[Marxism] ‘Mad Men’ Highlights Invisible Black People and Stain of Racism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 27 09:18:45 MDT 2012


‘Mad Men’ Highlights Invisible Black People and Stain of Racism

Amid the Trayvon Martin debate, the hit TV drama’s deliberate 
treatment of blacks as props—far more authentic than Hollywood’s 
usual one-dimensional caricature of racism—forces us to look at 
the invisible specter of race in America.

by Otis Moss III  | March 27, 2012 4:45 AM EDT

The power of Mad Men and the creativity of the show’s producer, 
Matthew Weiner, is the ability of Mad Men to highlight the ethos 
of an era, coupled with a subversive critique. The show surrounds 
the viewer in nostalgia, but simultaneously refuses to delve into 
the romantic. The stylistic approach and critique, whether 
intentional or unintentional, owes much to the work of Danish 
filmmaker, Douglas Sirk, whose films disrupt the façade of 
middle-class suburban life by quietly peeling back the underbelly 
of the myth of moral stability promoted by 1950s Hollywood with 
such films as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

Weiner’s Mad Men employs the same quiet, subversive attitude as 
the Sirk films. Men, patriarchal and white, are framed as 
privileged, arrogant, and unaware of the offense and power they 
wield. They hold power and injure all who come into their view, 
not with overt malice, but adolescent ignorance. Women are objects 
of desire and reluctant partners, while black people are invisible 
to all who live with unannounced privilege. Black people are the 
props of the show, giving the drama an aura of authenticity unlike 
many network shows determined to rewrite the past and avoid the 
dramatic ugliness of American society.

The opening scene of season one demonstrates the invisible prop 
qualities of black people within Mad Men. Don Draper inquires of a 
black busboy why he chooses to smoke Old Gold cigarettes. A white 
bartender, who asks, “Is Sam here bothering you?” interrupts the 
dialogue with the busboy. This exchange demonstrates the authentic 
yet cynical attitude of Mad Men, and how this show is a more 
appropriate vehicle to highlight the stain of racism and the 
unconscious cruelty of white privilege than traditional network 

Hollywood historically has attempted to reconfigure and rewrite 
America’s uneasy struggle with race and class. Issues of race are 
resolved with simplistic solutions and empty rhetoric, or when a 
rich and complex moment of history is presented, such as the civil 
rights movement, it is redesigned by writers who add white saviors 
as the catalyst for black freedom and/or frame black characters 
with child-like qualities in desperate need of guidance by 
enlightened northern liberals.

Sitcoms traditionally have remixed the Amos and Andy stereotype, 
from J.J. on Good Times, Shaynaynay on Martin, or Mr. Brown on 
TBS’s Meet the Browns. Dramas fare no better, as black characters 
often succumb to the “exceptional Negro” syndrome wherein a black 
character has broken through all the stereotypical barriers of 
poverty to earn a seat at the table of democracy. Black characters 
rarely are human— just props and one-dimensional cutouts of a 
writer’s imagination. Rarely do we witness the complexity of 
characters as seen in HBO’s Tremé, where categories are not easily 
defined, stereotypes are challenged, and social forces, not 
stereotypes, push people to make difficult and life-changing 

Whether we are speaking of The White Shadow, Dangerous Minds, 
Mississippi Burning, The Blind Side, or Little House on the 
Prairie, on other television shows and films that share racial 
themes, white culture is spared the harsh reality of staring at 
the ugliness of racism, bigotry and cruelty. Mad Men dares to 
demonstrate how the invisible people surrounding Madison Avenue 
are forced to live with the indignities of being nothing more than 
a prop.

The opening scene of Season 5 shows the sophomoric attitude of men 
of privilege, who drop water bombs onto black protesters outside a 
rival advertising agency. The scene shows the prop paradigm of 
black life in Hollywood and the complexities of civil society. 
“Negroes” are not truly human, but things to be used for enjoyment 
or objects designed to be receptacles of hate.

Hollywood is comfortable with one-dimensional caricatures of 
racism. Racism removed from boardrooms, academia, and the alleged 
enlightened North. Hollywood prefers an extremist style of racism 
on screen such as the KKK or Nazism—the type of racism easily 
rejected by any rational person and which fails to indict people 
of privilege or unconscious beneficiaries of power dynamics. But 
in Mad Men, we witness the men behind the curtain of Oz who 
unconsciously empower the actions of those who enforce the 
collective ethos of segregation. Men of wealth, White Citizens 
Councils, lawmakers, and State’s Rights parties, along with 
Dixiecrats, are the people, historically, who provided 
segregationists refuge. Journalists and editors pushed a “blame 
the victim” ideology to shape public opinion and reinforce archaic 

When we look at the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case through the 
eyes of Mad Men, we witness the intersection of race, power, pain, 
privilege, and tragedy. We witness a helpless teenager who was 
cast in the show of racism as a criminal. George Zimmerman pulled 
the trigger, but a larger ethos of devaluing life and the 
stereotypes of criminality loaded the gun. The larger social 
forces nursed by politicians, people of wealth, and peddlers of 
divisive ideology unwittingly hired racism as the executive 
producers of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Zimmerman viewed Trayvon 
as a prop, a criminal, a myth constructed by society. Geraldo 
Rivera has reinforced this myth by placing blame for his death on 
his fashion choice. (A common collegiate article of clothing, a 
sweatshirt with a hood is now being used as justification for the 
death of a young man.)

Lawmakers and lobbyists in Florida reinforced the false notion 
that crime is going up as a result of criminals running rampant in 
the street. The need for a Stand your Ground law became the 
emotional solution to a deeper civic problem. (It should be noted 
that crime—including violent crime—has been steadily going down 
nationally for the past two decades.) This season of Mad Men is an 
excellent opportunity to demonstrate the madness of all men who 
shape the myths of our country. I look forward to this season as 
Mad Men forces us to gaze at the madness of privilege, class, and 
the invisible specter of race in America.

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