Mad Men

From The Grio — It’s all about choice. When artists create, they decide what to present, what to leave out and what to make up. A work of art need not follow any script, except the one in its creator’s head.

But when part of the appeal of that creation is realism, a promise that the fiction accurately depicts what is or what was, the game changes and the artist should be prepared for the criticism that is sure to follow if his or her version of truth seems inaccurate.

Calling for diversity when recreating history

In 2013, in a diverse country, a television show that doesn’t reflect that diversity often has to deflect negative attacks from anyone who notices. Ask Lena Dunham, whose hit Girls on HBO depicts a city that my similarly-educated, 20-something New Yorker son would not recognize — a mostly-white one. Though she has been both praised and criticized for its monochromatic navel gazing, even many of her defenders concede the point that the show lacks a realistic depiction of racial variety.

But make a period piece, and you’re immune from such a modern conundrum, right?

This brings me to the AMC television show Mad Men, one I came to love back in 2007 because of the exquisite art direction, but stayed with for its complex storytelling and deft writing. In the foreground, it’s about the goings-on at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the mid-1960s, and the relationships of agency staffers with their clients and one another. That bright world of wealth and Manhattan skyscrapers contrasts with what happens in the background, which is most of the real story. With its infidelities, double crosses, unhappy marriages and lonely suburban outposts, this world of boozing men and women is often grimy and corrupt.

Mad Times: Getting some things right

With the outwardly impervious creative director Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) leading the way, the show gets a lot right even as seen through an exaggerated TV lens – the cocktails and cigarettes, the casual sexism and racism.

The impeccable casting includes Robert Morse – that imp from the mid-1960s high-finance satire How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying – all grown up now as an agency grand pooh-bah in the role of Bertram “Bert” Cooper. Subtle creative choices like these make the depictions in Mad Mensuperb.

It doesn’t really bother me that pivotal events of this era, such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK and his brother Robert Kennedy, and the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, are experienced through its privileged main characters’ eyes. Isn’t that often the way the self-centered view important events? The show still manages to reflect its turbulent decade of war, protests and violence, as women and minorities demand access to rights their society has denied them.

These depictions are accurate. Mostly, anyway.

Getting gender right, but getting race wrong

Its female characters are varied in type and ambition. Creator Matthew Weiner has bragged about the high percentage of women in the Mad Men writing room. But I have to wonder about how many minorities are pitching story ideas there, because when it deals with African-Americans, the show takes no such care. It’s pretty clueless when it comes to the important role of minorities in shaping the New York of the time – its culture, fashions and, yes, business evolution.

Advertising was and continues to be far less diverse than the rest of the business world, an especially egregious sin, because its images create a national narrative. But despite the discrimination and challenges, African-Americans have made their mark in this field in creative and positive ways.

In the real world of 1960s Madison Avenue, Georg Olden, an African-American, was a vice president and senior art director at the prestigious McCann Erickson agency, who went on to win seven CLIO awards, the industry’s premier annual award granted for the best in advertising and package design. Seven CLIOs — many more than the fictional Draper and his team. Olden even designed the CLIO statuette.

It’s logical to assume that to succeed in a time of blatant bias, a successful black man or woman had to be a star. Some of these pioneers also started their own well-known agencies at the time as a response to discrimination.

(Continue Reading @ The Grio…)

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  • Malik Hemmans

    Its a white show about white people by white people……nuff’ said

  • JS

    Overall, I think Mad Men has done a decent job with race relations. It definitely drops the ball in a few places as the author of the article mentioned. Incorporating a Gerog Olden type character would be something I would like to see and would be good for the show. Even if it wasn’t a main character, at least one that pops up from time to time. I do like the depictions of Carla and Dawn however.

    The only depiction of a Black character that bothered me was the grandmother type character that came in and tried to rob Don’s apartment with his children in them when they live on the 17th story of an Upper East Side apartment. Not only does that building have a doorman but I highly doubt a woman of color back then could have unsuspectingly hit up a bunch of condos in that building before being caught. Every scene in that situation was just weird. Felt like it was missing a key component that would have made it make more sense.

    • Lynne


      I remember that scene with the break-in. It was cringe-inducing — every stereotype was at play: Obesity. Thievery. Fried chicken.

