'Mad Men' and the Civil Rights Movement

Matt Zoller Seitz on the lens of Matt Wiener:


In last week's recap, I wondered if Season Four's glancing references to the civil rights movement weren't a red herring, and whether the show's true interest instead lay in women's rights. With just three episodes to go, that suspicion looks as though it'll be proved correct (unless Weiner and company rally by building the season finale around President Lyndon Johnson issuing his executive order enforcing affirmative action, and I really hope they don't). If the season ends up having focused mainly on feminism, however, that will beg the question of why Weiner thought it was a good idea to make the civil rights struggle an atmospheric detail or a metaphor for something else. 

The only black characters on this show have been domestics and elevator operators--and now a mugger. Even if you take the show's upper-middle-class white milieu into account, the arms-length respect paid to African American sacrifice feels like an evasion posing as an acknowledgment. The topic is so rich, and still so emotionally powerful, that treating it as a looming presence and nothing more is dramatically risky. Whatever "Mad Men" is doing here, it had better pay off.

There is some sentiment that Weiner isn't addressing race powerfully enough, or that he isn't including enough black people on the show. I've said before that I think the absence, or rather the peripheral awareness of race among the characters, is a powerful statement about the class of people Weiner is presenting. As much as I'd like to see some black actors and actresses (of whom there are many greats) get some work, I really hope Weiner sticks to whatever plan is in his head--whether that includes black people or not.

That aside, I think I must be one of the few people who's actually enjoying watching a show about the '60s that isn't actually about race. Mad Men is a story, to my mind, about how a gender revolution is playing out among a particular group of people. Perhaps this is personal, but thinking about gender, in that context, is a welcome relief from the constant heaviness of my thinking around race. In terms of the '60s, race is the air. I don't know that we need Matt Weiner's take on it. There have been so many.

UPDATE: It's worth noting the last "Great American Television Show" The Wire, was very much about race, and almost never addressed gender.
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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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