Monday, September 13, 2010

Characters of Color on Mad Men



Mad Men is the best show on television, in my opinion, but because it's set in the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the mid 1960s, there's a notable dearth in diversity. When characters of color are featured in a professional setting they're usually playing the maid, a janitor, an elevator operator, a waitress, a bus boy, a Xerox installer, et al. Contrarily, e
very time a black character not featured in a domestic capacity is seen on the show, usually in an informal social situation, it's to bolster the counter culture cred of one of the main characters: Kinsey's black girlfriend, Don's hippie mistress Midge has a black friend, and now Joyce does too. It's all very purposeful.

Don visits a Japanese restaurant and is propositioned by a waitress.

In 'The Rejected' a black janitor buffs the floors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Pete Campbell accosts Hollis, the Sterling Cooper elevator operator, to discover the origins of his - and other black peoples' allegiance to Admiral televisions.


Betty visits home and cries on the shoulder of the woman who raised her, her nanny Viola.


These screencaps are from the series premiere of Mad Men. Don is at a bar/lounge and asks the black server why he's so loyal to his brand of cigarettes and if he'd ever try Lucky Strike. A superior sees this conversation and asks Don Draper if the server is bothering him because he can be a bit "chatty." Sign o' the times.

Outside of being used as devices to highlight social progressiveness and professional disparities, black celebrities, activists, and public figures have been mentioned on the show too many times for me to remember: Medgar Evers (more implied than anything), Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali , and more.


Peggy meets a black nude model at a party. Love the earrings and hair.

Peggy goes to a warehouse party reminiscent of Warhol's silver factory and passes a black couple in the hall.

I've already posted about Sheila White, copywriter Paul Kinsey's one time girlfriend.

The juxtaposition of Sheila and Hollis in this scene is poignant and hilarious. Paul tries to strike up small talk with Hollis, to whom he's never spoken before and the look on Hollis' face tells us all we need to know.

In a pregnancy induced fever dream, Betty Draper imagines her late mother and father in her kitchen with Medgar Evers.


Prompted by his girlfriend, Kinsey takes a bus to the south to help with voter registration. Here, he's at the height of his well-intentioned, yet pretentious liberalism. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Pete Campbell discovering Ebony magazine and black ad dollars.

One of Don Draper's early mistresses, Midge Daniels, was an illustrator and late hold-over from the Beat generation - that or an early hippie. In the scene pictured above, she, her friends, and Don Draper smoke marijuana.

I guess I'm hyper aware of the appearance of characters of color because the occurrences are so sparing, I know that they must be very deliberate.

In the most recent episode of Mad Men, 'The Summer Man', this stylish black couple is seen on the streets of Manhattan.

31 comments:

  1. Great post! I loved the couple that walked by on last night's episode. Her glasses and hair - So amazing! I'm with you on reading a lot into these appearances. I'm always yelling at the TV, "But what does it MEAN?" :)

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  2. Loved this post, look forward to more. Eventually. Heh.

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  3. Ohhh, this is getting interesting now! I have to go back and catch up on these episodes.

    Erica

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  4. Don't forget about the Japanese business men.

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  5. I'm amused that Pete of all people seems to be the one in the office who doesn't ignore black people. It's totally self serving as he thinks it may help his career in some way.

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  6. The-Summer-Man couple is my favorite person-of-color spotting on Mad Men. I'm black woman (and my name is also Rebecca -- boy are we rare) who also likes to spot people of color on Mad Men. Thanks for the post.

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  17. What is this post trying to prove??? That the place for black characters on this show is as elevator attendents, maids and scene filler? I really hope that the show allow more room for black characters in the near future, especially with the civil rights era.

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  26. It is quite true that Mad Men delivers a very compelling and dramatic television show. Mad Men is very much a character driven show. It is also, of course, set fifty years ago. The dialogue is quite important and the perspectives are also far less progressive than they are now.


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