While watching the most recent episode of Mad Men on the dvr last night I quipped on Facebook that I found it “odd that everyone on Mad Men seems so upset about Martin Luther King’s assassination… [as] five seasons in, I had no idea he existed in the Mad Men universe”. A couple of literalist friends wrote in to point out some of the occasions on which Martin Luther King was in fact mentioned on the show. To which I responded as follows: “Of course, I’m exaggerating. My point is that for a show so peripherally (if that) interested in race, despite being set in the civil rights era, to suddenly have all the major characters so moved by Dr. King’s assassination is a bit of a cheap out.”
Later, I finished the episode and had to concede the point made by Hanna Rosin in Slate’s ongoing TV Club discussion of the show about the responses of the characters: that what we are shown is in fact not the characters being genuinely moved by the news but responding to it in ways that both elaborate fundamental character traits and illustrate the relative marginality of civil rights in the lives of bourgeois white Americans in the period. I think this is a much better reading of the episode than my initial quip or follow-up implied. And even though I don’t really have any basis for knowing if the self-centered responses of most of the characters are, in fact, representative of mainstream attitudes at the time, it seems like a nice antidote to the usual rhetoric that emanates from at least some subset of white Americans who were alive in the 50s and 60s: to wit, that some sort of virtue and/or insight re race relations in America accrues to them simply on account of having been alive in the 50s and 60s.
But I think the Slate writers are letting the show off the hook a little too easily. If the show had in fact done what I’d initially thought it was doing (randomly making race and civil rights important to characters who had shown no meaningful interest in these subjects before) that would have been cheap and shallow. But using the assassination of Dr. King as yet another way of demonstrating the shallowness of (many of) these characters is also cheap and shallow. For the problem is that the show itself over the last five seasons (and counting) has done what its lead characters do: i.e show little interest in race and civil rights. In other words, there’s no critical distance between the show’s handling of race and its main characters’ lack of interest in race. Indeed, the politics of the one character who was moved to action by civil rights–Paul Kinsey–were portrayed as inauthentic and he himself became a pathetic buffoon before departing the show.
And Mad Men remains as uninterested in black characters as it’s ever been–Don Draper’s secretary Dawn only seems to have gotten air time in last week’s episode as build-up to the events in this week’s episode and to function as a screen on which the attitudes of the white characters can be thrown into relief (Don’s disengaged empathy, Joan’s patronizing non-hug). And as a plot point Dr. King’s assassination functions pretty much just as the news of a serial killer on the loose in New York did in an earlier season: to make characters uneasy and emphasize particular traits (the confirmation of Harry Crane’s absolute lack of depth, indications that Henry Francis’ rectitude is not all it appears to be etc.).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Mad Men needs to centrally be about civil rights (and I am using the term here to stand in for the larger structural and cultural transformations in race relations in the period) or even foreground those issues as much as it foregrounds, say, transformations in gender relations. It’s the degree to which it is uninterested in race that is striking: consider that the problems of an expatriate English ad executive (r.i.p Lane Pryce) formed a long and empathetic arc on the show, whereas there is yet to be a single black character of any importance; consider that the striking visual hook of the first part of the current season has been hippie haircuts and facial hair and “groovy threads”, whereas there is almost no mention of black popular culture at any point in the series–it’s as though Motown and its 110 top 10 hits between 1961 and 1971 never happened.
Am I being unfair? Am I misremembering or forgetting things that would weaken this critique?