Why We Need A Black Mad Men

May 11, 2014 Opinion 7

a black woman in a coat makes a call on a 1950's phone while too white children watch warily from the sofaMad Men is a brilliant show about whiteness. Much in the same way George R.R. Martin considers rape historically accurate in a show about dragons, Matthew Weiner considers the near invisibility of minorities historically accurate in a show about American advertising. I could link to a dozen pieces about it, but why? I come to praise Weiner, not to drag him. (Wait – let me just give him a quick hit – fun fact? The Clio Award that Peggy isn’t getting this season? The one that made Don a major name? Designed mid career by the grandson of a slave. Meet Georg Olden.) Weiner is writing about a very specific group of white people in a very specific class and time. Much like Lena Dunham’s, their New York is 99.9% Ivory White. Their class affords them the privilege of ignoring black America unless events force them to do otherwise. If it’s Grandma Ida breaking into the home, protests in the streets, Betty firing the housekeeper or Pete trying to interview the elevator operator, it takes a riot for their eyes to focus outside themselves. Peggy’s purchase of a building in a minority neighborhood is a sign of how far she’s drifted off her path, how lost and damaged she has become. If Peggy had remained true to herself she’d be safe and happy in the place under Don’s. Never mind that it’s Peggy who commits the only acts of violence we see there. That’s not the point. Actress Teyonnah Parris smiles in a still from the tv show Mad Men

Here’s my point. We need a brilliant show about blackness and we need America to watch it. Mad Men is coming to a close, leaving a huge space for a show equally visionary to fill it’s place. Weiner has created a space for that show to have a built in audience. I don’t mean something like the popular Mad Black Men. I want a show that looks and feels like Mad Men while dealing with the rest of America. I want AMC to run it, Sepinwall to review it, and all of the black actors who’ve ever walked into the frame on Mad Men to star in it. Rewind the tape to the beginning of Mad Men S1 and introduce us to Dawn, Shirley, Grandma Ida, and all the rest. Take us to the barbershops, the church basement, the club (Heck, name it 52nd Street). What happened to Carla’s children? Is Ida a criminal mastermind, a low level hustler or a woman driven to desperation by a violent and grinding life under supremacy? Let the Mad Men actors drift on the edges of their story the way minorities drifted on the edges of theirs. Pivotal scenes from the first series could be an emotional punch in the second.

a black woman hold her head up with pride wearing a red and black plaid coatWhere is Abe when he’s not with Peggy? How did Lane and his bunny spend their days? Does everyone hate Harry Crane? Even viewers who don’t care about the social milestones Mad Men barely mentions will care about those answers. There is a much bigger story to tell in the Mad Men universe. If Matthew Weiner doesn’t want to tell it, then we need to find his black counterpart who does. Much as All In The Family spawned The Jeffersons, Mad Men is poised to start at the bottom and take us to the top. The stars of Mad Men deserve the careers the show has brought them. These are talented actors delivering more than casual entertainment. (John Slattery is a director I’d love to see helm the new production.) Yet Mad Men is full of stars the evening talk shows barely notice. Deborah Lacey carried a huge emotional weight in her scenes with January Jones. Teyonah Parris lights up the screen when she smiles.

Why We Need A Black Mad Men may be the most predictable blog title I’ve ever written, so why don’t we have that show? The talent is there. The story’s frame is there. All we need to do is turn the camera away from SCDP and into the street Don looked down upon during the riots. All we need to do is follow Dawn when she picks up her purse and walks out the door. All we need to do is see where Carla goes after Betty Draper discards her. All we need to do is recognize that not having it is a symptom of the freedom to define historically accurate as a very narrow slice of fetish. We need a black Mad Men because we’re not Bert Cooper.

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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7 Responses to “Why We Need A Black Mad Men”

  1. Darlene Marshall

    Excellent essay. I’m not optimistic this would happen, but you raise really good points about reality vs. perception of what life in a large city in the US is like, whether it’s in the 1960s or 2014.

  2. Erin Satie

    Just as a quick note: in a recent interview with the Paris Review (This link used to work but is coming up dead for me–expired? http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6293/the-art-of-screenwriting-no-4-matthew-weiner), Weiner says, of Mad Men, “I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white”.

    The whole interview is interesting and worthwhile. His point doesn’t take away from yours, but I do think it’s worth mentioning here. The show is not unconscious of privilege. It’s ABOUT privilege.

    As far as incorporating historical events: I think it could be argued that Weiner has a really intense, almost ham-handed way of fitting them into the show. These characters whole lives mirror in not-coincidental ways the progress of the decade–we saw Nixon’s inauguration speech at the beginning of this season, for example–at just a moment when all the characters are caught in a malaise, treading water or going backwards.

