***Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen Seasons 3 and 4 of Mad Men***
Mad Men has built up quite a following over the course of its first four seasons. And why shouldn’t it? It’s about the drama that permeates the private lives of the rich and absurdly attractive. (Sound familiar?) We love the stories with the backdrop of the 60s – a racy, yet somehow simpler time. We follow the characters – devilish or not, they’re hot. But the critical acclaim that the show gets is a byproduct of its depth of themes, and it’s as much about the ascension of African Americans as anything else. Who better to tell that story than Blacks themselves?
Now, I must apologize, dear reader, for having to focus a lot of my attention on Season 2 and on the character who was in the running for “Biggest Douche on the Show,” Paul Kinsey, because he, in exercising his exceptional talents for douchebaggery (Yeah, you can use that), spends the bulk of his bearded face time in that season with Sheila, his black girlfriend. Kinsey’s body is such a safe haven for douche that when the partners ditch the Brit-owned office at the end of Season 3, Draper and Co. leave him behind. Shit, they even bring Pete “I Knock Chicks Who Aren’t My Wife Up” Campbell with them!
But I digress.
One of the opening scenes of the Season 2 premiere quickly establishes African Americans as potential narrators, sympathetic figures, even voices of reason. Joan is trying to decide where in the office to put the tremendous new copy machine. In front of the black delivery guys, she seeks the counsel of the girls, with Kinsey, shoehorning himself into the conversation as well. After Paul humanely exits the shot, Joan turns her attention to one of the men charged with setting up the monstrosity. He kindly, sincerely says, propelling blacks into a positive light, “I’ll try as many places as you want.” And throughout the series, African Americans like him are looming in the background, performing their service work without any complaints or grudge.
We see maids, floor buffers, and, quite prominently, elevator operators. In the same episode, Don Draper is in an elevator with the operator and two other white guys from some other office, who are having a nasty talk about recent female conquests. They continue even when an older woman gets on, but Don breaks it up by telling one of the jerks to take his hat off. The elevator operator certainly couldn’t stand up to the white men due to his status, so Don’s the hero here; however, the black man has born witness to the impure side of the white, dominant race. Much of the same occurs at the 30-minute mark of Episode 6 when Pete Campbell, while riding an elevator with his wedding band prominently displayed, irrefutably hits on a blond model who was at Sterling/Cooper, hoping to get ad work. Half of the operator’s body is in the shot, as if to point out that blacks are always present, but not entirely noticed – nor appreciated. As Pete and the blond leave, the operator is back in the shot, eyeballing each. The next scene is of Pete laying the girl, taking advantage of the notion that he could get her a job. Again, we have been privy to what a black man has seen and we don’t like it.
Kinsey, the Douche of Montclair throws a house-warming party for himself in the opening scene of Episode 2. (On the way in, Campbell’s wife gives an example of her likability when she says to Pete, “I have no problem with Negroes, I’m just worried about the car.” M-hm.) In a desperate ploy to sell to his own friends and coworkers the façade of someone with stellar depth of character, Kinsey has moved outside of Manhattan, grown a new beard, and has taken up smoking a pipe. Worst of all, we see him simply use Sheila as a billboard for his apparent counterculture affiliation. In introducing her to Joan, Paul calls her his “baby,” and I do believe I heard an ever-so-slight hint of a put on “black-cent” there too. To prove her worthwhile of his time, this monger of douche is compelled to promote the fact that Sheila is “saving for school” while working as a grocery-store checkout girl. Joan offends Sheila by saying that she was surprised that Paul was so “open-minded,” but in another example of self-restraint, the black woman only retorts with a compliment of Joan’s purse.
