Tomorrow Never Knows

Race and Anxiety in 'Mad Men'

by Karina Parikh

10 February 2013


You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's

Even in the comforts of Peggy Olson’s (Elizabeth Moss) home, Dawn is still subjected to the racial hierarchies that are continually propagated outside of it. While chatting on the couch, a visibly drunk Peggy tells Dawn, “We have to stick together. I know we’re not in the same situation, but I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it’s hard.” Peggy likens her transition from a secretary to a copywriter to that of a black woman gaining employment, which is certainly a lofty comparison. But rather than seeming as a way to establish a friendship between the two, bell hooks would argue in her “Racism and Feminism” that this connectivity is merely feigned, for white women demanding feminist equality “wanted to see no change in the social status of blacks until they were assured that their demands for more rights were met,” almost competing with blacks for acceptance in the white patriarchal society that so strongly reigned at the time.

hooks also notes that it is “in the context of endless comparisons of the plight of ‘women’ and ‘blacks’ that [white women] revealed their racism,” as these comparisons insinuate that not all women were inherently equal and that there was an evident bifurcation between blacks and whites. Peggy soon turns her conversation with Dawn into a one-sided conversation about her own struggles as a female copywriter, asking Dawn, “Do you think I act like a man?” As we have seen in previous episodes such as season two’s “Maidenform”, the root of Peggy’s struggle is grappling with her femininity in the male-dominated world of advertising. But for Peggy, becoming a manly copywriter is something that she must derive from within, for she says, “I try [to act like a man] but, I don’t know if I have it in me. I don’t know if I want to”. For Dawn, however, whiteness will never be attainable. In opening up to Dawn, Peggy is able to comfortably acknowledge her lower position in the patriarchal world of advertising knowing that she is still socially better off than Dawn. Peggy makes clear that she believes that just securing employment is a rare feat in itself for a black woman and that upward mobility is virtually impossible.

When Peggy grows visibly nervous about leaving her purse full of cash next to Dawn, she proves that her words “we have to stick together” were only uttered to allow her to reveal her own anxieties and reveals that she indeed adheres to the same racial hierarchy that her fellow co-workers adhere to. Dawn later writes in a note that she leaves on Peggy’s purse, “Sorry for putting you out,” making clear that she took notice of Peggy’s discomfort and subtly yet sternly defies the stereotype that was projected onto her. Through her interactions with Peggy, we see Dawn as a capable, sound-minded woman, proving that the client’s perceptions of her as lowlier than an average girl in “The Phantom” stem only from his own apprehensions and preconceptions and not a self-evident truth as widely perceived.

Though the presence of blacks in season five is sparser than most wanted to see, it’s apparent how the journey of blacks in 1966. Through Dawn Chambers alone, that journey has a bold and accurate presence on Mad Men, even in within the patriarchal warp of deception and desperation that defines Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Though Jewish characters have been no strangers on Mad Men, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ushers in its first Jewish hire, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), in season five. Though wildly quirky, Ginsberg’s impressive creative genius is reminiscent of Don’s, poising him for a potentially quick, and undoubtedly threatening, ascension through the ranks on Madison Avenue.

According to Harold E. Quinley and Charles Y. Glock, long-held stereotypes against Jews in America, especially in the (time period), are that they are monied, dishonest, clannish, prideful and conceited, power-hungry, and pushy and intrusive (Anti-Semitism in America, pp. 2-10). But by 1966, Jews made their presence known positively in American society, defying centuries of discrimination that rendered them as deceptive and as belonging to an inferior race. A series of groundbreaking ads from 1964 for Levy’s Real Rye Bread encapsulate this. “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”, it declares, as members of different races happily eat a rye bread sandwich in each advertisement. The Jewish community is portrayed as an enviable and exclusive group that is granting access to other Americans to partake in its wonderful offerings, such as this delicious bread.

The evolution of American society’s perceptions of Jewish people have been thoughtfully reflected on Mad Men. In season one, Roger asks Don, “Have we ever hired any Jews?” and Don replies, “Not on my watch.” But by season five, American society’s more positive attitude about Jewish people relaxes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s criteria for hiring a na copywriter. In the third episode of the season, “Tea Leaves”, Peggy Olson first takes notice of the unknown Jewish copywriter, Michael Ginsberg, through his eye-catching and clever portfolio, prompting her to call him in for an interview.

Her initial meeting with him, however, proves to be less than stellar. Ginsberg comes of as brash and abrasive with Peggy, attempting to put on a misogynistic bravado that characterizes most of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s big players. But when Peggy grows visibly upset, Ginsberg immediately becomes brutally honest with her, explaining that he has no family, friends, or girlfriend that will hinder his dedication and passion to excelling as a copywriter. Ginsberg basically asserts that he is detached, almost a free-floating signifier seeking to form a visible identity; he is simply thirsty for fulfilling his own “American Dream”.

