Mad Men is populated by Richard Nixon’s silent majority

I almost didn’t bother to read Tanner Colby’s series in Slate about the depiction of race in the AMC series Mad Men, taking it for a bit of puffery in the lead up to the show’s much-hyped season five debut tomorrow.  But I did, and am awed by its total spot-on-ness.  First, though, some background: Mad Men is set in the 1960s and the single most important phenomenon taking place during that decade — the black civil rights movement — is so far off stage that it is practically in another show.  Mad Men has caught some flak for that, especially since the show is obsessive about historical details and has been adept at handling the parallel emergence of professional women in the workplace, particularly through the character of Peggy Olson.  Colby quotes one critic as saying that if Mad Men continues to ignore race, “it is truly written by cowards.”  Colby’s claim is different:

[W]hat much of the commentary misses is that Mad Men is not just a show that happens to be set in the racially charged 1960s. It’s a show about advertising. And it is advertising, not Mad Men, that is written by cowards.

Colby then unfurls that argument in a way too compelling to summarize, so should be read in full.  But then he does summarize it, perfectly:

[T]he principals of Mad Men sit squarely in that stratum of white America whose social standing is the most precarious. [The ad agency on the show] Sterling Cooper is Richard Nixon’s silent, suburban majority: not hip enough for the Kennedys, too sophisticated for the fear-mongering of George Wallace, yet too insecure for the racial pragmatism of a blue blood like Nelson Rockefeller. They are the people most desperate to cling to the racial fictions that underpin the nation’s status quo, and therefore the people in the greatest denial about the changes of the civil-rights era. Hence the denial of racial reality we see depicted at Sterling Cooper, which is not only true to the period but accurate in a very specific and mindful way.

That is so exactly right that it suggests the hand of God at work in its design.  In the world of Mad Men, that hand belongs to its creator Matthew Weiner and Colby traces this theme to the debut of the series:

For the past four seasons, Mad Men’s writers have been slowly, deliberately peeling back the facade of lies that papers over America’s personal and societal sins. It makes sense that they would leave the biggest lie for last. The opening scene of the very first episode of the entire series—the grabber that Matthew Weiner used in the pilot to sell his opus—was Don Draper sitting in a bar, trying and failing to share a cigarette and a little conversation with a black bus boy. Don, the man who can bullshit his way into connecting with anyone, hits a wall that even he can’t talk his way through. Why start there if not to come back to it? A few years from now, when we can look back on Mad Men from start to finish, it may well turn out that the whole thing was about race all along.

I suspect that is true.


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