      What was so weird is that the show has always been fairly decent in its portrayal of blacks. There’s a dignity to those characters.

      But the way I read it was that Don Draper was hallucinating. He was ill, and in his lily-white world, this is how a black person is perceived to be. It was a weird, druggy episode, like many of the episodes this season.

      A commenter on The Griot said he thinks many get frustrated with the show because they want it to be something it’s not. I think he may have a point regarding some viewers.

    • JS

      Yeah that entire episode was just weird and disconnected. Although, I didn’t perceive it as Don’s hallucination because he wasn’t even there for it. Plus, Don has been fairly decent in his attitudes and opinions towards Blacks. He certainly treated Carla better than Betty did and doesn’t show any kind of ill treatment or attitudes towards Carla.

      Don is a self-absorbed realist, so he doesn’t care about many things that don’t directly involve his interests and things society he doesn’t try to change. I believe he sees all races as equals but in that same breath isn’t a rock-the-boat freedom fighter sort of guy like Peggy’s BF so he goes along with society’s standard. This would explain why he personally treats the Black people he comes into contact with well. However in business, was quick to reject Pete’s suggestion (I believe it was Pete) to get one of their clients to start marketing to Blacks for fear of upsetting them and loosing their business.

      Concerning the comment on the Griot, I do believe he has a point. However that said, like the racially charged show Son’s of Anarchy, a point was made by a commenter that perhaps shows do have a responsibility to actually make a statement against racism if they are going to show racism. Otherwise if a show features racist attitudes and those attitudes aren’t addressed as bad or a point in the show isn’t made against them then its almost like accepting it as being okay. My feelings are mixed about this. IMHO I don’t think every show has to make a freedom fighter stance on race but at the same time having a bunch of characters who do racist things that never get addressed isn’t right either.

    • Lynne

      Those are all good points, JS.

      I’ve never watched Sons of Anarchy. How is it racially charged?

    • Ayo

      Re: the Grio comment…

      That’s not entirely true, though. The writers of Mad Men keep on feigning like they’re actually going to do something (see: A Little Kiss) with its POC characters, but then all we get are weak caricatures and ciphers.

      Is there a reason why Dawn has been on the show for so long and yet still has almost no presence or impact? Folks always say that’s how it was, that black folks were invisible in white spaces, and that may be totally true, but why does that also mean she has almost no inner life, that she has nothing to offer outside those spaces?

    • JS


      URGH, don’t get me started. I have a deep love/hate relationship with Sons of Anarchy. However I’ll try to sum it up as best I can and keep it brief. The show is about motorcycle gangs in SoCal (internationally but most of the focus is SoCal). So there are the White motorcycle gangs, IRA (Irish), Mexican motorcycle gangs, Mexican cartel, Black motorcycle gangs, the regular Black gangs, and Chinese mafia. All fight for territory so derogatory slurs get thrown around, that much is expected as it would be realistic. On occasion some slurs get checked but I have on more than one occasion winced from “beaner, chink and nigga” getting thrown around in a casual conversation and no one bats an eye. Also a joke of dead Mexicans that have been burned alive referred to as refried beaners went unchecked.

      Not that they haven’t addressed everything,one season when an anti-Black and Mexican politician (I believe it was) showed up the White gang did take up for the minorities. However I believe that was more out of “must protect our gun interests” rather than an actual belief that it was wrong.

      But the biggest disappointment for me with SOA was in the white motorcycle gang, the Sons, and how they dealt with the character Juice. Juice, appears to be half white and half mexican when in fact he is half black and half mexican. Although the Sons have positive race relations with the Blacks on the show for the most part there are no Blacks in their gang. In fact when a FBI officer threatens to reveal Juice’s heritage to the Sons, he freaks out, becomes a snitch and tries to kill himself later. One member finds out the truth and he accepts Juice but sweeps it under the rug. The leader finds out eventually and acknowledges that its an outdated rule but does nothing to change the rule nor publicly admit Juice’s heritage, further sweeping it under the rug. It was a missed opportunity to really make a statement about how this gang that is supposed to be all about “brotherhood and loyalty” sticks together despite race. But it was ignored and forgotten about.