Unfazed by Ginsberg’s heartfelt plea, Peggy politely shows him the door and later informs Roger that she will continue her search for a new copywriter. Though she labels Ginsberg as “certifiable” due to his eccentricity (for Peggy, a woman who grapples with being a “manly” copywriter, a distinct personality is a must), Roger explains, “I already told [the client]… I wanted to smooth the ground by working with a Jew. Turns out, everyone’s got one now… it makes the agency more modern,” which is a stark contrast to his sentiments in season one. It’s not Ginsberg’s immense talent or personality that has the potential to transform the agency, but merely his religion, rendering him as a statistic. Though Roger certainly receives Ginsberg much better than he does Dawn Chambers, to him, Ginsberg is simply a cash cow. Don perhaps views Ginsberg in the same light as well, for he is thoroughly impressed by Ginsberg’s work and readily accepts him into the agency, knowing that Ginsberg has a potential to keep new clients, but Jewish and non-Jewish, satisfied.

At the end of “Tea Leaves”, we see a Ginsberg that is starkly different from the ebullient and jittery interviewee. Entering his dark, cramped apartment, Ginsberg reticently tells his father that he landed the job. When his father places his hands on his head and sings a celebratory Jewish prayer, Ginsberg appears visibly annoyed and uncomfortable, perhaps ashamed with being associated with what in the past was widely deemed as a “lowlier race” (later in the season, Ginsberg, almost insulted, asks Roger, “You think I am a Jew?”). If Ginsberg’s religion is his asset, why, then, isn’t he taking ownership of it?

In episode six, “Far Away Places”, we begin to glean an answer to this question. During another late night at the office, Ginsberg opens up to Peggy about his identity. He is not an American-born Jew; rather, he was actually born in a concentration camp and adopted by his father when he was five years old. He is understandably fearful of others associating him solely with his religion, a religion that has been highly stigmatized and served as a reason for torture and death. Allegorizing the Jews’ struggle, he tells Peggy that he is a “Martian” that is simply displaced, searching for an identity that he can be proud of. Because his story is so rare and unique, Ginsberg immediately transforms into a mythical figure that reminds us that our race is never something we should be held accountable for or feel ashamed of. Additionally, Ginsberg shatters all of the common stereotypes held against Jews as mentioned before: he is not monied, dishonest (except, at times, about his religion), conceited, power-hungry, or pushy and intrusive. Any of these qualities that he does exhibit are not inherent, but instead are reactionary toward certain situations going on in the office.

Ginsberg’s enormous internal struggle to adopt an identity of his own, coupled with his distinctive social behavior, provokes tension between him and Don. In episode four, “Mystery Date”, we see Ginsberg deliver a flawless pitch to the client, then completely overshadow the pitch with an idea that Don originally shot down. Ginsberg’s idea ends up winning the client over, but readily threatens Don’s viability as the agency’s major creative brain. Fully aware of what Ginsberg is capable of, Don spends hours on end perfecting a pitch for Sno Ball, a frozen beverage in episode nine, “Dark Shadows”. One of the ways that he formulates the perfect pitch is by secretly looking to the new talent in order to enhance his own, thumbing through Ginsberg’s ideas. But, of course, makes no indication of that during the copywriters’ meeting the next day. Ginsberg brims with admiration after hearing Don’s clever idea and is especially impressed that the idea appeared to just come to him. In his typical deceitful fashion, Don coolly plays it off.

Other members of the agency pit Don against the new generation when they deem both his and Don’s ideas as potential advertisements yet declare Ginsberg’s as the strongest. Never one to compromise his superiority, Don juvenilely leaves Ginsberg’s storyboard behind in the cab before successfully presenting his to the client and racking up yet another addition to his prolific portfolio. Upon hearing of Don’s deceit, Ginsberg is, of course, enraged, and confronts Don in the elevator. Don quips that he thought Ginsberg was “hiding from someone”, immediately alluding to the fact that Ginsberg is Jewish as a way to shame him. He confers more power on to himself when he contends that walking into a meeting with two ideas is “weak”, and reminds Ginsberg that he is his boss. As a final belittling blow, Don casts Ginsberg off as insignificant and lowly when he says, “I don’t think about you at all.”

Of course, we know that Don is actually preoccupied with and threatened by Ginsberg, who serves as a continual reminder that the end of Don’s career may soon be approaching. The end of the episode confirms this subtly and beautifully. When Don wants to open the sliding door because it’s hot in his apartment, his wife Megan advises him not to, because, she says, “the air is toxic. I don’t want that in here.” Don peers out the window, fixated on the looming cloud of toxic smog that shrouds the soaring skyscrapers. One cannot help but think that these “dark shadows” represent Ginsberg, the supposedly irrelevant Jewish employee, looming over Don—threatening not only to destroy his creative genius status, but also his embodiment of the “American Dream” as a man that is at the top of the heap.

This is not the first time a toxic cloud has embodied the infiltration of the “other” in visual culture. In a 1935 advertisement for Lifebuoy soap, a young woman vying to find a future husband is enveloped in a black cloud of body odor prior to using Lifebuoy soup. Her husband deterring stink cloud symbolizes the infiltration of unwanted germs and contaminants on the pure, white body, serving as an overall metaphor for xenophobia in the pre-World War II era.

At the end of the season, however, a fruitful relationship between Don and Ginsberg begins to bud. While Ginsberg singlehandedly crafts the tagline “At last, something beautiful you can truly own”, for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s biggest client of the season, Jaguar, Don pitches it with the same fire and intensity he has had in season’s past, surmounting the competition. Ginsberg earns Don’s coveted respect, well on the way to acquiring a formidable identity that he can truly own.

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//Mixed media