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A Final Appraisal Of The Black Presence On 'Mad Men' Season 6

Television
by Zeba Blay
June 24, 2013 8:37 PM
58 Comments
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Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Nikki (Idara Victor) - Jordin Althaus/AMC

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.

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58 Comments

  • J Bernard | July 11, 2013 6:56 PMReply

    "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."

    This isn't about what Mad Men is a about at all and this quote betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the central theme of the show: it is about the deconstruction of white privilege in general and white male identity specifically in America in the 60's through their entitled, oblivious, sometimes ignorant, sometimes delusional eyes. Don Draper is the central focus of the show, yes, but it is through these characters that we see how their denial of the events of that era — the rise of the women rights, the sexual revolution, the free love generation, slow birth of the gay visibility before the gay rights movement and the Black civil rights movement — both fundamentally changed these people and also eluded them at the same time. All of these social changes reshaped the fabric of America and the main characters of Mad Men (representing whites of the era then...and in many ways now) are buffeted by them, changed in conscious and subconscious ways. They adapt, get left behind or die. Mad Men is not a "Black" story or a "gay" story or a "Jewish story." In the Mad Men universe, these people and the events at the center of their world are on the periphery of their white middle & upper class lives. Like Don Draper and the main chatacters, the lives of Dawn and the other "non-establishment" types are only seen in glimpses, close because of proximity but intimacy still hard to come by. Contrast the scene in season one, where Don & Roger have a conversation in the elevator where the Black elevator operator is deferential and then when they leave, he basically cusses them out — the white characters never knowing this is how some of these Black people perceived them to Don's warm words to Dawn as he left after he confessed to being an orphan who was raised in a whore house. To the casual viewer, this might not seem like much, but for Don Drapers (and even Roger, whose casual racism has subsided ever since Dawn came on board) this represents an enormous shift. The old world giving way to the new in increments.

    Don Draper thematically and literally embodies this entire premise: he is literally not who he pretends to be. "Don Draper" — the suave, sophisticated, James Bondian white Superman Master of the Universe that many white males believe(d) they were/are — is a fiction, a man living someone else's life. "Don Draper" is not simply imperfect, he is self-destructive and destructive to all around him both because of and in spite of his success. Inwardly, Dick Whitman — the REAL man — has been falling apart since season one, reaching a screeching emotional crescendo this season as his life (as well as the lives of all of the other characters) shifted significantly around then. "Don" had to grow up and admit who he really is, in order to move forward. This is the story of WHITE America in large part, and WHITE men (and women) who must come to grips with a changing world by first coming grips with themselves by growing up and accepting the real world and not their self-imposed lies...or get left by history.

    I understand why many of us want to see a more fully realized version of Black representation on "Mad Men" (and we may get some of it in the final season) but that's wanting a show that has never existed and never pretended to do so.

  • Yvette Ganier | July 9, 2013 4:44 PMReply

    If folk don't understand why Black and other minority characters SHOULD be written into EVERY show then that's like opening up a corporation and only hiring Whites! Black and other minority actors need to work. Have a right to work. And demand to work. Period.

  • yvette ganier | July 9, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    This: "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..." I will put to memory. I am sick and tired of being ignored and not getting roles on the basis of my color from both ends of the spectrum. I thank the writer, Zeba Blay, for articulating, so well, the problem. #sickwithit

  • No | July 9, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Does anyone even notice that most of the civil rights movement happened down South? Wouldn't Mad Men be about the white and black experience if the Nation of Islam, under Malcolm, had been leading marches and lunch-counter sit ins in Manhattan.

    I find much of this talk regarding Mad Men rather silly. Why is it that some of us wish to see such representations on film and TV, but don't agitate, unlike yesteryear, to get it in reality? Strange.

  • onyx | July 9, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    I remember the 60s, and Mad Men is revisionist history, that's why I stopped watching the show very early on. But in 2010, I wrote this piece on my blog:
    http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/its-a-mad-mad-world/

    For anyone interested, I've included scanned photos (by Vieilles Annonces) from Ebony Magazine to show that we did have an advertising presence, especially our established black stars during that time period, and links with an excerpt from the book "Black is the New Green"
    which examined the history of Madison Avenue marketing to middle class blacks.

