Mad Men, Race and History (Slate Magazine)

I am quite excited by Mad Men’s return. This piece in Slate is great. Really, really good. Like in an A+++ undergrad paper way (I mean that was a compliment). It’s smart and nuanced enough without collapsing under the weight of its own argument. That author, one Tanner Colby, ought to be proud.:

Mad Men is a show about lies, the lies we tell about who we are and what our country is, and what happens when those lies fall apart. The whole idea of the 1950s, picket-fence,Ozzie and Harriet American Dream was a lie, a well-told tale conjured up by Madison Avenue to sell vacuum cleaners and automobiles. And the single biggest lie at the core of that American Dream was the myth of white supremacy, the delusion that allowed a nation of immigrants, outcasts, and orphans to galvanize their standing in a new social order where status and self-worth were rooted in the accident of not being born black. Who is Don Draper but a white man pretending to be a sort of white person he’s not, and who suffers a complete breakdown when that lie is exposed? And what could better symbolize the story of white America in the 1960s?

The brilliance of Sterling Cooper as a narrative vehicle is that the agency embodies a certain kind of whiteness, the desperate kind. Partners Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper—a lackadaisical princeling and an aging eccentric—are clearly second-tier WASPs, comically rendered as such. They are part of the establishment but live on its periphery. They need Don Draper’s creative brilliance to make up for their agency’s shabby mediocrity. They need Pete Campbell’s family pedigree to gain access to the real Old Boys’ Club, which exists even above them. Campbell himself, finding his inheritance squandered, is impoverished gentry, rapidly falling behind his Dartmouth brethren and hungry to keep up. Sterling Cooper’s junior ranks are swollen with the likes of Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey—Ivy Leaguers, yes, but backbenchers desperate for their status and achievements to be recognized, an insecurity unknown to real children of privilege. Don Draper’s energies are consumed in protecting the false identity he’s built; no way he’s going out of his way to be a friend of the Negro. And as the woman at the bottom of the pecking order, Peggy Olson can’t carry the weight of anyone’s crusade but her own. The success of the agency and everyone in it depends on pretending they belong to a social class that they don’t, a class that in the 1960s did not include black people. That is why there are no black people on Mad Men.

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