Where Are The Black Folks On “Mad Men”? Matt Weiner Explains

Forget for a second that every guest on “Charlie Rose,” a PBS news program for wonks, looks like they’re struggling to stay awake. The cast of “Mad Men” appeared last night with guest host Gayle King and she pressed the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, with a good question: where are the black folks? “As you move through time, I’m wondering will we see some black people?” Gayle asked. Matt Weiner’s response is worth a listen in its entirety.   

“Honestly, this is always considered controversial when I say it, but black people still do not have representation on Madison Ave,” Matt said, prompting Gayle to respond, “That’s not controversial. That’s true.” He continued:

I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America. … How is [integration] coming into their lives? [Black people] in the service industry, they’re in entertainment, and this is how people are experiencing civil rights, on television. Hopefully when we get to the part of the ’60s [where race is more clearly addressed on the show], you won’t have trivialized the contribution of someone like Martin Luther King. I don’t think people understand what that impact is, to have a world leader, an international figure who is  an African-American who is telling the truth and poetic — Don hears the speech, “I Have A Dream,” and he turns off the radio. It’s just a news event. They don’t even know. If I was telling a story of the black experience, it would be very different. But I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing. 

Like you see a movie about California in 1970 and you see black and white kids going to school together. Guess what? There was no integration in California public schools until, like, 1972. It’s a shameful part of our past. Guess what? It’s real.

Later on in the interview, he connects the chronology of the civil rights movement with the women’s rights movement on the show:

[Peggy says to her boyfriend Abe] “all these things that black people can’t do, I’m all for it, but women can’t do either.” And he goes [sarcastically], “That’s right, Peggy. We’ll have a march for women.” That’s not just laughing about it now. That is a very common story. The women’s rights movement, the idea that Betty or Joan is going to read [a book] and become a feminist, that is the last thing to develop. It is really far away. 

I’ve always found the criticism that “Mad Men” is somehow wrong on race because its characters of color are often “silent” or minor characters (that argument best exemplified by this post on Racialicious by the blogger LaToya Peterson) to be kind of like the condemnation of Betty Draper’s parenting. Those arguments are valid. They’re just not accurate to this particular story — which I’ve always seen as being its own condemnation.  The fact that there are few black people — just like the fact that in “The Social Network” there are few women — is the story.  The show is depicting an upper-middle class suburban white family experience in the 1960s. There was not a lot of interaction with wealthy white folks and  black folks who weren’t in the service industry. Some moms did hit their kids. We have to be aware of the nuance here: I don’t see “Mad Men” so much as white-washing the ’60s but an intentional exclusion, not an exclusion by ignorance.

I guess some people will think that Matt Weiner was making excuses for his alleged downplaying and/or erasure of pivotal moments in the black experience during the 1960s. Yet it sounds as if Matt is hinting in this clip that there is more about the civil rights movement to come, as well as the women’s movement. (Presumably the show will only focus on the white women’s movement, unless we’ll be seeing more characters of color being introduced in the show.)  I, for one, will be watching eagerly and hope he will make good on his allusion that “Mad Men” characters’ eyes are being opened.



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