Misogynists are Cads, Racists are Monsters.

Jeremy Levine and Latoya Peterson, friends of ours over at PostBourgie, are both winding their ways through the second season of “Mad Men” ahead of the coming third season premiere. (It’s about  time, y’all. Damn.)  There are articles clogging up my Google Reader ahead of the show, so I’m feeling the crush of media hype for the new season even though I don’t have a TV.

“Mad Men” is, obviously, a fantastic show (still not The Wire,” though) but I’m having a hard time figuring out if the way issues about race are generally handled really intelligently —  there’s something pretty spot-on about the fact that for these upper-middle class white businessmen and their families, black people are pretty much invisible, not worthy of much discussion or consideration — or whether that’s just a dodge.

You could read the way the writers are hedging on the main characters  racial animus  — and I’d argue they’d probablyhave to be bigots — would make them too unlikeable. The shit Don does to Betty (and every other woman on the show who isn’t Peggy) is boorish and cruel. He shoves her around. He condescends to her. He’s vicious to his mistresses, as well (notably, in that scene where he grabs his lover and forcibly shoves his hand into her vagina). By any measure, this cat is a misogynist. But this deep misogyny comes across as a necessary part of his alpha male cool. But to make  Don or Pete or any of the Sterling Cooper gang seem to be active racists and still portray them empathetically might be too difficult a needle to thread, because we still tend to think of racists as unambiguously evil and morally bankrupt.

(x-posted)

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38 Responses

  1. plipplop
    plipplop August 4, 2009 at 3:44 pm |

    I think you could argue that the effectiveness and popularity of mad men lies in the way it shows something from the 60s that isn’t centered on the cold war, civil rights or woodstock/cultural revolution. each of those issues comes up in subplots, but I think a lot of good can come from illustrating the struggles of women in what is considered a modern era — it’s encouraging (if the show’s accurate, we’ve come a looong way), and great for raising awareness on lingering women’s issues in the workplace.

  2. Sarah TX
    Sarah TX August 4, 2009 at 3:46 pm |

    Some blogger somewhere made a point that often, the black characters are portrayed as more knowing and observant than the white characters, precisely because they are excluded. I’m thinking of the attendant who operates the elevator in the Sterling-Cooper building, for example.

    I don’t really know what I think about it, and I think there certainly have been some places where the writers stepped back from overtly racist behavior (when it seems like they go all-out on the sexism).

  3. Caro
    Caro August 4, 2009 at 4:00 pm |

    I would agree that they often downplay the racism of the time period in comparision to their more frank portrayal of misogyny… though I think that racial dynamics are portrayed in other ways that the writers must figure won’t automatically make viewers reject the main characters, but will remind them of the racial world they live in as white people in the 1960s. I think of the characters’ racially-charged interactions with Hollis the elevator operator, the Drapers’ housekeeper Carla, and of course Paul’s girlfriend Sheila. A scene that particularly sticks out in my mind is when little Sally Draper is in the Sterling Cooper offices, sees the picture of Sheila on Paul’s desk, and asks him, “Is she your maid?”

  4. laurenamillion
    laurenamillion August 4, 2009 at 4:07 pm |

    I totally agree with this post. One reason I think the men on mad men can be seen as complex rather than evil despite intense misogyny is that the viewer is meant to understand that the misogynists on the show are deeply unhappy due to the pressure to conform to gender expectations and thwarted privilege – it’s a “Patriarchy hurts men too” thing that helps the viewer forgive the misogyny a bit. Their behavior isn’t justified, but the viewer is meant to realize that everyone is getting fucked by the system.

    On the other hand, there is no way it is remotely plausible to believe that “racism hurts white people too” – that statement is completely nonsensical. The white people on the show are 100% benefiting from their white privilege, entirely at the expense of people of color. There is no way to identify with their racism, understand it, or forgive it from the viewer’s standpoint. I do wish Mad Men would explore it more, because I’ve been realizing more and more that the people on this show are my grandparents and my grandparents’ generation, and they have some serious racism going on there.

  5. sam
    sam August 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm |

    I think a lot of this is going to come to a head this season (I hope), as it is rumored that it will take place in 1963, which was really the “beginning” of what we think of as “the 60s”. 1963 is when Kennedy was shot, Betty Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique, and Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington. A lot of the characters’ latent feelings about a whole host of issues are bound to be addressed in a way that they could be swept under the rug in seasons past (not unlike reality).

