Over at Capital New York, Steven Boone complains that the acclaimed series Mad Men, described as “Roots for white people”, is too limited in its appeal:
I’m not sure ‘Mad Men’ is just ‘for white people,’ but it hasn’t meant anything to me. The party, in fact, represented the first time I watched a complete ‘Mad Men’ episode, despite all I’ve heard about the show from my critic friends.
Like Boone, I grew up seeing white as a default for human. Too young to give much thought to how or why the life of a white man (rich or otherwise) might differ from my own, I happily imagined myself dining with the Carringtons, solving crimes with Simon and Simon and even taking some sweet jumps with the Duke boys (I can’t begin to describe what I felt when I found out what the stars and bars on the General Lee represented—or, for that matter, who it was named for).
I did feel the need to correct for gender in my fantasies—I always imagined myself as a female version of the character, still oblivious to how my race or gender might interfere with making my fantasy a reality. That gender was a bigger obstacle to my identification with my favorite characters than race may explain in part why it’s easier for me to find a point of entry into Mad Men than for Boone. The show feels less like Roots for White People to me than Roots for Women: the story of where we were and how got here from there. My strongest sensation watching the first few episodes was a desire to go find Gloria Steinem and kiss her on the mouth.
But, setting aside the show’s knack for handling gender, I think viewing its characters as somehow beyond the reach or concern of black viewers gives too little credit to both the viewers and the richness of the writing.
Boone singles out the long-suffering Betty Draper as an example of the disconnect:
Money and status seem to be on the line in nearly every encounter. The direction and music seemed designed to convey that nothing is sadder than being overweight and shoved to the margins of the rat race. Betty is living through the aftermath of a divorce and a cancer scare, sure, but the fact that she can’t suffer these misfortunes in style, like Jackie O strutting down Madison Avenue, compounds the tragedy…The ultimate nightmare for these folks is to lose the lifestyle that government and industry have sold to them since the end of World War II, as the (White) American Dream, the one that Don sells for a living. Their greatest unspoken fear is to go to the dogs, the dogs being, well, the redlined, depressed neighborhoods where I come from.
Unlike virtually every other Mad Men fan I’ve ever spoken to, I have a soft spot for Betty Draper. More than any other character, she strikes me as a creature entirely of someone else’s making, lacking even the most basic resources (e.g., self-awareness and imagination) required to move beyond her shortcomings. When we first met Betty Draper, she was already a miserable person, she just didn’t know it yet. Since discovering her own misery, she has collapsed into an unattractive pile of binge-eating and petty grievances. The collapse has only served to make her more alone, as the weight-gain divides her from her social circle and the pettiness has divided her from everyone else, including her daughter.
Nothing in that description of Betty’s sadness is particular to being a wealthy, pretty white woman in the suburbs in the 1960s. Those characteristics supply the particulars of Betty’s problems, but the problems themselves—what happens when you go out into the world and discover it has little or nothing in common with your imaginings of it—is something we’ve all experienced, if in a much less dramatic fashion. Being born rich and white and pretty does nothing to protect you from quiet desperation, and it follows that a rich, white pretty character, written well, can be as compelling an example of universal themes as any other.
I would also argue that money and status is on the line in nearly every encounter for all of us. In every corner of the world, no matter how destitute, there is hierarchy and there is reputation. People everywhere twist themselves in knots to keep up appearances, to convince their peers that they are a certain kind of person and not some other kind. Being perceived as something less than what you are, or what you aspire to be, is painful for all of us, regardless of where we come from.
As Ralph Ellison explained when asked how black writers could “escape provincialism” when writing from the perspective of a minority:
All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel–and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?–is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
That said, Mad Men’s appeal is as much about particulars as it is about universal themes. Boone suggests that the Drapers might benefit from a few episodes overseen by Quentin Tarantino, “a product of multi-ethnic working class neighborhoods in L.A.” I think the suggestion is an interesting one for a different reason. Tarantino’s films are always ultimately about the technique of filmmaking, the absolute power a director wields in manipulating our emotions and attention through a particular camera angle or cast of light combined with just the right choice of music.
Manipulating viewers’ emotions is, of course, Don Draper’s bread and butter, a fact demonstrated nicely by the floor wax western for which Draper won an award last season. Tarantino is particularly obsessed with the 70s golden age of film, works created by men Don Draper’s age, or slightly younger. I think Tarantino is as likely to pick Draper’s brain about character as he is to mock him.
That Mad Men depicts a time and place that, among other things, set the stage for Quentin Tarantino, is a clue to part of what makes it compelling. While my later awareness of race, class and gender may have alienated me from certain characters, I still watched and learned from them. They still serve as reference points for important moments in my own development and were an important source of information (or, sometimes, misinformation) about what I could expect my life to look like.
Mad Men has recreated the world that was an essential ingredient in the creation of those characters. At its best, the show gives us a glimpse of the last days of a way of life that was torn apart in order to create the current one. As such, it has something to say about the forces that shaped and continue to shape us all.