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Tomorrow Never Knows: Race and Anxiety in 'Mad Men'

Like a smartly crafted advertisement, there is more to Mad Men than meets the eye. Amidst the forbidden affairs, heated pitches, and endlessly flowing libations, race relations have risen to prominence during the show's fifth season.

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”.

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