‘Mad Men’ Recap: Invisible Woman
Is the Show Finally Taking on Race?
By Matthew Creamer
About midway through last night’s “Mad Men,” Pete Campbell issues a warning to his fellow partners at the agency: “I might remind you and everyone that the Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate our industry regarding the employment of Negroes.”
The partners’ regular meeting has been interrupted by a suddenly ballsy Harry Crane. The media-department head is incensed that his secretary has been summarily canned by Joan after she ditched work early and had another of the “girls” punch out her time card. The other girl is Dawn, Don’s secretary and the lone recurring black character over the past couple of seasons. Pete’s reminder frames one question—can we really afford to fire one of our few black employees when the city is demanding that we hire more?—that leads to a bigger one: Is “Mad Men” finally ready to talk about race?
In the real 1968, New York City’s Human Rights Commission would make the whiteness of Madison Avenue a story. Hearings in March would be followed by more information gathering throughout the summer, culminating in a report issued in November.
That report, which you can still read online, is a damning account of the industry’s attitude toward race at a time when the country was consumed by it. This was, after all, years since the Civil Rights movement began and the year in which Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated, setting off widespread riots.
Reading the report now, we see that the industry’s actual attitude toward race was pretty much in line with how it is depicted in the character of Pete: “an unacceptable pattern of exclusion—tokenism.” Between September 1967 and September 1968, the city’s largest advertising agencies, under pressure from the commission, improved the representation of “Negroes and Puerto Ricans” to about 7% from about 5%. But this came on a declining base and predominantly through the hiring of low-level employees. The biggest strides came in the category of “all others” which, according to the report, represents the “lower depths” of the industry. There was no movement in general management and little in other categories with upward mobility, like research, creative and account management.
The report claims that even as the industry was aware of the problem, it was unwilling to do anything to fix it. The commission encountered institutional defeatism, which it countered with a little snark: “If you were able to sell Volkswagens at the time you did and in this New York market, you can discover ways to hire, train and integrate into your staffs persons so long excluded from the industry.”
This is an amazing line that takes aim at the central case study of the 1960s creative revolution: DDB’s post-war turnaround of Volkswagen by eviscerating its German past. In other words, if you can do it for it our fairly recent enemies, you can do it for our own people. The commission also gives the industry a generous dollop of credit for being the kind of idea generators and problem solvers who find a way to deal with big challenges.
Could this be the moment “Mad Men” finally engages with the question of race? Dawn’s introduction last season, coming after that memorable racist water-balloon incident, felt like a head fake. We got that one strange night on Peggy’s couch and then nothing. But now with the King assassination looming, we’re getting some sense of a more developed black character. We even see Dawn outside of work twice, eating at a black coffee shop with a friend.
These scenes are bracing because we’re unaccustomed to any action that doesn’t involve at least one of the show’s (white) principal characters. It’s almost like being thrust into different show despite the fact that not all that much goes in the scenes. Dawn describes the loneliness and alienation she feels in the white-dominated world, telling of seeing another black friend downtown, near work, but not really seeing him.
“We were walking through the plaza and we passed each other and we just nodded,” she says. “He didn’t talk to me and I didn’t talk to him either.”
It might not conjure the pain of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” but Dawn’s words suggest the alienation that comes with being part of the paltry 5%.