Of all the current cable programs on my viewing schedule, I have found Mad Men to be the most deeply engaging. The show, produced by Matthew Weiner, creator of the HBO mega hit "The Sopranos" explores the inner workings and complexities of several men and women who work at an advertising firm in New York City in the 1960s. Now, in its third season, the show has addressed a number of social issues that were relevant to the era. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, abortion, infidelity, alcoholism, depression and other topics are discussed to varying degrees. The shows main character is a conflicted, tormented, womanizing, chain-smoking, alcoholic, upper-middle class, WASP advertising executive named Don Draper.
The show has been a consistent favorite of critics. Admittedly, I myself am addicted to the show. As of this moment, I have only missed one episode and that during the first season. Even the fashion industry has begun to take notice as the Kennedy era look of the 1960s has suddenly become vogue in some Madison Avenue circles. The show has definitely struck a nerve among many across socio-economic lines.
A number of African Americans have weighed in on the Mad Men phenomenon. Some Black critics have taken the ‘60s-styled drama to task for being hesitant to address the history of American racial conflict. Other Black commentators have defended the show for what they see as accurately portraying the marginalization of people of color. As a historian, I have my take on both perspectives.
The fact is that non-Whites were largely obscured in the professional WASP world of the 1960s. The few Black characters that are showcased—Sheila, Paul's ex-girlfriend; Carla, the Drapers' maid; and Hollis, the elevator operator—are accurately seen as individuals who are occasional, yet primarily brief, interlopers in the lives of upscale Whites. Their role was to serve at the pleasure and discretion of the White families and businesses that employed them. They were expected to listen, answer when spoken to, do their jobs, and stay out of the way. While such a situation was certainly unflattering and even annoying on a number of levels, the fact was that this was reality for more than a few Black people in America during the days of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
While it would be interesting to see Carla, Hollis, and Sheila deeply engaged in the most intimate workings of the lives of the main characters, the fact is that such a depiction (with the possible exception of Carla, given the fact that she was a maid) would largely ring untrue. The same holds true for the advertising agency. No Black person, including secretaries, outside of the janitorial staff, would have been working at Sterling Cooper (at least not in pre-1965 America). Racist clientele, stockholders, the status quo, and the conservative cultural climate would have prohibited such a thing.
What is even more important (at least to me) is that while it is commendable for television writers and producers to be racially, religiously and gender inclusive in their shows, the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the best approach. Personally, I have no problem with television shows experimenting with new ideas or even thinking "outside the box," for that matter. Much of television is imaginative in its nature. Moreover, more diversity on the networks of any type is a good thing. The NAACP's 1998 report criticizing the major three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC for their deplorable lack of diversity was justified.
What becomes problematic to me is when shows, in an effort to look more diverse, develop plots that seem contrived or forced. It would be foolish for a Black family to be the major focus of The Sopranos. To have made 50% of the characters on CBS's program Newhart African American, Latino, or Asian would have thrown all logic out of the window, since it was set in central Vermont in the 1980s. It probably would have smacked of patronizing tokenism at best to have a White, upscale family prominently represented on every episode of the former BET drama Soul Food.
To be honest, I watch Mad Men and most television shows strictly for the entertainment value. If I wanted accuracy and precision I will take the time to read a history book, comb through newspapers and dusty old archives, or interview someone who has lived such an experience. Such a person could provide you with more accuracy than any situation comedy, drama or "reality program" can ever do.
There is nothing wrong with viewing television with a critical eye. Many people do feel more welcomed when they see people who resemble them in appearance on TV. However, we need to be realistic about the fact that, most often, writers, producers, and directors are attempting to deliver fantasy and escapism value to their audience-nothing more and nothing less. Fiction, by its nature, has no responsibility to be accurate. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying "it's just a television show."
Causes Elwood Watson Supports
Youth motivation and literacy programs, St. Jude Cancer Research Center, Schomburg Center for Black Culture, progressive political causes