  • Alex | July 8, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    Let's talk about Being Mary Jane...

  • Yoshi | July 8, 2013 11:56 AMReply

    And this is why I don't care about there being a lack of Black characters in many of these shows. I do not believe that they will be good, well written characters. There needs to be a shift in the imaginations of our directors, show runners, and screenwriters first. People of color are still "others" to be used only when they want to "examine" race. The characters will continue to be flat if that is the case.

  • A in Bmore | July 7, 2013 8:22 PMReply

    I beg to differ on one crucial point. Mad Men is not a story about the American experience and American identity. I've always seen it, since Season 1, as a show but the post war white experience and white identity. That's why there has been little if any room for black characters except as cardboard cut outs or as stereotypes. It was very instructive for me and I learned a lot. You didn't understand that Weiner meant it when he said it.

  • wolfkin | July 5, 2013 1:52 PMReply

    >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.

    That paragraph is what clinched it for me. As a viewer who doesn't write for TV or really much about TV. I often see these things thru the rationalizations implied or otherwise. Why should there be a wealth of black characters on a show that's about a white guy in the 50s or 60s or whenever it takes place. But that assessment doesn't hold up when you consider the white counter parts to those black characters. That's something I'll try to think about.

  • Mark & Darla | July 3, 2013 12:37 AMReply

    The question is what was Weiner reason to create this character, an ornament for the black audience to look at and not hear.

    There are so many back stories Weiner can create for this character that has absolutely nothing to do with race.

    The perfect story that deal with a black family turmoil that had nothing to do with racism is 'Black Girl'

    Stop looking at the show five or seven season ago, got tired of Don Draper bedding women after women. What was the writer(s) purpose to have him divorce and remarried, if Don Draper couldn't stay faithful to his first wife.

    Don Draper bedding women is redundant.

    Maybe I miss something by not looking at the show since 2009 or whenever.

  • Lee | July 1, 2013 11:37 AMReply

    If the main character of "MAD MEN" is a white male, why would Weiner even bother to include the POVs of white females on this show? This story is about Don Draper aka Dick Whitman. So why bother giving major storylines to female characters like Betty Francis, Peggy Olson and Joan Harris?

    The argument that "MAD MEN" isn't about race or that Weiner should be excused for not exploring black supporting characters like Dawn Chambers, who happens to be the main character's secretary, doesn't hold water for me. I suspect that it's easier for Weiner to explore gender issues, instead of race issues, despite the fact that his main character is not a woman or black.

    And I see the same kind of cowardice in those who make excuses for Weiner's failure to explore race issues through one character.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | July 2, 2013 4:43 PM

    From where, sir, did you purchase your high horse? I'm looking for a special deal on one of those.

  • Rosie | June 30, 2013 5:10 AMReply

    [" How is Dawn a stereotype? And what exactly is the stereotype to which you're alluding? It can't be that she's a secretary, because that was actually a "good job" for a black woman in the '60s. Her clothes and hairstyle match the era. She's articulate, intelligent and Don really likes how she performs, so much that when she disappears he actually worries and when the merger goes down he makes sure she keeps her job when he could've turned her out for a white sec from CGC.

    2. You can't compare her to Peggy. Weiner stated that he intended from the beginning for Peggy to be a major character, to evolve from Don's secretarial desk to copywriter and beyond. She's remained even as other male major characters have come and gone. It hasn't been easy, but it was much more doable for a white woman back then than a woman of color. So I don't get the comparison there.

    3. There are other secretaries at SC&P whose lives outside of the office we haven't even glimpsed. That can't be said for Dawn. One non-work scene depicted her and Peggy having a "girl power" moment before Peggy's capitulation to prejudicial stereotypes of the era caused her to push away the person she'd just pulled closer. Then there's the scene -- two, actually -- with Dawn and her engaged friend at the diner. I'd also point to Dawn's absence following the MLK assassination; I felt that absence as much as her presence thus far (and I'm still curious as to where she was, but I'm not going to picket over it being left out).

