How ‘Mad Men’ exemplifies everything wrong with television today

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.


It does feature three female leads and occasionally features story lines that include non-White and/or non-straight characters. Like…

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.

Guest Post: The Search for NYC’s Best Shake, Part II

I have a method for finding something specific to do in New York City. I search for whatever I want to do on Google or Yelp, look at the top five results and pick one without giving it too much thought. It’s a lot like plugging your nose and jumping into the pool. I’m a toe-dipper, myself; but you guys, New York is big. If you attempt to use the toe-dip method, you will get stuck. I repeat: you will get stuck.

And so it came to pass that on my birthday morning, Devin and I found ourselves at the top-rated restaurant in Yelp’s weekday breakfast & brunch category. And Devin found himself drinking a milkshake at nine o’clock in the morning. The things that man does for the sake of science, I tell you!

Here’s his review. (Note: Dev uses a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the least and 5 being the best.)

Clinton St. Baking Company & Restaurant

While the food at Clinton Street Baking Co. was great, the shake was a bust. I’m not sure if it was cheap ice cream or skim milk (I would not go so far as to accuse them of using ice), but this shake was bland.

Devin evaluates the presentation.

FLAVOR: 2 – It’s a bad sign when the whipped cream has as much flavor as the shake.
CONSISTENCY: 3 – The menu calls it a classic extra thick shake, but it’s more like extra thick chocolate milk. Not a soup, but nothing special.
PRESENTATION: 3 – While glass is good, if you are going to use the old fashioned diner-style, you should include the steel mixing cup with the extra shake. Everybody loves a bonus.
AMBIANCE: 4 – Bustling and lots of natural light, we had a nice brunch but did have to wait 30 minutes outside for a seat.
ETHICS: – Aah…I forgot to ask.
OVERALL VALUE: 2 – At more than $6, this is not much shake with not much flavor for your money.

'No shake left unfinished!'

The time I turned twenty-three

This year I spent my birthday feeling a little out of sorts. All of my very best friends in New York gave me lovely presents and surprises, but for most of the day I was alone in this big city I am trying to call home.

I felt like I should feel lucky to have the day off on my birthday—a Tuesday, no less—and I should be happy exploring New York by myself, because I have always dreamed of living here and now I do. But the truth is, I felt lonely and overwhelmed despite my best efforts to feel otherwise.

This led to me getting upset with myself for not being happier, more thankful, more well-adjusted. It went like this: first, I got upset at myself for not feeling like a New Yorker and for wondering if I’m not cut out for this place after all. Then, I got upset at myself because isn’t living in New York and hating it the biggest cliché of all?

This emotional catch-22 lasted until I talked to a girl on her way to get a tattoo symbolic of her hometown. She told me she was moving back home after living here for a year and wanted to get something to remind her that she’d come to New York for a reason. ‘It wasn’t to live here; it was to realize how much I love home.’

Just writing that puts me at ease. When I mulled it over, I realized the reason I came to New York was to grow. I may not have a favorite restaurant or a dream job, but I am certainly learning something and striving to be a better person every day. And this is exactly what I want my life to be about.

When I think about my twenty-third birthday, I hope I’ll remember this lesson…and one of my favorite birthday parties ever. (It happened the Friday after my birthday.)

Do you want to see pictures? Okay!

Anda and Tasha helped me put up these streamers.

Most of the food and flowers came from the Union Square farmers’ market! All the drinks were sparkly.

This is my soul in cake form.

Everyone ate and talked and had fun (I hope). Some people made hats and drawings. I got to see friends I hadn’t seen in ages!

There was the traditional singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ followed by the traditional blowing out of candles.

I finally found a birthday dress the day before my party! I’ve written before about my clothing politics and am proud to report this is a vintage find. That belt, also vintage, is one of my first attempts at accessorizing. Do you want to know what the buckle is?

A horse!

Thanks to Jess and Tasha for the majority of these pictures.  Thanks to all my friends and family for a terrific birthday, overall.

Birthday dress, birthday dress (it’s the best day of the year, girl)

I don’t know about you, but birthdays are super cool in my book. I love birthday parties, birthday cakes, birthday presents, birthday songs, birthday cards, birthday wishes, and of course, birthday deals. (This restaurant once gave me an entire free meal!) I love all these things unabashedly, but my favorite birthday institution hands-down is the birthday dress. Since tomorrow is my birthday, I have to go find this year’s today. Before I do that, let’s reminisce about some of the great birthday dresses that have come before it, shall we? (Warning: this miiiiight be my most self-indulgent post ever.)

