"Mad Men," Black Women: The Necessity of Fair and Honest Representation

by Daria-Ann Martineau

With the acclaimed TV show Mad Men wrapping up its final few episodes, the question must be asked: Can a TV show honestly speak to white male privilege—from a privileged white male perspective—without being hurtful to others?

I love Mad Men. Like a great novel, I struggle with wanting and not wanting or it to end. I go over old episodes and catch tiny but mind-blowing nuances. It's expertly written. Still it is not above criticism, and certainly begs examination through a racial lens.

Like many shows on television, Mad Men specifically showcases the views and experiences of privileged people (usually well-off white men). Unlike other shows, however, Mad Men does this consciously and—most importantly—critically.

Recently a friend complained on social media about the limited portrayals of Black women on the show: secretary, thief, and prostitute. She was right. (Not to mention there are also no Black men.)

As poet Morgan Parker explains, “I love Mad Men, but watching it, I’m always made aware of who and what I would be allowed to be in that era.” While I felt uncomfortable with a Black person's criminalization on the show, I understood the plot choice of a Black woman burglar (Grandma Ida) in the Season 6 episode, “The Crash.” A major theme of that episode was how the absence of parents affects their children. Sally Draper catches an old Black woman burglarizing her father’s home and this woman easily convinces Sally that she raised her father.

Among many purposes, this scene serves as a social comment on privileged white parents who leave their children in the hands of Black caregivers, those caregivers often supplanting biological parents in many ways. Black characters are mainly on Mad Men to contrast white privilege.

In an early episode, a bathroom attendant stands behind Betty Draper, near invisible until Betty leaves and the attendant mutters, "Those purses get any smaller, we're gonna starve." Moments like this are rare and poignant. The Drapers do not think of Black people, not even to reward them for their servitude. Mad Men is constantly highlighting the sexism, racism, and homophobia of the 1960s. I prefer this to the rosy nostalgia of other 60s period dramas like The Wonder Years. However, the prejudice can be hard to swallow: I once watched a friend barely sit through an episode, fuming, because of all the disgustingly sexist jokes the men made. She was actually more forgiving of the murderous sociopaths on The Sopranos, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's other hit project.

The thing I love about Mad Men, however, is that there are no good guys or bad guys. Nobody is a violent criminal, but I have hated almost every character at one point. Almost everyone is horrible but then redeeming, or kind and then cruel. They're hypocrites, because that's what people are.

Then there's Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers, the show's most prominent Black character, who's developed too slowly for a show that is ending in a few episodes. The moments where Dawn is alone with other Black characters are golden. She offers casual thoughts on Black identity, which may prove insightful and relatable for many viewers. These include Dawn and her friends' culturally different views on career, marriage, and family, and also the need to make the whites around her feel comfortable by not acknowledging other Blacks too heartily. In Season 7 episode, “A Day’s Work,” Dawn's interaction with a Black co-worker, in which she references the fact that people can't tell them apart, is hilarious and spot-on. In fact, that whole episode is a triumph for Dawn. Still, those moments of triumph are few and far between.

I wish for more of those moments with Dawn the same way I wish we'd learned more about Jewish copywriter Michael Ginsberg's Holocaust survival and past (his turning out to be "plain old crazy" felt like a forced and oversimplified conclusion). However even Ginsberg got to be more than simply the "neurotic Jew." He was somewhat flawed and complex, a "hippie who cashes checks from DOW chemical." The worst we've ever seen Dawn do is cover for a co-worker playing hooky. While she is the most positive and progressive Black image on the show, Dawn is still mostly just a symbol: a mirror of white privilege and her coworkers' "othering" views.

Perhaps Matthew Weiner and his writers don't feel equipped to write more insightful minority perspectives. This is a missed opportunity for white writers and audiences to explore and grow their empathy for different people. I'm not saying that this show has to do that—though I wish every show would—but I am worried about a bigger problem: In highlighting the extreme prejudice and segregation of the era, not all audience members may realize that Mad Men is speaking out against these ideas, or at least mocking their absurdity. When a character like Roger Sterling makes a racist or sexist quip, the audience is meant to be "in" on the joke—it’s funny because people really can be that outrageously offensive, not because their offensive comments are true. Mad Men is certainly not the first TV show to highlight prejudice this way, but, as Dave Chappelle can attest, it doesn't always convey the intended message. Mad Men may do more to perpetuate these negative social views than offer enlightenment.

There are only a few more episodes of Mad Men before the series ends for good. I am hoping Matthew Weiner will more fully flesh out Dawn's character, while also making his stance on the pitfalls of white male privilege clear, all the while maintaining the exquisite pacing and nuanced subtlety his audience loves.

This essay has been updated to include edits requested by the author.

Photo: Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers on AMC's Mad Men

Daria-Ann Martineau was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago and holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University. In addition to For Harriet, you may find her work at The Collagist, Kinfolks Quarterly, and Narrative Magazine, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @caribbeancurly.