    4. Why does it have to be about Weiner winning anything? I don't detect some sinister agenda on his part -- unless the agenda is damn good storytelling."]


    Does including a black secretary - the only major African-American character in the cast for the past two seasons - for the show's main character and doing nothing with her character "damn good storytelling"? I don't think so.

    And if Weiner could give Peggy a major story arc - even when she was Don's secretary - why not Dawn? Or are you one of those who would prefer if Weiner exclude the topic of race altogether, while pretending to be tolerant and non-racist?

    By the way, I doubt very much if Weiner will do anything with Dawn's charcter next season. I will chalk it up to a major failure and good old-fashion cowardice on his part.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | July 2, 2013 4:42 PM

    If calling him a coward will help you sleeper better at night then go for it.

    If you think he's done nothing with the Dawn character then I doubt you follow the show as closely as you'd like us to believe. Or you arrive at each episode thinking, "If he doesn't feature the black character then it's bogus."

    I don't think Weiner should exclude the topic of race -- mainly because he hasn't. Whether he's "explored" it to your satisfaction is another matter entirely.

    I can see that you're dissatisfied with what you feel is the show's underrepresentation of persons of color. If the issue at hand bothers you so much, perhaps a serial drama such as "The Haves and the Have Nots" would be more to your liking.

  • cass | June 27, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    i am more saddened by a movie like Frances Ha which takes place in present day New York - how can filmmakers continue to portray these 100% white societies. It's baffling

  • Miles Ellison | July 5, 2013 2:46 PM

    There's nothing baffling about it, really.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 28, 2013 6:56 PM

    I'm still curious to see it. The clips I've seen are... interesting.

  • Rosie | June 27, 2013 12:24 AMReply

    If some of you are going to respond about why Matthew Weiner should write about black characters, then he has won. Don't you even bother to ask why he had bothered to include the Dawn Chambers on the show in the first place, back in Season 5? She's on the show for her second season. I'm not asking Weiner to write about the history of Civil Rights in the 1960s. I would like him to flesh out Dawn's character and make her a human being, instead of a stereotype. She is the main character's secretary. Why doesn't she have her own backstory or minor story arc? Peggy Olson did even when she was Don Draper's secretary back in Season 1. It's okay for Peggy to have her own story arc, even when she was Don's secretary, but not Dawn?

    Comments such as "race don't matter" makes me sick to my stomach.

  • Rae | July 2, 2013 9:58 PM

    Rosie- I agree with you 100%. I wonder sometimes if Dawn has to play it safe because she is fearful, or if this is a natural shyness on her part & who is she, so that we have some context on how to understand her. She seems like a proper young lady, but how did she get to an ad agency? Is this all that she wants? Does she plan to be married & have kids? What is her character motivation? I wonder about her. All of the other secretaries seem to have some kind of a heart, flaw, or quick insight that gives you closeness to them without much of a scene. Dawn is at a distance, and I want her closer, even to see her laugh unguarded or why can't she- is that a purposeful choice? I want this character to be deliberate, and not the writer's inability to know how to handle her. Just to keep things real to the times doesn't mean that we can't understand her oppression & take for granted that it doesn't need to be explained somehow.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 28, 2013 7:14 PM

    1. How is Dawn a stereotype? And what exactly is the stereotype to which you're alluding? It can't be that she's a secretary, because that was actually a "good job" for a black woman in the '60s. Her clothes and hairstyle match the era. She's articulate, intelligent and Don really likes how she performs, so much that when she disappears he actually worries and when the merger goes down he makes sure she keeps her job when he could've turned her out for a white sec from CGC.

    2. You can't compare her to Peggy. Weiner stated that he intended from the beginning for Peggy to be a major character, to evolve from Don's secretarial desk to copywriter and beyond. She's remained even as other male major characters have come and gone. It hasn't been easy, but it was much more doable for a white woman back then than a woman of color. So I don't get the comparison there.

    3. There are other secretaries at SC&P whose lives outside of the office we haven't even glimpsed. That can't be said for Dawn. One non-work scene depicted her and Peggy having a "girl power" moment before Peggy's capitulation to prejudicial stereotypes of the era caused her to push away the person she'd just pulled closer. Then there's the scene -- two, actually -- with Dawn and her engaged friend at the diner. I'd also point to Dawn's absence following the MLK assassination; I felt that absence as much as her presence thus far (and I'm still curious as to where she was, but I'm not going to picket over it being left out).