    That’s just one example, but one of so many.

    I also TOTALLY disagree with your reading of Peggy. I have zero sense that we’re supposed to be reading Peggy as drifting off track or lost. Peggy as a character has been on the ascendant for a couple of seasons now–and I’m pretty sure that apartment she bought is in the Upper West Side & it’s really just showing us the process of gentrification there. She didn’t make a mistake investing there–she made a mistake selling.

    Okay, that being said: I’d love to see a really quality show with a driven, visionary writer-director that focuses on African American characters. I don’t think ‘black Mad Men’ would be fun at all; it’s Weiner’s story, he’s chewing on his own personal angst. I don’t want a spinoff. I want something new and wonderful.

  3. Meoskop

    @Erin Satie: I completely get that Mad Men is a show about whiteness and it’s privilege. I said so. My point is we have MANY quality shows about whiteness and it’s time for one about blackness that white people (this is key) actually watch. We need the education. There are interesting characters with un-shown lives that could be used to create that show.

    Peggy bought into the UWS but in 1968 it was one of the worst slums in NY, and it was on it’s way down. Peggy won’t get the gentrification benefits for decade at least – what we think of as the UWS and what Peggy has moved into are completely different. Here’s a 1969 article pushing that gentrification which was many painful years in the future. http://nymag.com/news/features/47182/

    I find it interesting that you’re certain the characters I mention wouldn’t or couldn’t be as compelling as the white characters Weiner worked with. Do you think he only has one story in him or do you think Dawn is not as interesting as Don? Why?

  4. Nu

    I assume when you say “about blackness” you mean a show with Black characters because you can’t encapsulate Blackness in one show, but there is already an excellent show about a modern Black woman -because I couldn’t possibly care less about a show about men romanticizing the way things were, i.e. machismo- Being Mary Jane. The dialogue’s clever and witty, the challenges Mary Jane faces are compelling and relevant, and thus far, it’s probably the most feminist show on TV as far as portrayal of female sexuality is concerned. It doesn’t matter if White critics watch it because the finale drew 5.8M viewers, more than Girls and True Detective combined.

  5. Meoskop

    @Nu: No, I don’t. In the same way Mad Men is about privilege, I would like to see a show about living without that privilege, succeeding without that privilege. I’d like a historical drama that treats Dawn & Carla as significant and important in the same way this show treats Don & Peggy.

    I haven’t seen Being Mary Jane – I will check it out. Please don’t mistake my saying I want a show whites will watch as meaning shows are only significant if they are thus viewed.

  6. Erin Satie

    From what I understand, the UWS started gentrifying because Jewish renters/buyers were being frozen out of the Upper East Side. They moved across the park as a consequence & for years it was considered a Jewish neighborhood, or the Jewish UES. Which probably explains why it kept its stigma for so long. The article you linked to seems to date the beginning of gentrification to exactly this period–between Peggy dating a Jewish guy & the changing neighborhood, that whole subplot seems like a piece of NY history.

    Mind you, I trust Weiner to give any subplot layers of meaning. Peggy doesn’t have a clear idea of what she wants from her romantic life & I think that’s why she keeps messing it up. Or picking men (i.e., Ted) with whom she can’t settle down–at some level, she knows she doesn’t want that kind of life.

    I would totally watch a show about Dawn & Shirley. I LOVE Dawn. Have to admit I could care less about Grandma Ida.

    But my comment about wanting something totally new was more that–to my mind, one of the great things about these amazing TV shows that have come along is that each one is sui generis. There’s some influence (the way that Weiner says The Sopranos influenced him), but no attempt to reproduce or copy or spin off.

    Weiner COULD do a show about Dawn & Shirley, and I bet it would be good, too. If it existed, I’d watch it. No question. But I’d think less of him if his next move were to go back to the start and cover the same historical ground through characters he’s already come up with.

    And, likewise, if there were going to be a ‘black Mad Men’–a show that’s just as amazing, just as layered in meaning, just as fundamentally linked to the creator’s personality–I think it would have to come from someone else. I think it would have to start fresh.

    Part of what makes ‘Mad Men’ so special is that there’s nothing else like it–and attempts to imitate it have mostly fallen short (I haven’t seen Masters of Sex so I can’t judge; that might be an exception?). The new show–my dream show–would need that same quality.

    Just my 0.02, of course. I am a little nutty about Mad Men (might be obvious).

  7. Nu

    @Meoskop: I am saying that these shows don’t need White approval or viewership to be successful. See my comment above. There is a channel that they are ignoring which is providing (and more will be forthcoming, according to Mara Brock Akil’s comments) and exceeding them nonetheless. Hopefully there will be a historical show in the future.