Spoiler alert: I don’t give away anything that happens in Mad Men’s season 5 premiere, but I do discuss characters and plot points from seasons 1-4.
The first time I visited the Brooklyn Central Library, I happened upon a flyer advertising an academic lecture that started in precisely five minutes. Nerd that I am, I quickly found the lecture hall and snagged a front-row seat. For the next hour, I listened to Trey Ellis revisit his seminal essay ‘The New Black Aesthetic’ (1989). My alma mater doesn’t actually have a Black Studies department, so even though this essay is required reading in most intro to Black Studies/Ethnic Studies courses, I’d never heard of it. My gist of it is that Ellis was grappling with the fact that the Black middle class was growing in the U.S., and consequently, Black artists and the work they produced were becoming increasingly diverse. (Don’t take my word for it, though. I’ve never read it.)
What struck me most from that afternoon is something Ellis mentioned in the Q&A. He said that he has a lot of Black friends who are television actors and that they have a very hard time finding work these days. I suppose it points to my White privilege that I hadn’t really noticed that—aside from the syndicated Tyler Perry sitcoms—there are virtually no television shows with primarily Black casts on the air today. This is super different from how things were in the 1990s and early 2000s. Remember Moesha, Sister Sister, A Different World, Smart Guy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Girlfriends, Living Single, The Parent ‘Hood, My Wife and Kids, and That’s So Raven? Those are just a few of my favorite shows centering on Black American characters. None of them are on the air anymore, and nothing has really replaced them. What happened?
It strikes me as odd that—in a time marked by the election of a Black president and the passage of marriage equality laws for gay and lesbian citizens in many states—stories about historically underrepresented groups are left, well, underrepresented on television. I don’t know why this is, but I have a pretty solid grasp of how one of the most popular television shows today treats characters from marginalized groups, so let’s look at that.
Mad Men is a show about an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, so of course, it centers primarily on White male characters.
Sal Romano, the closeted art director at Sterling Cooper. He struggles to hide and suppress his homosexuality in seasons 1-3. Sal was one of my favorite characters. Sadly, he was abruptly fired after refusing the advances of a client. The show never mentions what becomes of him.
Carla is a recurring character on the show in seasons 1-4. The show never mentions her last name, but we learn a little bit about her here and there. She is supportive of the Civil Rights movement (whether she is active in it is unknown) and sad about the death of JFK. In one episode, Sally mentions that Carla goes to church every week. I kept waiting for a storyline about her or, at least, more insight about her relationship with the Draper children; but alas, all the trivia about Carla were just teases. She is abruptly fired in season 4 (I’m sensing a pattern here…).
Sheila White is one of two ‘Black girlfriend’ characters on the show. She is the girlfriend of Paul Kinsey who is portrayed as the progressive beatnik of the office. The show reveals that Kinsey is of lower- or working-class background and was only able to go to Princeton thanks to a scholarship. In the show, he is a successful advertising executive. Sheila is a checkout girl at a grocery store in New Jersey. I was really excited to see how the show would explore the class complexities of their relationship as well as their being in an interracial relationship in the Sixties. Sheila also prompted Kinsey to become active in the Civil Rights movement, and I thought it would be interesting to see how their relationship would be perceived by Black activists. Only guess what? Sheila was only in two episodes, and then—poof!—abruptly eliminated.
Rachel Menken is a Jewish businesswomyn who runs her family’s department store. Don has a brief affair with her until she puts a stop to it. I know very little about what it was like to be Jewish in New York in the 1960s, so I was excited to learn more about what Rachel’s life was like. How does she cope with anti-Semitism? Who are her close friends? What is her social life like? Sadly, all of these questions are left unexplored.
Smitty and Kurt are hired by Don to help the ad agency tap into what ‘the kids are into these days’. They are always together, which kind of sort of makes it seem like they might be a couple. In episode 11 of season 2, Kurt plainly reveals he is gay over donuts in the break room. For a moment it seems like the show will take the plunge and more fully explore the complexities of being gay in the 60s. Will Smitty come out, too? Are they a couple or not? Will Kurt take Sal under his wing and counsel him through his own coming-out? Nope. They go on to work at another agency and…that’s all we know.
Oh look, another Black girlfriend
character plot device! Toni Charles appears in exactly one episode of Mad Men. She works as a Playboy bunny and is Lane Pryce’s mistress. Lane tries to introduce her to his dad in the worst way possible and then breaks things off after his awful, racist father beats him up and tells him he better reconcile with his (rich, White) wife. Lane is a wealthy Englander new to the States, so his relationship with Toni would have provided a lot of cross-cultural fodder. Toni is likable and in a position completely different from any other character. This plot line could’ve been so interesting, but yet again, Mad Men chose not to go there.
The ending of the first episode of season 5 suggests that may change this season—at least a little. I hope it does. The majority of television shows have centered on straight, White, financially stable folks for over eighty years. Isn’t it time to change the channels?
It could be like the 90s. Or better.