[11 February 2013]
Because it beautifully encapsulates the complex social dynamics and constructs that dominated both the workplace and private lives of those in ‘60s New York City, Mad Men has been a delight for television enthusiasts and academics alike since it first premiered on AMC in July 2007. But while many have lauded the series’ painstaking attention to detail and maintenance of historical accuracy, the series is not devoid of criticisms and debate, one of which continually scrutinizes its seemingly invisible treatment of race relations at a time when racial tensions ran highest in this country. Such criticisms have especially plagued perceptions of the show’s fifth and most recent season (March – June 2012), which is set during the socially volatile period between mid-1966 and early 1967.
Actually, race matters are, in fact, very prominent during season five, albeit in a more subtle way than viewers and critics may like to see. As Tanner Colby writes in his Slate article, ”Mad Men and Black America” (14 March 2012) that “Mad Men is a show about lies… and the single biggest lie at the core of [the] American Dream was the myth of white supremacy”. This “myth of white supremacy” that Colby speaks of shines brilliantly during the fifth season, when each of the main characters wrestle with his or her own life-altering turmoil, from birth to death and everything in between. Indeed, the series’ overall deliberate lack of focus on minority characters only intensifies the predominantly white, patriarchal lens through which Mad Men is clearly portrayed. But when analyzed side-by-side with advertisements of the time as well as with relevant theories, it’s clear that the journey of black Americans on Mad Men, particularly Don Draper’s new secretary Dawn Chambers, is well articulated through the main characters’ own anxieties.
To provide some historical framework, the Civil Rights Movement is taking an increasingly prominent and radical turn in 1966. Stokley Carmichael brought the phrase, “black power” into the public consciousness June of this year, while the Black Panthers, often reputed to resort to violent tactics, was founded in October. Moreover, despite American society’s increasing awareness of civil rights issues, black women were still bearing a larger social burden. Though many black women played an axial role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement, they were not as celebrated during it as men were: Carmichael himself once said, “the only place for women in the movement was prone” ( The Civil Rights Movement by Peter Levy, p.117).
For a show that is predicated on the often fallacious images that have saturated popular culture such as Mad Men, advertisements also serve as crucial historical documents. Though an advertisement for ABC, featured in Steven Heller and Jim Heiman’s Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era, ran in 1969, three years after Mad Men’s fifth season takes place, one can immediately glean the shocking racist and sexist overtones that exude from the pages. Bright white letters splayed across a large image of a group of black men and women conversing read, “When your TV screen goes black for an hour, you’re watching ABC.” This immediately draws attention to the fact that the people in the image are not only of a different color, but that they are of an inherently “bad” color, as the idea of a TV screen going black indicates that something is faulty with the television itself. ABC cannot attract black viewers by simply stating that it offers programs “by black people” and “for black people”, as it does on the bottom of the page, but it attempts to attract them by first making it clear that black viewers are lowlier than white, and lack access to and understanding of mainstream television, thereby simultaneously maintaining social and racial hierarchy while attempting to attain higher viewership.
Furthermore, while the two men in the image stand dignified and prominent in their suits, the two women adopt entirely different stances. One woman’s face is entirely blocked by a man, only distinguishable by the faint outline of her hair. The other, extremely visible in the light, stands frenetically bug-eyed with her mouth agape, recalling images of unbridled savagery and salaciousness associated with black women that were popular as early as the Impressionistic period, such as Sarah Bartmann, widely known as the Hottentot Venus. During her tragically short life, Bartmann was ruthlessly displayed like an animal throughout Europe to exhibit her enlarged genitalia and buttocks.
The gender dichotomy within the civil rights movement as well as the dehumanization of black people, namely black women, are the focal points of the opening and closing scenes of Mad Men’s two-hour season premiere, “A Little Kiss”. In the opening scene, employees of advertising agency Young and Rubicam maliciously drop paper bags full of water upon an unsuspecting crowd of blacks protesting for equal employment. Enraged, the now soaked protesters storm into the agency, only to be met by the gaggle of giggling copywriters cradling water bombs in their hands. This leads one protester to utter, “and they call us savages.”
Though this scene was not the most well-received by television critics, who were quick to write it off as highly clichéd, little did they and most viewers know that it was almost a complete recreation of an event detailed in a New York Times article from May 1966 (28 March 2012). This makes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s reaction to this event even more poignant, as the viewer becomes acutely aware of how the writers not only situate Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fledgling agency that can barely stay afloat monetarily, in comparison to its well-established rivals, but its employees’ positions on the radically changing social strata of the time.