  6. Seamus MacDhai
    Seamus MacDhai August 4, 2009 at 4:52 pm |

    Racists aren’t sexy.

    Whereas if Don Draper is anything to go by, Mad Men’s female demographic – I’m presuming, 18-50, better-than-average education, culturally-clued-in – respond rather favorably to devilishly handsome misogynists.

    The guy is a sex symbol.

    I severely doubt any modern woman is going to get an illicit thrill from racist sentiments, but there’s more a few female Sunday supplement writers who’ve espoused at great length about the guilty pleasures of admiring this unreconstructed, well-dressed brute.

  7. Amanda Marcotte
    Amanda Marcotte August 4, 2009 at 5:00 pm |

    I think you’re right that the class, race, and geography of the characters would indicate people that are casually but not aggressively racist. These aren’t Southern whites screaming about segregation, but Northerners who probably think they aren’t racist, but of course live in all white enclaves and simply ignore the issue. That was really common at the time, even and especially amongst Republicans, some of whom even took the initiative in the era to push back against segregation.

  8. Amanda Marcotte
    Amanda Marcotte August 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm |

    Also, I figured it would be in 1963, because they jumped a year and a half between season 1 and 2. Smart move. Even the fast moving 60s didn’t move so fast that a year a season would be interesting.

  9. Jeremy
    Jeremy August 4, 2009 at 6:39 pm |

    I think the racial references are sometimes there, but subtle. For example, the very first scene of the series shows Don conversing with a black waitor, to which a white waitor immediately came over to see if there was “any trouble.” From my reading thus far, it seems like Don and the rest of them are so isolated–socially and spatially–from people of color that they just don’t fit into their everyday realities. And remember, an astonishingly LITTLE actually happens on the show; it’s more about their everyday lives. By the late 50s-early 60s, challenges to residential segregation were declining after pronounced violence, and racial restrictions in housing deeds were outlawed (because they became obsolete), and the Second Great Migration of blacks to Northern industrial cities was slowing down. Given the fact that the Drapers live in the burbs, it just literally seems like blacks weren’t around. If anything, I think the show is actually accurately portraying their class privilege (they never felt inclined to defend their neighborhood or schools, fearing a “black invasion”), and also accurately portraying how they viewed the world.

  10. little light
    little light August 4, 2009 at 7:21 pm |

    because we still tend to think of racists as unambiguously evil and morally bankrupt.

    Really? Did you really just pull the “you can’t get away with racism any more, but we’re still dealing with misogyny” thing that’s been shot down here a million times? Because Andrew Jackson is still on the ten-dollar bill, plenty of folks go rah-rah for the Minutemen, and–

    Look, I was totally with you up until this point, but I think if you asked the average person of color whether or not we see racists as “unambiguously evil” we’d mostly say no. We deal with racists every day, every hour, and many of them are friends, co-workers, family, bureaucrats we need to go through to get healthcare, public safety workers…and we deal with it, and know that things are messy and complicated. US history classes still lionize and applaud colonialists, slaveowners, and genocidal killers while making excuses for their racism all the while. We’re still taught to applaud modern colonialism and to Support the very same Troops who popularized that ‘Hajji Girl’ song. Maybe that’s invisible to a lot of people. I imagine it is.
    But my white father’s parents, who have made incredibly racist statements many times, aren’t unambiguously evil, and they’re much more ingrained in their racism than their misogyny. And neither is my father, who speaks to brown people he’s not related to as though they won’t know English well and is sort of a Zionist to boot.

    The racism I deal with every day doesn’t come from unambiguously evil people. It comes from regular people and yes, it still goes on. Now, you might argue that admitting that about “regular” people like those portrayed on “Mad Men” might make a lot of audiences uncomfortable, but that’s not because they excuse misogyny as a period character trait while roundly condemning racism even in a historical context as an unforgivable horror, because frankly, they don’t.

  11. Drakyn
    Drakyn August 4, 2009 at 8:16 pm |

    I just want to give support to LL’s comment; she always says the things I don’t have the words to say.

  12. GallingGalla
    GallingGalla August 4, 2009 at 9:30 pm |

    i’m also chiming in to support LL’s comment.