      I’m not saying more cannot be done to flesh these characters out. However the show isn’t about Black characters primarily. The show is about advertising in the 50-60s which happened to be solely White, 98%. Advertising is a socially driven business so to ignore the racial aspect of the time would be silly, dismissive and unrealistic. I think as a secondary undercurrent the show has done quite well at addressing race.

      They haven’t featured many Black characters consistently enough to become 3 dimensional. Carla I believed was very well portrayed. Dawn has been featured too as well, not as much as Peggy was in her position or previous Don Draper secretaries have been. However I do recall a scene where Dawn was speaking to her friend about just trying to keep her head down. Previous Draper secretaries do not have a very good track record for the most part.

      While I wouldn’t mind and would actually like them to feature more Black characters’ lives, I believe it would be something extra and not necessary to the show as it is now. Plus I think they are having a tough enough time keeping up with things as it is. They keep on dropping and picking back up again at random times secondary character storylines, like Duck for example. Plus we wasted like 5 episodes on the Don and Doc’s wife affair that culminated into nothing.

    • Joan

      But would cleaning staff and servants enter through the front along with everyone else? Wouldn’t there be a different entrance and elevator for the staff? If so, then I could very easily see how she could get in. Maids and housekeepers talk to each other. Word gets around about who doesn’t treat staff nice, who has really nice things in their place and who is never home. Just imagine what maids and housekeepers would say about the Drapers. Housekeeper1: “Mr. Draper is never there and do you know that he is messing with the doctor’s wife down the hall?” Housekeeper 2: Yes! And that little young wife of his who is trying to act on the soap opera? The one with the teeth? She is always leaving that little girl home alone with those little kids.” Housekeeper 1: “Wait a minute…Carla! Didn’t you used to work for some Drapers?” Carla: “Yes…Betty was a piece of work. Don has a new wife now? I miss those kids…Sally, Bobby, Gene. Mr. Draper was so handsome.” Housekeeper3 (thief) is listening the whole time, making mental notes.

    • JS

      My main gripe isn’t that it could never happen, more than it was just never explained. The scenario you mentioned was not even hinted to in the story. No information on how she got in and no information on how she knew so much information about everyone. That just made the stereotypes even more blatant and unforgivable.

  • talaktochoba

    are you surprised?

    either we’re nonexistent, or we’re super-n****rs and our women mindless sex-starved whores, like on the Sally Hemmings Show;

  • Ayo

    And yes, Burglar Mammy is the worst!

  • Danté

    I literally just finished the finale of season fove after a Mad Men Netflix binge not 10 minutes ago. Perhaps it was fate that drew me to this article.

    You have to remember that this show takes place in the late 50s (at least at the very beginning) and continues into the 60s. There may have been a few black ad men here and there, but overall, it was very uncommon to see black faces in Manhattan office buildings (unless they were janitors, night cleaners, etc.)

    I think the show’s creators have done a very good job at showing the changes in social attitudes as the show has progressed. Mad Men has shown the transition from the white-picket fence idea to the rebellious weed-smoking turbulent 60s. The show is not about the 60s, it is about an advertising agency in the 60s. Nay, it is about Donald Draper and his experiences. And in the life of Donald Draper, things like sexism and racism don’t really mean much. He is a privileged white male with everything at his disposal, yet he is deeply unhappy. That is ultimately what the show is about; everything else is basically like looking out the window on the train as you pass by the scenery. It is about his personal progress, but it also shows how society progressed during that time as well.

    I believe that as the show progresses, there will be more black people included, the same way that the show started to include women whose interests didn’t just lie in trying on lipstick and buying pretty clothes, the same way the show started to include young ad men and women whose ideas went against the old-school methods of Cooper, Sterling, and Draper. If anything, I applaud Mad Men for being truthful in its portrayal of Madison Avenue in the 50s and 60s: sexist, racist, greedy, hedonistic, and deeply flawed. There is no political correctness, there is only what there was. Personally I can’t wait to see how the show progresses.

    • JS

      Exactly! Although I will say going into season six you will have to deal with numerous drug trip episodes (getting tired of them) and the Black thieving grandma (whatever purpose they were trying to serve with it here completely missed its mark).