In wake of the water bomb incident, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), never one to shy away from a racist remark, jokingly proposes that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce run a mock advertisement suggesting that it is an “equal opportunity employer” as retribution for Young and Rubicam’s stealing Ponds, one of its top clients. Don Draper (John Hamm) laughingly agrees, adding, “our windows don’t open”. The prank kills two birds with one stone: not only is it an the ideal way for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to establish its legitimacy in comparison to other Madison Avenue agencies, but it is also the ideal way for Don and Roger to cling onto any shred of legitimacy that they have remaining in their professional and personal lives.
Throughout the series, we have seen Don struggle to shed his shameful and destitute past and adopt a fictionalized persona that is cunning, self-sufficient, and for which things come easily to. When he is not spewing brilliant ad campaigns, Don Draper, or Dick Whitman rather, tries desperately to propagate and protect this persona, essentially commoditizing himself in order to appear to be authentic. By being Don Draper, Dick is able to live out his own version of the unattainable, too-good-to-be-true “American Dream” that he successfully sells to thousands of consumers every day. But even after countless cocktails and cigarettes, he confronts his imminent mortality when his persona has just turned 40 years old which, in the ‘60s, seemed to be on the brink of elderliness (what is more, his true self is older than that).
Moreover, Don’s priorities are askew after he marries his co-worker Megan (Jessica Paré), as he is visibly more enthralled by her than his clients. By participating in a prank that undermines blacks’ plight, Don can assert his viability as a quick-thinking leader as well his status as the dominant, white male that exemplifies the “American Dream” that he lives by both occupationally and socially. On the other hand, Roger relies on his purportedly superior whiteness in the hierarchy of race relations as a vehicle to humiliate his competitor rather than on his own business prowess, prowess that has especially been questioned since the agency’s loss of the Lucky Strike account.
Just as an advertisement is an image that neatly bounds faulty promises, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce itself provides an incubated space for its employees to proudly project their hollowed, bogus identities. After all, as Anne McClintock mentions in her book Imperial Leather, “Advertising’s chief contribution to the culture of modernity was the discovery that by manipulating the semiotic space around the commodity, the unconscious as a public space could also be manipulated.” The fact that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s “windows don’t open” does nothing to prove that it is above harassing minorities, but rather, that it believes that is it above interacting with them at all. An ideology borne from colonial era advertising was the likening of whiteness to cleanliness and blackness to dirtiness —and the mock advertisement that Don and Roger concoct certainly strives uphold such a belief. As experts of living lies that they create for themselves, Don and Roger’s assertion of white dominance is merely a shoddy attempt to preserve their high place in the racial hierarchy that advertising in the ‘60s continued to propel as the norm.
Dawn Chambers (Teyonnah Parris) at work
in Mad Men: Season 5
In their typical fashion, Don and Roger are blissfully unaware of the repercussions of their actions. Little do they know that what seems to be a harmless prank will thrust Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce into the increasingly heated debate of civil rights that they have successfully avoided for years, forcing it to take action. In the episode’s closing scene, Don and Megan are perplexed by a large group of eager black jobseekers sitting in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lobby. But blacks have not infiltrated the sealed off Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce just yet; while the applicants sit neatly contained within the glass walls of the lobby, the heads of the agency gather behind the wooden doors that protect their offices from the outside world to discuss the looming changes that lie ahead for both their work and personal lives. Unsurprisingly, Don and Roger still treat the situation as a joke. “I don’t know why we can’t just hire one,” Don says simply, not out of support for black employment but perhaps to quickly put out this seemingly small fire. Since this ordeal doesn’t seem to pose a threat to Don’s status or identity directly, he seems more or less ambivalent towards its outcome.
When Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) suggests that they replace the useless secretary out front for a black one, Roger blurts, “We can’t have one out there!” Anxious about his own aging appearance, Roger is clearly preoccupied by the notion that image takes precedence over all else, for the first face to greet visitors need not be a competent one, but a white one. In a 1969 ad for Western Electric, also featured in Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era, the company attempts to demonstrate its social consciousness by ensuring that blacks have access to the same occupational fulfillment as whites when it declares, “We don’t hire black people for decoration. We hire them for the same reason we hire white people,” referring to a decorative black employee as a “show negro.” In 1966, even “show negroes” have not come into fashion yet for the exceedingly old-fashioned Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Young and Rubicam’s counterattack on Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce does not focus on any of its shortcomings as a business, but rather, its purported association with blacks, sending it an African warrior sculpture with a mock resume attached to it. The sculpture recalls the colonial belief that Africans fetishized and worshipped inanimate objects, thereby rendering them as incompetent and dupable. The use of African artifacts as a way to belittle the status of blacks in America was proliferated by American pop culture long before 1966; in a 1958 episode of Leave it to Beaver titled “Party Invitation”, Beaver, the only boy at an all-girl party, seeks refuge the birthday girl’s father’s den. Amongst the guns and taxidermied animal heads that pepper the walls is an African mask, which both likens the colonial subject to an animal over which humans exercise control and to the black American over which white Americans exercise control. The resume reads “1960-1965, ‘Toted dat barge, lifted ‘dat bale’”, a line from the well-known slave song “Old Man River”. It therefore compares the immense Civil Rights struggle to slavery, indicating that despite blacks’ efforts, they are still at the mercy of whites and can only derive a “legitimate” identity through them.