    4. Why does it have to be about Weiner winning anything? I don't detect some sinister agenda on his part -- unless the agenda is damn good storytelling.

  • ... | June 26, 2013 9:21 PMReply

    Re-posting this for everyone questioning the significance of White producers, writers, and directors excluding/marginalizing us: The same could be said about Black people wanting to work at companies/businesses, outside of the entertainment industry, owned by White people, right? Why should Blacks want to work at/support White-owned businesses in any industry? Why not just create our own businesses and let Whites just go back to hiring and serving Whites-only? Why not go back to full-fledged segregation?

  • ... | July 3, 2013 5:19 PM

    Blacks CAN FIND work at White-owned businesses in other industries because of equal rights legislation that we fought for. So why is Hollywood exempt from opening up opportunities to Blacks and other people of color? Why do apologists keep making excuses for casting inequities in Hollywood?

  • Rosie | June 30, 2013 5:21 AM

    ["Re-posting this for everyone questioning the significance of White producers, writers, and directors excluding/marginalizing us: The same could be said about Black people wanting to work at companies/businesses, outside of the entertainment industry, owned by White people, right? Why should Blacks want to work at/support White-owned businesses in any industry? Why not just create our own businesses and let Whites just go back to hiring and serving Whites-only? Why not go back to full-fledged segregation?"]

    Because people usually seek jobs WHERE THEY CAN FIND IT. Considering the economy of any time period, the average working person cannot be that choosy in seeking a job.

  • JEFTCG | June 25, 2013 1:45 PMReply

    Agreeing with Charles Judson. WHY are we looking to Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men", for positive black images?

    I find his black characters on the show somewhat innocuous and under-represented. But SO WHAT. This show is many things, but it is NOT about overcoming black stereotypes, or positive black representation. And I neither expect nor want it to be. Nor do I believe Mr. Weiner has the....shall we say, "where-with-all", to put the "black struggle" in a satisfactory light. Why should he expected to be a beacon for black positivity simply because his show popular?

    We are looking at the wrong people to lead this us from this muck and mire, good folks.

  • CC | June 25, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    BOOOOO.... HISS... get out of here you Uncle Toms, Massa's do boys and sell-outs. WTH do you mean race don't matter?

    Of course I am being highly facetious. Listen, in my opinion, race matters when it's fits the storyline. In the context of this debate, this discussion, if I was handing out awards for those who stayed with the facts, and thus based their opinions on such, the "it don't matter if blacks were highly represented in Mad Men" crowd wins by a landslide. Come on now, who can argue against the fact that the preponderance of truth weighs heavily on the side of the well written witnesses Charles Judson and Adam Scott Thompson?

  • CM Vales | June 25, 2013 1:43 PMReply

    Mad Men, having been and continuing to be, so committed to both psychological and historical realism--doesn't need to be committed to multicultural demands of this century. It situates its casting needs based on story, not pleasing media analysts. And it has looked at the civil rights period with the same historical precision, as its fashion and set design. The black characters that are on the show, are interesting and non-stereotypical--their arcs unconventional and morally nuanced. There could be more of them, but then again this is a show with a large cast. And consider the other forms of diversity--gay characters. There have been a few. If it's possible the article writer be free to analyze what else is on television, and notice this is, in fact, an embarrassment of riches.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 28, 2013 7:24 PM

    Great point about the gay characters (they count as a minority, whether out or closeted). It was gut-wrenching watching Sal turn down Lee Garner, Jr.'s sexual advances, only to get fired by Don who felt he should've just slept with the guy -- because he, and only he for sure, knew Sal to be gay.

    What made it a great bit of storytelling, though, is that Sal could've easily given in to Garner (the way Joan gave in to the Jag exec), but his commitment to his "straight" identity -- plus the fact that, perhaps, he just wasn't into Garner -- ultimately cost him a job at which he'd been performing at a high level. That, my friends, is tragedy. What makes it more searing is that a similar situation could still happen in today's more "tolerant" climate.

