Sisterhood Blog

Is 'Mad Men' Finally Poised To Tackle Race?

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share

AMC’s “Mad Men,” which returned last night with a two-hour premiere, is a show with a relatively small audience, but a disproportionately active one. Sometimes it feels that 99% of that viewership consists of media professionals who look forward to writing their own recaps and tweets the next morning — not to mention designing animated .gifs of the funniest scenes of the previous night’s episode. Remix videographer Elisa Kreisinger has taken the playing to a new, thought-provoking level, creating detailed remixes of scenes from the show’s seasons, including this feminist musical rendering of the women of “Mad Men”:

Mad Men: Set Me Free from popculturepirate on Vimeo.

“Mad Men” is tailor-made for the chattering classes because creator (and Member of the Tribe) Matthew Weiner uses enigmatic moments, historical events and symbolism to create buzz and speculation. Unlike other media-darling shows like “Friday Night Lights,” which is less polished, but whose characters feel like solid, lovable friends, “Mad Men” characters always feel as though they’re just millimeters beyond my grasp. I think I know what they’re up to but I’m uncertain enough that I have to check with my neighbors to confirm my reactions.

As much as it strives for historical accuracy, the show also uses its characters to represent the struggle for the social pecking order. Old WASPs, younger WASPS with energy, women, outsider Jews, and a self-invented would-be alpha males like Don Draper all compete for their place in that order, as the violent social upheaval of the 1960s whirls around them. We know most of these old-school Mad Men are eventually going to be pushed aside, but when and how and with how much dignity intact?

Based on last night’s premiere, the role of race in that coming upheaval appears to be heading to the forefront of the show’s agenda. The episode was bookended by moments that highlighted racial tensions and the rise of civil rights. First we saw a rival advertiser’s cruel and racist prank directed at African-American protesters. Young ad executives water-bombed marchers in the streets below, in a scene taken from a real-life incident. They were later confronted by those marchers — and a newspaperman — in their office’s reception area. Looking for a laugh, Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce put an advertisement in the paper declaring itself “equal opportunity” to screw with those rivals heads. But at the episode’s end, black job applicants actually showed up, their quiet presence confronting our characters in their own reception area. Now the firm looks poised to cynically accept integration and hire a black secretary.

It’s about time. While I acknowledge that Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.

Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action? If race does indeed become a major theme this season, I hope it’s not just symbolic as it was in this first episode, but also on the character level.

As for gender, the show’s big moves in the premiere were the introduction into the kinky inner workings of Don’s now year-old marriage to Megan, formerly his secretary, now a junior copywriter and owner of a swinging ’60s pad, and the re-introduction of zaftig office manager Joan as a new mom struggling with social expectations to stay at home — and her own desire to get back to work.

The women-at-work storylines resonate strongly for me. I sympathize with copywriter and career girl Peggy for having to be the boss of her own boss’s wife (a peril of office relationships that often hurts women like Peggy the most); Megan for her own awkward position, and Joan for her postpartum paranoia that the firm will replace her with someone new.

As for Megan’s now-infamous “sexy French burlesque” at the party she misguidedly throws for Don, and their subsequent power struggle–makeup sex, these plotlines struck me as less compelling than the workplace dynamics: The show can sometimes be guilty of fetishizing Don’s desirability and dominance, even as it seeks to undercut it.

Still, count me as intrigued and ready for next week’s episode, as I almost always am. What did you think of the premiere, dear Sisterhood readers?


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Race, Mad Men

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.