complicity of Don Draper’s generation, and thereby absolve the sins of the past for the benefit of the current generation watching the show, but that might also propagate the myth that racial injustices were a thing of the past. It may be possible that the largely white, middle-to-upper class audience watching Mad Men’s white, middle-to-upper class characters have not come as far as they’d like to believe. Sure, they probably don’t paint themselves in blackface or toss water balloons at protesters, but they appear to want a television show to confirm their belief that racism doesn’t exist in America.
And that obliviousness, like Don’s obliviousness, helps no one.