  • FactChecker | June 25, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    I completely agree with Charles Judson's assessment of Zeba's piece.

    Mad Men is NOT about black and white relations in the sixties, it's about the world of advertising. And on, and off, the page, during that era, blacks were invisible. The premise for a show that would more adequately reflect what Zeba and other disappointed, but devoted, viewers would be a show surrounding entertainment -- like The Nat King Cole Show, or Texaco Theater -- something like that where the most popular black entertainers of the time, were allowed to be on TV, but often, for example, not allowed to touch one other or sing to one other, as any display of romanticism -- even though it was, basically, acting.

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE MM and its methodical, evocative, deliberate, storytelling devices. It's grounded in the reality of the times and yet is also a modern day reflection of just how far we haven't come, as a society.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | June 25, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    I love the "write what you know" quote. As black folks in America, we know all about "white" folks, because that knowledge, since our arrival in America, has been a survival mechanism. White folks are ignorant, by and large, of what is means to be black in America, or anywhere else for that matter. They live in a bubble of their own making. But as James Baldwin asserts, "If you don't know my, you don't know your own." Ignorance may be bliss, but as the song goes..."Wake up ev'rybody, no more sleepin' in bed...no more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead." Is anybody out there listening?

  • Charles Judson | June 25, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    "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?"

    It's only a disappointment if one was expecting there to be some overarching evolution of black characters from the background to the fore. Which, even as a huge fan of the show, I'd personally find odd as we were never there much to begin with.

    It took Peggy's character, as an example, five seasons and nearly eight years in MAD MEN time to both gain the experience and the backbone to be able to move on. Even then, it was only after her character had left and came back that she truly could come at Don like an equal and challenge him. Characters evolve at a glacial pace on MAD MEN. If it took Peggy that long, what would it be like for a black character to find themselves in a position to even at least be sitting at the table with Ginsberg?

    The show is already slated to end next season. If we really wanted to see the black experience set in the advertising world, the 1970s to 1990s would likely be much more rewarding to delve into. Most of the diversity programs didn't arrive till the early 1970s. The Multicultural Advertising Intern Program as an example didn't even begin till 1973. On top of that, 1971 forward is the arrival of SANFORD AND SON as a top 10 TV show, Diana Ross headlining movies, and Saturday morning cartoons like THE JACKSON 5IVE and FAT ALBERT debuting.

    Those three decades I could see being filled with excitement and frustration. The rise of black stars and sports figures prominently pitching products on a national scale demonstrates so much promise. While on the flip side, ad agencies co-opting hip hop and rap to sell toys and fast food, is a fascinating backdrop that illustrated how much the perception of black folks as ciphers hadn't changed, nor had the dynamics of who were creating the ads. A show set in that time frame would interest me more. Although MAD MEN has already explored that world, so it would be a hard pitch.

    All the way round, more black characters in MAD MEN sounds boring and pedantic. There are too many stronger entry points to explore the black experience, and wrestle with the issues that black folks would have cared about and fought for, that wouldn't be built on the back of a show that's intrinsically at its core mostly about WASPy Northerners and their world. However you slice it, more black characters would still be the black experience filtered through white eyes.

  • Monique a Williams | July 4, 2013 4:53 PM

    *claps*

  • BluTopaz | June 25, 2013 1:23 PM

    Your last paragraph is the most accurate and productive I've read regarding this fascination some people have with analyzing Mad Men over the lack of Black characters. Why endlessly wax poetic about the possibility of being a more visible bit player in a story that was not designed to be about us--our own struggles and triumphs are compelling enough to watch on their own.

  • mawon | June 25, 2013 9:28 AMReply

    I don't see how analyzing a show's lack of black representation--a show that dissects several aspects of American society and includes the Civil Rights Movement as a back drop, as begging massa to include us. Dawn is the most minor of the minor characters. It's hard to even call her a character. You can intellectualize all you want as to why that is, but that doesn't change the fact that even the most progressive and liberal of our excellent white artists still stumble when it comes to race. It's shameful. You can take this information many ways: an indication of current racial attitudes, a sign that we need to create more of out own work, or an analysis for the sake of analysis. Either way, I think it's interesting to dissect nonetheless.