The year was 2007. The birthday was 18. The tights made the outfit. Would definitely wear this again.

2008. Turned 19 and celebrated with a party on the 19 bus in Portland. Then, Alex threw me a surprise party. The dress and the birthday were equally perfect.

2009. 20. Wish I had a better picture of this one.

2010. I turned 21 in the most ridiculous dress I could find. Would that I could wear it every day.

2011. For my 22nd, I dressed to match the decorative wagon. If Devin and I hadn't altered it, it would have had huge poofy sleeves.

In conclusion, hooray for birthdays!

My Funny Valentines

On Valentine’s Day, I got to be an extra in an ad. The ad was for a liquor, but we were actually sipping on a mixture of apple juice and coffee. (Delicious and avant-garde! Sure to be a hit at your next brunch!)

I arrived at the photo shoot and immediately liked two of my fellow extras. They were funny and gregarious! They were not too cool to talk to me! Throughout the shoot, I lamented my lack of friend-making savvy. If only I were more like my mother blah blah, etc.

Thankfully, one of the extras suggested we go to my favorite coffee shop after the shoot. When we got there, the barista took one look at me and, before I could say ‘soy latté,’ asked me if I was kristy. I am kristy, but I had no clue who he was. ‘It’s been a while…’ he trailed off, leaving me with no choice but to stammer, ‘Yeah—um—who—I don’t recognize…’

‘I’m [generic boy name with interesting spelling].’

Cue the memory montage of meeting [generic boy name with interesting spelling] at an indie rock show, being serenaded on the guitar to Elliott Smith & Bob Dylan, hearing about his passion for latté art and his dream of working at a snobby coffee shop (mission accomplished!). It all ended with him reading me a farewell letter from his Moleskin notebook at a bus stop, asking to kiss me, & yelling, ‘Miss you already!’ as I boarded the bus.
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This post written by sixteen year-old me.

I have the flu! It’s really terrible! I don’t even feel like updating my blog, cruel world! Or washing my hair! The worst part is that I’m a minimalist, so I don’t even have appropriate loungewear (read: sweatpants + sweatshirts). Super sick AND super sick of pajamas! How sorry do you feel for me right now?

In lieu of an original post this week, I’m outsourcing to sixteen year-old kristy who wrote this blog-worthy e-mail back in July of 2005.  It’s kind of spooky how little my writing style has changed since 2005. And by ‘spooky’, I mean worrisome. Thankfully, I don’t have to edit it. All I have to do is provide a little background info for you, stranger.

BACKGROUND

When I was little my grandmother moved into an apartment (#1); my aunt and her family moved into #2; and my mom and I moved into #3. There was even a time when we occupied the whole (four-apartment) building because my uncle and his family lived in #4. Now, #4 is my aunt’s office. And, obviously, my mom and I don’t live in #3 anymore. Here is a rudimentary drawing so you can get an idea of how the apartment building looks.

Those lines are stairs. All of the apartments have outside entries.

Back in 2005, my family had an elevator built for my grandmother. It had become increasingly difficult for her to walk up and down the stairs to her second-floor apartment, but she was used to her home and definitely did not want to move. At that time, the apartments were also having their plumbing fixed. The following is an e-mail I wrote to my cousin Vanessa. I took out my family’s last name because of on-line predators, duh.

STORY

Dear Vanessa,
Yesterday the most random things happened. Carol & Caren, correct me if I miss anything or mess up the course of events. Okay, here goes.

As you remember from your lovely visit to Chihuahua, our plumbing is being repaired. It turns out that some tree roots are interfering with the pipes, so we must have some trees removed.

