Trayvon Martin

03.27.12

‘Mad Men’ Highlights Invisible Black People and Stain of Racism

Amid the Trayvon Martin debate, the hit TV drama’s deliberate treatment of blacks as props—far more authentic than Hollywood’s usual one-dimensional caricature of racism—forces us to look at the invisible specter of race in America.

The boys of Madison Avenue are up to their old tricks again. The fraternal club of privilege, sex, alcohol, and work no one ever seems to do, has returned to AMC.

The power of Mad Men and the creativity of the show’s producer, Matthew Weiner, is the ability of Mad Men to highlight the ethos of an era, coupled with a subversive critique. The show surrounds the viewer in nostalgia, but simultaneously refuses to delve into the romantic. The stylistic approach and critique, whether intentional or unintentional, owes much to the work of Danish filmmaker, Douglas Sirk, whose films disrupt the façade of middle-class suburban life by quietly peeling back the underbelly of the myth of moral stability promoted by 1950s Hollywood with such films as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

Weiner’s Mad Men employs the same quiet, subversive attitude as the Sirk films. Men, patriarchal and white, are framed as privileged, arrogant, and unaware of the offense and power they wield. They hold power and injure all who come into their view, not with overt malice, but adolescent ignorance. Women are objects of desire and reluctant partners, while black people are invisible to all who live with unannounced privilege. Black people are the props of the show, giving the drama an aura of authenticity unlike many network shows determined to rewrite the past and avoid the dramatic ugliness of American society.

The opening scene of season one demonstrates the invisible prop qualities of black people within Mad Men. Don Draper inquires of a black busboy why he chooses to smoke Old Gold cigarettes. A white bartender, who asks, “Is Sam here bothering you?” interrupts the dialogue with the busboy. This exchange demonstrates the authentic yet cynical attitude of Mad Men, and how this show is a more appropriate vehicle to highlight the stain of racism and the unconscious cruelty of white privilege than traditional network dramas.

Hollywood historically has attempted to reconfigure and rewrite America’s uneasy struggle with race and class. Issues of race are resolved with simplistic solutions and empty rhetoric, or when a rich and complex moment of history is presented, such as the civil rights movement, it is redesigned by writers who add white saviors as the catalyst for black freedom and/or frame black characters with child-like qualities in desperate need of guidance by enlightened northern liberals.

Sitcoms traditionally have remixed the Amos and Andy stereotype, from J.J. on Good Times, Shaynaynay on Martin, or Mr. Brown on TBS’s Meet the Browns. Dramas fare no better, as black characters often succumb to the “exceptional Negro” syndrome wherein a black character has broken through all the stereotypical barriers of poverty to earn a seat at the table of democracy. Black characters rarely are human— just props and one-dimensional cutouts of a writer’s imagination. Rarely do we witness the complexity of characters as seen in HBO’s Tremé, where categories are not easily defined, stereotypes are challenged, and social forces, not stereotypes, push people to make difficult and life-changing decisions.

Whether we are speaking of The White Shadow, Dangerous Minds, Mississippi Burning, The Blind Side, or Little House on the Prairie, on other television shows and films that share racial themes, white culture is spared the harsh reality of staring at the ugliness of racism, bigotry and cruelty. Mad Men dares to demonstrate how the invisible people surrounding Madison Avenue are forced to live with the indignities of being nothing more than a prop.

The opening scene of Season 5 shows the sophomoric attitude of men of privilege, who drop water bombs onto black protesters outside a rival advertising agency. The scene shows the prop paradigm of black life in Hollywood and the complexities of civil society. “Negroes” are not truly human, but things to be used for enjoyment or objects designed to be receptacles of hate.

Zimmerman viewed Trayvon as a prop, a criminal, a myth constructed by society. Geraldo Rivera has reinforced this myth by placing blame for his death on his fashion choice.

Hollywood is comfortable with one-dimensional caricatures of racism. Racism removed from boardrooms, academia, and the alleged enlightened North. Hollywood prefers an extremist style of racism on screen such as the KKK or Nazism—the type of racism easily rejected by any rational person and which fails to indict people of privilege or unconscious beneficiaries of power dynamics. But in Mad Men, we witness the men behind the curtain of Oz who unconsciously empower the actions of those who enforce the collective ethos of segregation. Men of wealth, White Citizens Councils, lawmakers, and State’s Rights parties, along with Dixiecrats, are the people, historically, who provided segregationists refuge. Journalists and editors pushed a “blame the victim” ideology to shape public opinion and reinforce archaic legislation.

When we look at the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case through the eyes of Mad Men, we witness the intersection of race, power, pain, privilege, and tragedy. We witness a helpless teenager who was cast in the show of racism as a criminal. George Zimmerman pulled the trigger, but a larger ethos of devaluing life and the stereotypes of criminality loaded the gun. The larger social forces nursed by politicians, people of wealth, and peddlers of divisive ideology unwittingly hired racism as the executive producers of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Zimmerman viewed Trayvon as a prop, a criminal, a myth constructed by society. Geraldo Rivera has reinforced this myth by placing blame for his death on his fashion choice. (A common collegiate article of clothing, a sweatshirt with a hood is now being used as justification for the death of a young man.)

Lawmakers and lobbyists in Florida reinforced the false notion that crime is going up as a result of criminals running rampant in the street. The need for a Stand your Ground law became the emotional solution to a deeper civic problem. (It should be noted that crime—including violent crime—has been steadily going down nationally for the past two decades.) This season of Mad Men is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the madness of all men who shape the myths of our country. I look forward to this season as Mad Men forces us to gaze at the madness of privilege, class, and the invisible specter of race in America.