  • Wise | June 25, 2013 11:18 PM

    Totally agreed, Mawon. It's an absolutely interesting dissection, and I find it utterly absurd to pronounce so emphatically in the same breath that Weiner is a masterful storyteller but that this story couldnt be told with diversity. As minor roles as Ginsburg or Stan or Blankenship (for those who suggest secretaries are in essence, minors) or even Bob Benson play most episodes, they are still developed. Dawn is just there and black.

    Now, whether it needs to be is a different debate. But I look at this issue through the black characters that HAVE existed on the show. Would the story have been any less compelling had Joan and Roger been mugged by a white thug?

    "Are we Negroes" is my fav line from this season, but what was the impetus for that particular Grandma Ida character to be black, but not say, one of the single-scene creatives that got fired after the merger?

    Would Pete's shock and awe over seeing his father-in-law at a whorehouse have been muted if it was the "biggest tranny" he ever saw?

    I'm not exactly upset that there's not more black characters. The show is incredible in all its whiteness. But don't go throwing in blacks expressly when you need a "credible" criminal either.

    PS - It was Kinsey, not Crane, dating the Freedom Rider sister, no?

  • Amari | June 25, 2013 7:09 AMReply

    Again, another article talking as if we should expect a show about white culture to have Black Americans in prominent roles. Dawn was there simply to give the black perspective of the times and that was it. She wasn't casts to be a new regular or a crusader in some form or fashion. She was there to be the awkward black girl surrounded in a sea of white people.

    I don't know why we treat every role like our inclusion should be fashioned a certain way. I'm not sure if it is ego or else some unrequited obligation we feel we have, but diversity, while beautiful, doesn't fit every program. Though there were probably black ad writers at the time, and I only say probably because I am not into advertisement history, you have to realize that bringing a fictional one onto the show would means a serious shift. The bits of white guilt we saw with Dawn would be heavily expanded once that young man or woman would be doing more than working in the office, but then working with clients.

    Much less, at the end of the day the show is really about Don and outside of him dating a black girl or creating an ad agency with a person of color, I don't expect the show to get integrated that much. This show is made for white people nostalgia and the way they picked up and dropped the civil rights movement showed that. It seemed like something worth mention, but Don didn't really care or was affected, so it was a simple plot device and nothing more. The main point of this show is showing the glamorous time when men were the type of men like Don, and women were anything from Joan, the sexy secretary, to Peggy, the up and coming modern woman. We, as people of color, I don't think were even thought of as to what would attract us to the show. We were just part of the general audience they were expecting to have.

  • Lynette | June 25, 2013 12:09 AMReply

    Why do we care so much about whether blacks are represented or not? Who cares! We need to create our own and stop asking MASSA to include us! And if the big wigs behind the show did increase the presence of black audience, you know what would happen? BLACK PEOPLE WOULD COMPLAIN! Why this. Why that? That's racist! No one will be happy. Then BLACK people will screw up a perfectly good show. Then the next time around, these producers will be LESS likely to hire blacks. Black people will NEVER be satisfied.

    OMG! Black people are so DEPENDENT, it's pathetic. CREATE YOUR OWN. How did big companies become this way? Because someone created it! How does most of these white businesses become successful? Because the white men (mostly) had the guts to strike out on their own and CREATE THEIR OWN. Black people will forever be on the lowest level because we seek out others for a job etc. instead of creating our own legacy. Forever dependent = blacks.

  • ... | June 26, 2013 9:13 PM

    So this same argument could be made about Black people wanting to work at companies/businesses, outside of the entertainment industry, owned by White people, right? Why should Blacks want to work at White-owned businesses in any industry? Why not just create our own businesses and eating establishments and let Whites just go back to hiring and serving Whites-only?

  • CC | June 25, 2013 10:59 PM

    "who was going to hire us during that time for something beyond service work?"

    Excuse me, I know thousands who were hired for something other than service work. Slow down Ghost.

    @Miles, I think I'll start a score card on the times you've voiced those exact sentiments and they've fallen on deft ears.