Even so, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is forced to open its doors, literally, and hire a black secretary for its staff, at last yielding to societal changes lest it be the target of bad publicity. In the next episode, “Tea Leaves”, we see that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce chosen Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris) as Don Draper’s new secretary. It’s no coincidence that their names are homophones, as it only draws more scrutiny towards Don’s mysterious identity. In an awkward exchange, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) says to Dawn, “It’s so confusing… out in the office, it is really hard to tell who’s who.” Both characters seem to immediately recognize the awkwardness of this comment, though the viewer knows that there are more similarities between Don and Dawn than what meets the eye. Don’s identity’s stability is not only threatened by its intense examination by others, but also faces decay through the ever-morphing image of the face of the American ideal.
Dawn, a single, working minority woman, visibly ushers in the dawn of a new era and potentially becomes the emblem of the revamped “American Dream”. Luckily for Don, however, it will take some time before Dawn is seen as such. In the final episode the season, “The Phantom”, a client says, “we should get a girl’s opinion… and I am not talking about black coffee out there.” His treatment of Dawn is reminiscent of what Elmer Smith, a white man, says of Delilah, a black housemaid-turned-pancake business logo, in the 1934 film the Imitation of Life: “Once a pancake, always a pancake.” Dawn Chambers is not a regular girl to the client, but rather, is fetishized as an inhuman object that is unworthy of supplying him with pertinent advice; to him, she belongs to a racial group that cannot communicate on the same level as whites. She is tightly locked in the racial hierarchy that Frantz Fanon details in his “The Fact of Blackness”: “The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation… I was expected to behave like a black man… I was told to stay within my bounds, to go back where I belonged”.
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.
Mad Men’s subtle yet dynamic exploration of race relations in its fifth season goes global when former Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) reappears as a Hare Krishna devotee in its tenth episode, “Christmas Waltz”. By tackling common American perceptions of the East, particularly Indians, the writers not only honor the fact that the Hare Krishna movement did indeed arrive in America in 1966, but also cleverly divulge the affect of the mythic “American Dream” on characters Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey to spice up the storyline.
Between 1960 and 1970, New York City was comprised of 0.6-1.7 percent of “other races”, in other words, any group that did not classify as “white” or “negro”. With Indian Americans so few and far between, the average New Yorker’s knowledge of India and Indians was most likely meager at best. Advertisements from around this time period create an exoticized and highly spiritual India that is tinged with colonialist ideologies.
In a 1953 American Export Lines advertisement showcasing its “exotic” 1954 cruise spanning throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, a gorgeously bedecked Indian classical dancer stands flanked by two musicians. With averted eyes and outstretched arms, she surrenders her body to the viewer. Though she seems to move freely, the two musicians visually bound her body, their intense gazes objectifying her from either side. The delineated positions of the female and male bodies serve as a metaphor of colonialism, as colonialist discourse often renders the colonized as feminine and thus extremely vulnerable and weak while the colonizer is masculine and therefore rational. The text in this advertisement only emphasizes India’s association with the nebulous “Orient” so sensationalized in colonialist discourse: it implores the consumer to see the “majestic ruins” of the Middle East (an area closely associated to India at the time), indicating its status as a once rich civilization that is now in decay, while also imploring him or her to see the “modern and sophisticated civilizations of the Mediterranean”, implying the immense intellectual strides that the Western world has made and continues to make.
Moreover, since Governor-General Warren Hastings’ commissioned translations of Indian religious texts in the 18th century, it’s common to perceive Indians as immensely religious and superstitious. It’s no surprise, then, that American President Lines chose to depict a scene of Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River to encapsulate India for its 1950 advertisement in order to lure consumers to set sail to the mysterious “Orient”. The score of dark, almost faceless pilgrims crowding near the sacred river not only propagates Indians’ irrational preoccupation with spirituality, but also the colonial ideology that cleansing and purifying could lead to civility. Interestingly enough, colonial soap advertisements often indicated that those belonging to the “Orient” could “become” white and thus more civilized through bathing, thereby decreeing that fidelity to consumerism could maintain racial hierarchy and white superiority.
