By Zeba Blay | Shadow and Act June 24, 2013 at 8:37PM
Mad Men, that often vague, always compelling opus on the American Dream, has over the years become one of the most lauded shows in a television renaissance of quality, complex storytelling. Alongside programs like Breaking Bad and Homeland, it’s proven (if there was any doubt before) that TV entertainment doesn’t have to be mindless - it can also be an artform. But despite all its critical praise, despite the fifteen Emmys, four Golden Globes, and legions of fans who over-analyze and over-investigate the minutiae of the Mad Men universe, there’s often been the complaint that has arisen season after season: Where are the black characters?
It’s a valid question, since the show takes place during the days of the height of the Civil Rights movement in America, a time when people of color were fighting more than ever before for equality and representation. The defense of some fans is that the series is set in a world where the presence of black characters at a Madison Avenue ad agency simply wouldn’t fit, a world where most blacks were the stock archetypes of elevator operators, nannies, and maids.
The defense of showrunner Matthew Weiner is slightly more nuanced. During Season 5 of the show, in an interview on Charlie Rose, Weiner addressed complaints about the lack of diversity on Mad Men by saying that his aim was not to tell “a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America.” For Weiner, historical accuracy was important - it seemed disingenuous to include more developed black characters on the show too early, during a time when most (white) people were still experiencing the civil rights movement not firsthand but through the images they saw on TV. Weiner added: “Hopefully when we get to the part of the ’60s [where race is more clearly addressed on the show], you won’t have trivialized the contribution of someone like Martin Luther King.”
Where a show like Girls operates with a willful lack of self-awareness about its diversity problem, Weiner seemed to insinuate that the exclusion of minority characters in the early seasons of Mad Men is on some level a conscious, calculated decision. But it’s significant, I think, that Weiner added during the Rose interview that his approach to the use of black characters on Mad Men would have been different, “if I was telling a story of the black experience.”
To my mind, while Jon Hamm’s enigmatic Don Draper has always stood as the center of the story, Mad Men as a whole has been about the American experience and American identity as a whole. To say that the black experience, that black identity, has no place in that story, that the only way it could have a place is if the story was exclusively about black people, is the type of ideology that has resulted in a Hollywood industry where well-written roles for people of color continue to be scarce. For six years, we’ve had mere glimpses of black characters on the show, some regulated to recurring but mostly silent roles. There was Harry Crane’s black girlfriend, and of course the Drapers’ maid Carla, unceremoniously fired by Betty in season four. And then there was Dawn.
Played with quiet reserve by the talented Teyonah Parris, Dawn made her first appearance on the show towards the end of season five, as Don’s new secretary. Her addition marked the shift that Weiner claimed was his plan all along, that slow burn towards a more pronounced black presence. But a final appraisal of where that shift has taken us in season six can actually be represented by an episode last season, ‘Mystery Date’, where Dawn spends the night on Peggy’s couch to avoid riots in Harlem and the two share an awkward conversation. The scene ends with a moment where Peggy reconsiders leaving her purse, filled with money, next to Dawn that night. It’s a scene about white privilege and white guilt. We learn very little, if anything at all, about Dawn.
It was a tone-setting scene, as we continue to learn little about Dawn or any of the black characters we see in this past season of Mad Men. Season six has had three “significant” black characters: Grandma Ida, the creepy burglar in the cracked-out fever-dream of an episode that was ‘The Crash’, the silent prostitute in ‘For Immediate Release’ who Pete describes as the “biggest, blackest” hooker he’s ever seen, and Dawn.
White minor characters, like Michael Ginsberg, Bob Benson, and Stan Rizzo, have maintained a constant presence throughout the season. That presence can obviously be chalked up to the fact that their roles in the agency are slightly more integral than secretaries. But there’s still something to be said for the fact that while they command less of the plot and less screen-time than the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the show, we get more glimpses into their personalities and inner worlds (especially with Ginsberg and Benson) than we ever do with any person of color, especially Dawn. What does that storytelling choice, really, have to do with maintaining historical accuracy about black and white relations in the 1960s?
To be fair, Dawn does get moments to shine in two key episodes. In ‘To Have and to Hold’, she runs into trouble with Joan when she agrees to punch in for a white secretary who skips out on work. Two brief scenes in that episode show her meeting up with a girlfriend at a diner where she talks about how she hardly ever sees “us” up on Madison Avenue. Her friend warns her not to get too chummy with her white coworkers, who may take advantage of her. It’s the first glimpse we get of what Dawn’s experience must be like as the only black person working at Sterling Cooper & Partners (or whatever it is).
Then, in ‘The Flood’, Martin-Luther King is shot and we see the varying degrees of shock, disgust, confusion, and indifference from the white characters on the show. We get the black perspective on King’s death from a brief moment with Peggy’s secretary, who is sent home early. Dawn gets an awkward hug from Joan. Once again, it’s about guilt, it’s about privilege, it’s about Dawn and the civil rights climate being used to gauge the racial attitudes of the white characters. She’s more the idea of a character than a character in her own right, a noble negro with no personality.
For Weiner, presumably, this may in fact be the point: excluding his black characters in order to mimic and highlight the overall exclusion and oppression of people of color during America’s (more blatantly) racist past. Of course, the show also examines America’s sexist past - and the depiction of women on the show (through Sally, Peggy, Betty, Joan, Megan, all of Don’s conquests) doesn’t sacrifice character in order to make the same point.
While Don Draper’s life got worse on the season finale of Mad Men Sunday night, across the television airwaves a roundtable discussion featuring black actresses Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union, Phylicia Rashad, and Alfre Woodard premiered on Oprah’s OWN network. Davis addressed the uproar over her docile maid character in The Help, a role that won her a history-making Oscar nomination. For Davis, the outrage over The Help was about people getting wrapped up in “the image rather than celebrating the artistry,” more concerned with the potential offensiveness of having a black woman play a “mammy” archetype than with the potential for subverting and transcending that stereotype.
While I’m still not sure what I think of The Help, I do believe the sentiment of Davis’s statement speaks a lot to the issues I have with Mad Men. It’s never been about wanting to disturb the supposed historical integrity of the show by populating Sterling Cooper with an army of anachronistic black copywriters and execs (though, I might add, there were black people in advertising in the 60s - check the receipts). It was never strictly about black characters being regulated to servant and nanny roles. It’s been about the quality of the characters, the potential for that artistry Davis mentions, being consistently denied to the black artists on the show.
Season six of Mad Men has been dynamic, unsettling, and illuminating. But in terms of black representation, it’s been a resounding disappointment. Dawn’s introduction seemed like the answer to a question, but all its done has prompted yet another question: in light of all that criticism, what was the point of including Dawn at all if there was no intention of fleshing her out? Or will we have to wait another several seasons, in that slow burn that Weiner is so fond of, before we finally get beneath the surface? At the end of the day, it’s Weiner’s prerogative in how he chooses to continue to portray the impact of the Civil Rights movement in the next season of the show. White writers often take that “write what you know” approach, after all (funny how Shonda doesn’t seem to have that struggle). Hopefully, while we wait for season seven, other shows will work to fill the void that both the TV and film worlds continue to ignore.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs the movie blog Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.