  • Miles Ellison | June 25, 2013 10:08 PM

    For a business to be successful, there needs to be a demand for the product. The people complaining about the lack of black people on Mad Men are not only not watching the show, they wouldn't watch a black show like it.

  • Ghost | June 25, 2013 12:01 PM

    Folks are trying to create their own. They just don't have the support. And when we do create something of own that doesn't enforce ghetto black stereotypes-who complains? Who complains that it isn't black enough? Or a real black person doesn't do that? Or black men aren't fathers to their kids? BLACK FOLKS.
    We can't do anything until black folks understand what variety is. As for this show-who are the main folks complaining? Folks who DON'T watch the show. It's a time period piece and you shouldn't expect to see us in it-who was going to hire us during that time for something beyond service work?
    If this was at an airport, train or a series about the service folks-I could understand. Anything with us in the 60s will be a race issue story. Who wants to see 6 years of that?

  • BB | June 24, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    "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."

    As African-Americans it may be hard for us to watch a show that is told from the perspective of an Advertising Exec during the 50's & 60's when we know that there were African- Americans in that world represented in a respectable fashion. The quote above sums up Weiner's artistry & why this show is so profound. Dawn's character & her acclimation to the environment speaks to the truth of what our grand-parents generation dealt with at that time. I have watched Mad Men faithfully since 2007 & the show has been told in historical context; from the riots to Kennedy's assassination to MLK's death. It would be foolish of Weiner as a story teller to incorporate African-Americans in an integrated fashion because that will spoil the historical accuracy that the show has won its acclaim for. During season's 3 to 6, Weiner has showcased how Ad Agency's felt about marketing to African- Americans at the time from the Coca-Cola/Pepsi disputes to the importance of "Negro Publications" such as Ebony Magazine. As a fan of the show and the story line I must say that there has never been a time where I felt that we were not represented fairly or inaccurately. The timeline for the show & the way African-American characters have been introduced cannot be questioned without thinking about the truth in "that world." We just have to accept the reality of the time, the prism of the characters (upper-middle class Caucasian family in Connecticut) & how they would have been introduced to African-Americans during the time period.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 24, 2013 9:54 PMReply

    I have no issues with the lack of "representation" in this, my favorite show (and the best TV drama in the game right now). Weiner is a slave to the theme of each episode as well as the overall thematic seasonal arc, and I love that about him and his writers. The episodes that featured more Dawn did so because her presence/actions offered a variation on that episode's theme.

    "The Wire" suffered ratings-wise due in part to the fact that the cast was over 70% black (when whites see too many non-white faces, they think "It's not about me" and change the channel). Yet David Simon remained true to the milieu and reality of the overall narrative -- blacks on both sides of the law, and in education as well as politics -- and most of them not easily pegged as "good" or "evil" (lookin' at you, Tyler).

    Weiner is correct here. He can't kowtow to modern sensibilities and political correctness in depicting a story which occurs, essentially, in a time capsule -- and then only in a certain realm of said capsule. Race is examined to an extent from time to time, but again never at the expense of the seasonal arc or the episode's theme. Ginsberg is perhaps the only pure genius in SC&P's creative department; but he's also a Jew, meaning he'll never run things like Don Draper even though he's better than Don Draper. They don't dance around this, or how women are treated even as the Turbulent 60's catch fire.

    Lack of representation in TV and film is a problem. So is the dearth of black actors being offered roles that could be played by any race or ethnicity. But I feel that in capitulating to the whims of those who demand a quota, a great show can be relegated to "merely good" for having served the interests of a vocal minority, if you will, rather than the story -- and that would be a shame.

    I love, love, LOVE "The Wire," a show that "represented" in every way I could hope for in a TV series. And I also love, love, LOVE "The Sopranos," another watershed serial drama that only featured non-Italian characters when the story demanded it.

    Knowing this will make me come off as a smartass, I take the risk and remind the writer and others that AMC's slogan is "Story Matters" -- not "Parity Matters." I can't hate on that.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 28, 2013 7:28 PM

    @... "The Wire" ended on its own terms. It suffered from low ratings, but its critical acclaim and word of mouth kept it on TV.