For some Americans, connectivity with India was no longer only attainable through a lavish vacation after A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a devout follower of Krishna Consciousness in India, founded the Western sect of the Hare Krishna movement in New York City in 1966. The movement adopts bhakti yoga, or complete devotion to one God (in this case, Krishna, one of many Hindu gods) as its principle form of spirituality. This rather monotheistic tangent of Hinduism had widespread appeal to lower-caste followers in India, as the movement emphasized that anyone could attain spiritual enlightenment through Krishna Consciousness. Because of this, Hare Krishna is appealing to those who feel disenchanted with American society, paralleling countercultural movements such as hippiedom.
The core tenet of the Hare Krishna movement, in short, is that one must reject illusory elements and channel all energy in support of attaining complete spiritual freedom in the name of Krishna. Its members are banned from gambling, using drugs, drinking alcohol and caffeine, eating meat, and engaging in sex unless one is married and is trying to have children. It eschews American society’s alienating ways and, intriguingly, materialism that is promised through advertising as it indicates that happiness is only secured through acquiring more goods and pushes people to privilege technology and competitive habits. This, of course, makes Hare Krishna’s role on Mad Men particularly intriguing.
Hare Krishna’s introduction on Mad Men in episode 10, “Christmas Waltz” simultaneously reintroduces Paul Kinsey, who had been squeezed out of a position at SCDP in the show’s third season. Prior to his departure, Paul was no stranger to dabbling in what was perceived as countercultural lifestyles as a way to elevate others’ perceptions of him. In the past, we often saw Paul dabbling in recreational drug use and criticizing New York City life while unsuccessfully attempting to make his own mark onto American cultural history both through his sub-par work as a copywriter and as an aspiring playwright. In season two, Paul flaunts his relationship with Sheila, an African-American. This relationship is not predicated on love, but instead on Paul’s desperate attempt to, as Allison Perlman writes, “cultivate his Bohemian credentials”. In fact, he only accompanies Sheila on a Mississippi Civil Rights trip because he was no longer invited to a trip to Los Angeles for business, tritely boasting how much of an amazing time he had despite essentially doing nothing. It’s pathetic and wishy-washy behavior like that that places Paul low in the hierarchy of office politics and causes him to bounce around between advertising agencies with little hope of rising through the ranks, creating much instability in his life.
In “Christmas Waltz”, Harry Crane begrudgingly yields to one of Paul’s many requests to meet with him in the city. Instead of winding up at a restaurant for a typical cocktail-laden lunch, Harry finds himself at 26 Second Avenue, the location of the first Hare Krishna temple in the West. Sporting a shaved head and saffron dhoti, Paul speaks to a blatantly uncomfortable visitor who finds Paul’s comments incomprehensible and odd. Harry certainly shares these sentiments, even asking Paul if he is actually allowed to be in the temple in the first place. While Paul assures Harry that the Hare Krishnas have alleviated his anxieties, Harry soon observes that Paul has only joined the movement because he is in love with a devotee who goes by the name of Mother Lakshmi, after a Hindu goddess. Reluctantly entering the worship space, Harry uncomfortably joins the crowd in chanting the mahamantra, the prime mantra of the movement, whose sound is the most attractive factor of the Hare Krishna movement (Hare Krishna and Counterculture, page 153). This proves true for Harry, who is so enraptured in the chant that he does not even realize when it ends.
According to Tommy H. Poling and J. Frank Kenney, the Hare Krishna devotees are “highly sensate-oriented pleasure seekers”, with much of their devotional duties focused on the senses, such as through partaking in communal meals and intricately dressing the main statue of Krishna daily (The Hare Krishna Character Type, page 108). Harry’s intensity during the mahamantra is not a reflection of religious fervor, however, but instead is a redirection of sexual desire. Viewers have seen Harry evolve from a faithful husband to crude and promiscuous, continually grappling with staying loyal to his wife, Jennifer, in order to uphold the stable family life so crucial to the image of the “American Dream”. The Hare Krishna movement, a channel of the nebulous “Orient”, has provided Harry an outlet for his sexual needs, thereby allowing him to fetishize it. He conveys this when he tells Paul that Mother Lakshmi is “my kind of religion”, equating sex with devotion. Paul fetishizes Mother Lakshmi as well, as he intends to marry her as a way of securing his pathway to the “American Dream” that he has unsuccessfully attempted to do in the “traditional” way through the workplace.
