I hopped on the Mad Men bandwagon extremely late. In fact, I started watching the first season just a few weeks ago for a television writing class. Mad Men has done spectacular things for television since its anticipated debut in 2007. The series has garnered praise for its dedicated exploration of vintage New York and its sobering depictions of gender roles in 1960s America. While gender relations are responsible for the main tensions of the show, Mad Men‘s rendering of race is also significant.
With the increase in race-related crime and public incident in America, many have begun to decry all seemingly offensive behavior as “racist” without evaluating the sentiment and intent behind each individual action. At a first glance, Mad Men is overwhelmingly white and discriminatory. In the pilot episode, and throughout the series, the only African Americans are cast as passive restaurant waiters and elevator operators. When considered out of context, these roles are degrading and regressive. Within the show, however, such roles are simply true to the world.
Racism is defined by dictionary.com as “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others” and “hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”
Contrary to popular belief, presentations of reality are not racist. In the case of Mad Men, it happens to be history. In fact, the crude jokes and gestures that make viewers cringe were socially acceptable not too long ago. The genius of this show, however, lies not in the regurgitation of historical oppression, but in the progressive interpretation of it. In the third episode of season one, “Marriage of Figaro,” Pete’s coworkers go out of their way to surprise him when he returns to work from his honeymoon. Their twisted sense of humor translates into paying an “Oriental” family to camp out in Pete’s office on the day of his arrival. Although this has absolutely nothing to do with any sort of wedding tradition, everyone in the office thinks it is hilarious simply because this sort of fun comes along with their white privilege.
The fact that this scene served not to demean Asian immigrants, but to showcase the men’s immaturity is in total alignment with the tone of the show. Whenever discrimination is depicted on Mad Men, be it through subtle domestic oppression or racially motivated advertising strategies, it serves to educate and evoke thought rather than to instill the repressive ideologies from the 1960s. If each non-white male character were unsophisticated and hopelessly ignorant, that would be a problem. All Mad Men characters, however, possess some sort of power, whether it is explicitly expressed or not.
Due to the nature of the show, no character of color will ever be promoted to run an advertising firm on Madison Avenue. Don Draper, however, will continue to rely on subservient African American waiters for pitch ideas and on women for everything.
Mad Men, is not at all racist. It is uncomprehendingly true.