    The black characters on "Mad Men" who've hung around are fleshed out. Never mind that they may be secretaries or domestics or only have thirty seconds of screen time. Again, it's not Weiner's job to cater to demands for more diversity. It's his job as creator, executive producer, showrunner and head writer to tell a great story for the medium of television.

  • ... | June 26, 2013 9:03 PM

    So what? Because The Wire didn't get enough viewership to keep it on TV, no one should question the lack of diversity on this/other current shows? Having fleshed out Black characters on this show would take away from the arc or theme? Really?

  • FactChecker | June 25, 2013 2:19 PM

    I also agree with Adam Scott Thompson's comments. Very well stated.

  • Miles Ellison | June 24, 2013 10:21 PM

    Totally agree.

    The Wire not only had a cast that was 70% black, but it portrayed many sides of the black experience. There were a variety of complex, fully imagined black characters from ALL walks of life, yet there are more people complaining about the lack of black people on Mad Men than actually watched The Wire during its original run.

  • Miles Ellison | June 24, 2013 9:53 PMReply

    Perhaps if there was more of a demand for complexity and nuance from the black audience and less of a demand for the weave snatching, drink throwing antics from z-list groupies on VH-1 reality shows, there wouldn't be any need to complain about the lack of black people on Mad Men.

  • ... | June 26, 2013 9:04 PM

    That's a tired excuse/explanation apologist ... try again.

  • Miles Ellison | June 25, 2013 8:29 PM

    The common denominator is a lack of demand for variety and nuance. If some enterprising black producer/director/writer created a subtle, complex drama based on story and character development, who would watch it? Would it even get on the air?

  • Ghost | June 25, 2013 11:55 AM

    The issue was black folks settling for whatever was tossed at them. We can get more black folks to flock to Tyler's stuff or anything that supports negative images of us-but when someone DARES to veer from that path-we have issues.

  • Troy | June 25, 2013 10:47 AM

    Those reality shows weren't on TV in the early 2000s. So what was the problem then?

  • Val | June 24, 2013 9:49 PMReply

    I'm not sure why people expect realistic or fleshed out representations of Black folks on Mad Men when a show like ABC's Scandal hasn't really even given a back story to Kerry Washington's character who is supposedly the star of the show. And, that's produced by a Black woman.

  • bb | June 25, 2013 3:40 PM

    Um TWO seasons of Scandal as opposed to SIX seasons of Mad Men.... Plus, if you saw the season fnale of Scandal, you would know that the audience will definitely be getting a peek into Olivia Pope's past in season three. Kthxbye

  • Max | June 24, 2013 9:36 PMReply

    Harry Crane never had a black Girlfriend. Her name was Shelia and it was Paul's girlfriend in season 3. Who wrote this article? A Troll?

  • JustTheFacts | June 24, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    I hate to be the one to say this, but there isn't a hell of a lot of Black people in the advertising industry NOW. Take it from someone who came from the so called "Ad Game". The advertising industry has ALWAYS been a segregated and powerful place (like Hollywood). So the lily-white look of Mad Men is correct. If you doubt my veracity, check Advertising Age and look at the emails of blacks complaining about diversity regarding employment. Thomas Burrell (prev. employer) has always been the hero of blacks in the advertising world. He is still mine. They should make a show about his life! Maddest Man (but in a good way)

  • Rosie | June 27, 2013 12:28 AM

    ["I hate to be the one to say this, but there isn't a hell of a lot of Black people in the advertising industry NOW. "]


    There still isn't a good number of women in the advertising business. Yet, Weiner allowed a 20-21 year -old woman straight out of secretarial school and no college education become a copywriter after eight months as a secretary for the first time. Why? Because it was easier for him to write stories about white gender issues than race issues.

  • Donella | June 25, 2013 2:00 PM

    This explains the excessive amound of anti-Black propaganda in print, television, and film.

  • mawon | June 24, 2013 9:28 PMReply

    Great piece. Couldn't agree more. There's really no excuse for the lack of black representation anymore. I'd also add to the discussion the Peggy's apartment storyline. Again, her being in a black and Latino area is only meant to highlight her privilege and guilt.

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