You People

October 12, 2009

Up until tonight’s episode, a political question mark hung over Don’s head.  He always sided with his fellow outsiders (promoting Peggy, not outing Sal), sure, but the undercurrent of a potential anti-civil rights backlash was always present.  Don is noticeably apolitical, both in the workplace and at home, but that certainly never meant he’d shy away from challenging the conventional social order.  He tended to see people for who they really are, so to speak, judging others based on their abilities rather than their ascriptive identities.

Still, I always thought Don could go either way; either side with the civil rights activists of the ’60s or buy in to the silent majority backlash; either side with the underdog, or belittle their fight for equality.

At first, Don represented the latter.  I mean, his mentorship of Peggy was unprecedented for the time.  He valued the opinions of African Americans (Season 1, Episode 1, Scene 1), a trait that seemed to rub off on Pete, of all people.  He looked past Sal’s homosexuality and infidelity, and even promoted him after catching him with another man.

But recently, Don has represented the former.  He essentially told Peggy to wait her turn and stop asking for so much after she requested a (arguably) deserved raise.  Then tonight–coincidentally National Coming Out Day–Don slipped in a disgusted “you people” quip while firing Sal.  “You people“? In this obvious disassociation and linguistic distancing, Don established the direction of his–up to this point unknown–future political leanings.

As Betty grows more and more independent and dissatisfied with her life, Don grows more and more resistant to change.  As social unrest builds throughout the country and minorities grow more and more dissatisfied with inequality, Don grows more and more agitated with his fellow outsiders, forgetting that he too is somewhat distinct from mainstream America.  Don’s conquest of Sally’s teacher–dismissing her progressive idealism–symbolically represents Don’s dismissal of fights for civil rights in general.

In Don, I see the awakening of the silent majority.



“The Rest All Look Alike”

September 8, 2009

july 1947 edited2

(x-posted at Social Science Lite)

Last week’s episode of Mad Men was filled with thought provoking social commentary. Daniel wrote an excellent wrap-up, but one point deserves deeper context and discussion.

Roger Sterling’s hilarious rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”—donning sloppily applied blackface—was just one of the episode’s jaw-dropping moments. Sterling’s minstrel performance was timely, airing only a few weeks after rapper Nas and Nick Cannon’s mock minstrel Youtube video went viral.

While Mad Men situates minstrelsy in the late 1950s/early 1960s, blackface remains a staple of American pop culture. Just swing by your local university’s frat row during Halloween and you’ll see my point. And no, this isn’t a false generalization because, yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

That’s not to suggest that dressing in blackface carries a maliciously racist intent, however. Indeed, minstrel shows are just one example of what historian David MP. Freund brilliantly refers to as “recreational racism.” Think of it as the ultimate “What do you call a group of black guys running down a hill?” joke: a collective celebration of whiteness and white superiority at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities. Whites that engage in such rituals of racial entitlement often rationalize their behaviors by noting, “It’s all in good fun”—implying that recreational racism is less incendiary than more overt forms of racial prejudice or discrimination.

The image accompanying this post comes from my own research on a Detroit neighborhood—a community I refer to as Woodline Gardens, to preserve anonymity. It was published in the neighborhood’s local newsletter in July of 1947, quite a few years before Roger Sterling’s fictional performance on Mad Men. Woodline residents were exceptionally proud of their new community tradition, including three separate pictures of their inaugural minstrel show in the community newsletter. The caption of this particular picture reads: “The two white mean are C.R. Richards and C.H. Buckwater, interlocuters. The rest all look alike.”

This picture perfectly (and succinctly) articulates the underlying logic of minstrel shows and other forms of recreational racism. The rest all look alike, as if any race other than Caucasian represented a monolithic group worthy of degradation and parody. The logic of this phrase, rooted in privilege, elitism, and social isolation, wipes any semblance of humanity away from African Americans. Do blacks have individual personalities, morals, or feelings? Nope; they all look alike.

Understanding social isolation is paramount to placing minstrel shows in the proper context of American race relations. Residents of Woodline Gardens, like Roger Sterling, were socially and spatially isolated from poor, black, and poor black communities. Part of this isolation stemmed from physical boundaries (residential segregation), but cultural boundaries (styles of life, patterns of consumption) were also important. This isolation fueled racial stereotypes and precipitated the communal embrace of recreational racism.

Your everyday American probably doesn’t know the historical context behind blackface or minstrelsy. Movies like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Nas & Cannon’s awkward public service announcement largely fall on deaf ears as a result. To the average person, blackface appears to be a theatrical device employed sporadically across film and television, whitewashed of its less than wholesome history.