Later in the season, the 9-minute mark of Episode 10 to be exact, Kinsey tells Sheila in the middle of the office that he is going to put off going to Mississippi to register new, black voters with her because he has to go to Los Angeles for a “convention,” saying that he’d rather be “yelled at and maybe shot at” after he goes to California. In trying to smooth things over, Paul walks Sheila into the famous elevator and is greeted by the black operator with: “Hello, Mr. Kinsey.” Without skipping a beat and in quite an earnest tone, El Douché de Leche says, “Hollis, please; it’s Paul,” as if he’s told him a thousand fucking times. Then, Paul goes out of his way to introduce Sheila as his “girlfriend” to Hollis. Hollis has never heard Mr. Kinsey, or anyone else for that matter, implore him to use a first name in addressing a passenger. But he graciously nods his head and smiles, going along with the rouse. Then, Hollis is lucky enough to hear Sheila give it back to Kinsey a bit by asking him: “Did you ever really plan on going down south?” His phoniness shines here because Kinsey’s response (“Why can’t it wait?”) is coupled with him pointing out that Sheila can get a job at any supermarket, any time, but he, of course, “can’t just walk into an ad agency.” So, clearly, there is little genuine interest on Paul’s part in taking the trip.
Wonderfully enough though, Draper declares that he is traveling to California in Kinsey’s place. After a fair amount of pouting, Paul gives in and, while on a bus jammed with black protesters, we marvel as he audaciously proclaims that in advertising, “the consumer has no color.” Upon his return to Sterling/Cooper, Kinsey says, “I think we really made a difference. And it was the adventure of a lifetime.” Quickly, Krane highlights that Sheila dumped him three days into the trip. Unfortunately, but understandably so, it took heading to the deep South and a few moments of black pride to have Sheila realize Paul’s disingenuous motives and cut ties with the underhanded bigot. She is able to provide for us viewers a righteous perspective on those whites who were “involved” in the civil rights movement really for personal gain only.
Mad Men jockeys its attention between the Draper household and the Draper workplace. The black elevator operators, among others (i.e. the waiter, Cleveland, who is “trustworthy” and actually in the room with Cooper and his sister while they are discussing the sale of Sterling/Cooper to the British in Episode 12 and, much later, the gorgeous black cocktail waitress that Lane, in charge of accounting, declares his very requited love for in this last season, while the new office is going through gigantic financial woes) successfully eavesdrop and can account for all the goings-on with the two Draper offices throughout the series. This leaves Don’s personal life up for grabs. But that’s an easy one: Carla. At the end of Season Four, Betty fires the nanny of the Draper children, who has been in that position since “their birth.” That line says it all. Carla has been in the house constantly and has witnessed and heard everything. Sure she doesn’t stay with the newly single Don when he’s living in the East Village, but it doesn’t take a genius to fill in those blanks. (He was getting laid…a lot.) Carla is also the epitome of the strength of character of these black narrators in that she knows she must put up with a lot before the fast-approaching horizon of equal rights creates a wave of change in America. In other words, she minds her business, but quietly observes all of the Draper shortcomings and internal family conflicts: the drinking, the cheating, the lying, the need for psychological treatment, the pain of the divorce, and the like.
When put in the context of the 21st century, we easily grasp the irony in having a show about the coarseness of the whitewashed ad business and the lack of family values in wealthy homes being narrated by African Americans – the “have-nots” shining a grim spotlight on those who “have it all.” However, outsiders have the best perspective for judgment. Blacks weren’t second-class citizens at that time; they were third, as made evident by the obnoxious treatment of white women in the show as well. Because, to some extent, in the workplace, blacks were ignored, they could then become convenient observers of the corrupt, prevailing race.
Plenty of African Americans then were spending much of their time protesting in the streets of hypocrisy and generating momentum that would lead to the Civil Rights Bill being passed. I’d suppose that about all of them had jobs, many like those on Mad Men, and surely couldn’t constantly demonstrate. Blacks knew though that their time, the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert F. Kennedy, and Muhammad Ali, and of equality, was upon them. So, when they had to, they bit their tongues and waited patiently for guys like Paul Kinsey to find the road to irrelevancy.
***Special thanks to Stephen and Kim for helping me make this post possible.***