Yesterday, all was well in the **** households. The housekeepers cooked, cleaned, and left. The engineer and builders were hard at work making the elevator. The plumbers were yet again hacking at the ground and making our home appear to be even more war-torn. And the tree cutters were adding the final touches to this gruesome scene with branches and leaves scattered amid the rubble. At Carol’s house we were all watching Gilmore Girls, Caren and I arguing over who should have to shower first, when in comes Martha, ‘UNPLUG EVERYTHING! sdakdknkanknkbnbkaffaj CABLE! TREE! kkdnaknfdkajkdjfajf UNPLUG EVERYTHING!’ We promptly obeyed, and Martha proceeded to call the Electrical Commission because somehow the tree cutters had let a huge branch fall on a wire and the wire broke and the tree was sparking and smoking and stuff. Soon after Martha called the E.C., the cops arrived to verify our claim. The sparking was getting worse, so we proceeded to call the firemen, who had already been alerted by the cops and were on their way. Only two came, an old one and a young one, which I thought was not enough because there were a lot of beautiful girls to be saved, and our beauty requires 20-30 firemen AT LEAST (this is assuming, of course, that all of them are hot). Alas, only two came and the old fireman sent the young one to do his job. He proceeded to hack at the big branch with an ax, which produced more sparks, more smoke. Finally, he tried to kick down the branch before the other branches ignited, but the bottom of his boots had metal plates and what did we learn in Science Class? That’s right, metal is a conductor. Yes, our fireman—the one who was supposed to save us—was electrocuted. Thus, we were again maidens in despair until he pulled himself together, flirted with Caren and showed her his ‘hole’ (caused by the electricity that surged through his body). The branch fell. LOTS OF SPARKS! And guess where the branch fell? THAT’S RIGHT! On a beehive, destroying their home. The poor bees had nowhere to go. They just flew around until Animal Control came and exterminated them. At this point there were about 15 to 20 neighbors watching the scene. We were worried Martha would get sued because the little fireman was electrocuted, but I guess she damsel-in-distressed her way out of it (thank goodness!). Then, the newspaper showed up to photograph the whole fiasco. Finally, the Electrical Commission arrived and repaired our electricity. So, let’s count how many non-****s were here yesterday:

1. Plumbers
2. Elevator Builders
3. Tree Cutters
4. Cops
5. Firemen
6. Animal Control
7. Newspaper
8. Electrical Commission

YEAH, it was quite a day.

Love,
kristy

If feminist giants could win the Super Bowl…

This post is brought to you by the Roman numerals. All of them.

II major things happened on the day of Super Bowl XLVI.

I. I got to hear Gloria Steinem’s voice on the telephone. All I did was listen. I didn’t actually talk to her, and it was for something really dull. Regardless, I like to be very choosy about what I put on the internet, so I won’t spill all the beans. Remember when you weren’t supposed to reveal any personal information on the worldwide web? Call me old-fashioned, but I do try to follow that MCMXCVI adage somewhat. I make exceptions for pictures of myself and long rambly stories, but STILL. I didn’t even get an e-mail with my real name in it until MMXI!

II. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl! I am not a football fan, but I am a huuuuuuuuge fan of happy New Yorkers. I happened to be on my way home when the Giants were losing, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. I figured every New Yorker gets to make one wish that’s not subway-related and wished with all my heart that the Giants would pull through and spare me from having a TV dropped on my head. Lo and behold, they did! However, I found out the next day that New Yorkers don’t get any wishes that aren’t subway-related. All you can do is swap a subway wish for something else. On Monday, my subway stop on the Upper East Side was closed, and I had to walk XX blocks in addition to the XV  I already walk as part of my regular commute. Let it be known: New York wishes don’t play.

So yes, those II things happened on the same eve, and as a result my brain was all Super Bowl-Gloria Steinem-football-feminism-hmmm. Later that night, I couldn’t help but wonder…are wimyn allowed to play in the NFL? Apparently, yes, in theory. In actuality, there are zero female players in the NFL. I did find out that all of the football players in the LFL (Lingerie Football League) are wimyn–but guess what! Even though they are wearing very little protective gear and must attempt to look conventionally attractive while playing a full-contact sport, they’re not making millions–and frankly, the whole thing reeks of Hooters-brand objectification.

Ugh. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. I thought about the fierce wimyn rugby players I know and how unjust it is that they run around hitting each other and getting concussions without even the hope of a halftime performance by Madonna or a Doritos endorsement deal. And while I staunchly oppose anyone being paid millions of dollars for anything in a society where poverty is far from being eradicated, I’m still angry that female athletes don’t earn millions just ’cause they’re not dudes. I mean, really!

Thankfully, I had Gloria Steinem on the brain and was able to rush home and read her MCMLXXVIII essay ‘If Men Could Menstruate.’ I’m reposting it here for your reading convenience. It’s hilarious and poignant, so check it out.

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