Over dinner, both Harry and Paul articulate their desires to attain the “American Dream” through fetishizing Mother Lakshmi. To make it clear, though she is American, Mother Lakshmi is representative of the Hare Krishna movement and thus symbolizes the “Orient”, for she, a former drug addict and prostitute, signifies a typical Hare Krishna devotee (E. Burke Rochford, Jr. notes that only 13 percent of Hare Krishna devotees have not experimented with drugs prior to joining the movement in his Hare Krishna in America, page 67). Harry delineates his apprehension about staying married to Jennifer, remarking that he had a vision of his daughter—the binding element between him and Jennifer—while chanting the mahamantra.
Unfortunately for Harry, being married and staying married is the norm as established by the “American Dream”. His preoccupation with this dream shines through when he tells Paul that he will have to do “a little less recruiting and a little more working” in order to secure a stable life with Lakshmi; in so many words, he renders the Hare Krishna movement as an impractical means of living normally while elevating the importance of having a job. Paul, unsurprisingly, agrees, urging Harry to pass his Star Trek teleplay to his NBC connections in order to secure a hefty income and convince Mother Lakshmi to quit the movement and begin a life with him.
Despite his detachment from the spiritual ideals of the Hare Krishna movement, Paul is entrenched in its politics. He is livid that Harry has had a vision while chanting before he does, igniting the competitive spirit that the Hare Krishna movement tries to repress. He also admits that he tried to figure out who Prabhupad’s favorite devotee was upon joining the movement. Though the guru is the conduit to Krishna and one must channel full devotion to him according to the movement, gaining his affections should in no way be based on favoritism, but rather, overall devotion to the cause. “Sometimes I think Krishna doesn’t even like me… only Lakshmi,” Paul says. He hyperbolizes his desperation by indicating that Krishna, the Hindu god who loves those who love him back, only provides a superficial hope whereas a potential wife will enable him to enjoy an ideal life.
In an odd twist, Mother Lakshmi later visits Harry at his office and lures him into a sexual encounter, claiming it is her attempt to protect Paul. Harry is, of course, completely satisfied, having satiated his sexual appetite and effectively stifled his unhappiness with Jennifer. Though Mother Lakshmi scoffs that she has surrendered her body, much like the dancer in the American Export Lines ad, to a “karmi” and “sense-enjoyer” for the future of the movement, it seems that she needlessly engages in a sexual encounter for the sake of doing so, expressing her, and thus other devotees’, inability to suppress and overcome immoral desires. Lakshmi reveals that she wants to preserve Paul’s faith not so that they can eventually run away together, which is, of course, banned by the movement, but because he is the movement’s best recruiter. Her comment brashly indicates that the Hare Krishna movement is indeed materialist as it is fixated on amassing more followers and increasing its numbers. What is more, notions of sacrilege taint this materialism, rendering the actions of the Hare Krishna movement and cultures of the “Orient” more morally deprave than the materialism associated with the “American Dream”.
Believing that the Hare Krishna movement is usurping Paul of his time and energy, Harry decides to provide Paul with a little charity of his own. Since he deems Paul’s teleplay as ridiculous, Harry gives Paul $500 and a ticket to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He specifically tells him, “I want you to leave the Krishnas and go out there and try… this is all you need… if you go back there, you will never be strong enough to go.” In short, Harry tells Paul that the Hare Krishna movement is a hindrance and mere escape route that sits on the peripheries of a Western reality in which money dominates. Paul tearfully replies, “all these people said they’d do something for me… you’re the first one who did.” It was not an “Oriental” form of belief that granted Paul the something that he needed in his life but Harry; Harry essentially civilizes Paul by allowing him to shed his crazed spiritualism in favor of materialism. Rather than folding his hands in prayer, Kinsey clutches the envelope full of money close to his chest, re-adopting his devotion to the “American Dream”.
The journeys of the African American, the Indian and the East, and the Jewish person are strongly played throughout Mad Men’s fifth season through the recurring anxieties of the main characters. Though tomorrow never knows, Mad Men shows us that, despite our ruthless need to find our individual selves in the world, our stories are more linked to one another than we assume them to be.
Karina Parikh loves to write...about film and television, art, books, food, and travel. With interests all over the place, it is no wonder that she studies Comparative Literature. If she isn't furiously typing away at her laptop, she is probably putting her culinary skills to the test by inventing college-budget-friendly recipes in her tiny apartment kitchen.