Race And Mad Men

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I thought the first episode of Mad Men, was just fine. It's really hard to know what will happen, or even judge anything one episode in. That said, there are a couple of developments that could ruin the show relatively quickly:

Although Draper has a gift for engaging and seeing through marginalized types--the unwed mother, the Jewish heiress, the closeted gay man--in the case of the black characters, the relationship never goes beyond shallow conversation. Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early '60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission.

I actually think it's a beautiful, lovely, incredibly powerful omission. Mad Men is a show told from the perspective of a particular world. The people in that world barely see black people. They're there all the time--Hollis in the elevator, women working in the powder-room, the Draper's maid, the janitors, the black guy hired at Leo Burnett--but they're never quite seen. I think this is an incredible statement on how privilege, at its most insidious, really works.

I was never one of those people who wanted to see more black people on, say, Friends, or felt that Seinfeld was too white, any more than I wanted to see more white people on The Bernie Mac Show. I think we have to careful. I don't watch Mad Men to get a lesson on gender--though I sometimes do--I watch to see a good story. I understand, given the times, the desire to have the show take on race. But I don't want to see Mad Men "take on" anything. That's for bloggers, and historians to do.

To the extent that we get these other social issues (class, gender, sexual orientation etc.) it's all gravy. But great characters before everything. Great narrative before anything. Mad Men is one story about the 60s. It isn't the definitive story. I don't even know there should be such a thing.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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