But blackface is not without a history firmly nested in contentious race relations and struggles for racial equality. As David Freund argues, it’s recreational racism, but that doesn’t make its continued use any less problematic. Hopefully, with each reference to minstrelsy in pop culture, we move that much closer to a clearer understanding of blackface in its proper historical context. Widespread, accurate historical knowledge is never a bad thing.

Kinsey, The Sellout

August 24, 2009


Paul Kinsey serves as Mad Men’s obligatory 1960s-era liberal.  Without him, we really have no window into 1960s social history; with him, we learn about the 1961 Freedom Rides, interracial dating, and other “hippie communist radical” things of the era.

In last night’s episode, he voices opposition to Sterling-Cooper’s Madison Square Garden account, agreeing with local New York protesters that the project undermines a core tenet of NYC’s community cohesion: Penn Station.  How could these new architects destroy the station’s beautiful, historic architecture, he publicly laments.  But after he blows up, he regains his composure.  He remembers that he’s an employee, and quickly begs Campbell not to tell Don about his outburst.

As the show wrapped up, Kinsey was sitting in Don’s office, instructed to “keep a low profile” as he worked on the project, so as to not upset Sterling-Cooper’s newest client. Kinsey obliges, with little reluctance or trepidation.  Like many liberals of the time, when push came to shove, he rescinded his lofty claims for social justice.

The Capitalist Wins Again

August 17, 2009

In Michael Burawoy’s classic text Manufacturing Consent, the UC Berkeley sociologist studies the inner-workings of the capitalist labor process.  In his ethnographic research, he discovered that small changes in the organizational structure of a factory could have a profound effect on the culture of the factory workers.  Specifically, he found that factory managers were able to pit workers against each other by instituting a new piecemeal process in which workers were rewarded for individual production.  Instead of uniting against their managers, workers were organizationally structured in opposition to each other.  The ensuing competition diverted conflict away from the managers, thus suppressed labor demands and left the workers relatively powerless.

I think you see where I’m going with this.  Sterling-Cooper’s CFO was able to institute this exact (and, from the capitalist’s point of view, quite ingenious) structural condition on the new dual-heads of accounts.  By splitting up responsibilities between Campbell and Cosgrove, the CFO manufactured competition between the men, pitting them against each other, rather than against Sterling-Cooper’s management.  As a result, both men will be subject to suppressed wages, since their bargaining power is diminished.  And due to animosity (you can just feel it coming from Pete), they probably won’t unite to leverage better salaries.

Because of their structural equivalence (same position, same relationship to subordinates and superiors), they are more concerned with taking each other down than overthrowing management.  You can just imagine what Pete would do if Cosgrove suggested that they should both threaten to quit for a raise: Pete would take the opportunity to throw Cosgrove under the bus.  As much as we harp on Pete’s, uh, less than stellar character traits, it’s important to cite this organizational arrangement as an important component of their resulting competitiveness.  Indeed, this organizational restructuring exploits Pete’s opportunism, to his detriment.  Poor Pete; he’s merely a pawn in the capitalist enterprise.


Don’s Nuanced Misogyny

August 9, 2009


Misogyny and sexism take center stage throughout the first two seasons of Mad Men.  The upstanding men of Sterling-Cooper treat women as little more than sex objects, belittling their independence and assuming their inferiority.  The booze-fueled “boys club” atmosphere of the firm only emboldens and legitimizes their disrespect.

That said, Don is written as having an oddly progressive stance on women.  On the one hand, he readily accepts Betty’s status as cook and cleaner, typically watching TV while she does the dishes or makes dinner.  In Season 1, he initially refuses to work for a female client when she speaks out of turn.  “I won’t sit here and let a woman talk to me like that,” he exclaimed.  Yet he is also the only man at Sterling-Cooper that wholeheartedly respects Peggy and her work as a copywriter.  There’s also the scene in Season 2 in which he is visibly upset on the elevator as two men speak about sexual acts in front of a woman.  It’s like the seeds of chivalry that may grow to become a progressive tree.  Or at least semi-respectable bush.

While the other men at Sterling-Cooper are, for the most part, pretty uniformly despicable in regards to their treatment of women (save, of course, for Paul–the guy dating the black supermarket employee), Don is written in a much more nuanced light.  He cheats on Betty, sure, but he has an abnormally high level of respect for women.  I’m left wondering, though, if developments beginning with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 might prompt a reactionary stance from Don, alienating someone that could have been a powerful ally for women’s rights.