  13. Nick
    Nick August 4, 2009 at 11:45 pm |

    Little Light, though I can’t guarantee this (perhaps G.D. can clarify for us?), I don’t think the intended message of the OP was that “you can’t get away with racism anymore, but we’re still dealing with misogyny.” Now, mind you, I haven’t watched Mad Men, and I’m not the OP, but while I was reading about this post I was thinking of “blatant” acts of racism and misogyny, rather than more subtle ones. (I am definitely not saying that “subtle” racism is subtle for everyone, or that it is more excusable if it’s subtle.) What I do think is this:

    The misogyny on the show, from what people are saying, seems to be fairly blatant. To simplify the meaning of “blatant” in this context, I’m referring to things like verbal and physical abuse toward women because they are women. I’m sure there’s more “subtle” misogyny, too (again, I haven’t seen the show), such as women being barred from certain jobs and hierarchical positions even if we don’t actually see such barrings as they happen. I get the message from these comments that similarly “subtle” racism exists as well–it’s not excusable, but it’s not in-your-face to the average white American who considers him or herself “not racist.” No show about the ’60s–or any kind of “real life” in America that doesn’t take place in a vacuum–would be complete without including these tropes.

    But here is my point: This Don Draper character seems to be committing “blatant” acts of misogyny on the show, and he’s still likable–a sex symbol, even, apparently. But if he were to commit “blatant” acts of racism on the show–that is, hurling epithets at POC or committing physical acts of violence against them–there’s no way he could still be a hero. He’d be called more than a “brute” (which doesn’t detract from his sexiness), for sure.

    Am I saying that “blatant” misogyny is worse than “subtle” racism? No; I don’t think the two should be compared. Nor am I trying to imply that we live in a post-racist society. I simply think that the descriptions of this show that I have read thus far suggest that these protagonists can get away with a lot more gender-based epithets and violence than they could racially-based epithets and violence while still being “the good guys.” I don’t think that’s because Americans are more aware of racism than misogyny; it’s got to be something else. (What?)

    I can’t help but wonder if some of it has to do with kind of a collective self-back-patting kind of thinking by non-POC (“Slavery is bad! The KKK is bad! As long as I don’t support stuff like that I’m not a racist!”) that labels “blatant” racists by their acts (again, Don Draper couldn’t slap a POC around while calling them the n-word and still be a “good guy”), while a “good guy” could still slap a woman around and call her a bitch. (The very fact that the n-word is so taboo in mainstream white society (even among plenty of people who lock their car doors in black neighborhoods or aren’t comfortable with a president with a “Muslim-sounding” name), while “bitch” is not, generally speaking, very restricted.

  14. Nick
    Nick August 4, 2009 at 11:50 pm |

    I just wanted to add to my last comment that I think, regardless of people’s position on it, violence by white people against POC is generally perceived as more obviously racially-motivated than violence by men against women is perceived as gender-motivated.

  15. Katie
    Katie August 4, 2009 at 11:56 pm |

    Hear hear, little light.

    There’s plenty of racism on TV that people aren’t deeming “unambiguously evil.” I smell Oppression Olympics.

  16. shah8
    shah8 August 5, 2009 at 12:38 am |

    Even in the early 1960s, in one of the cities least affected by white flight at the time, there was still a considerable racial turmoil in NYC. There were *very* few heavily populated places that didn’t have racial turmoil into the late 70s…

    And I completely disagree with Laurenamillion’s second paragraph, but then I’m known as a big advocate of the racism hurts white people too. People, people only give privileges when they can expect more than what the privilege costs.

  17. little light
    little light August 5, 2009 at 12:43 am |

    Okay, G.D., I think I see better where you’re coming from, here, and your perspective makes sense to me. I think we don’t quite match up on some of the details, but I respect what you’re saying and I think I see the distinction you’re making.
    I think part of my perspective comes from growing up in a rural, almost-all-white area where casual racism was kind of constant, in a way that might be seen as the “blatant” kind elsewhere but was considered “subtle” there just for not being murderous. There were plenty of white women around to argue their cases, but almost no people of color around to argue theirs. That probably colors my perception of these issues.
    One thing I’ve wondered about “Mad Men”–because I noticed the dynamic you did, too, that they specifically highlight personal and institutional misogyny and sexism, and do less work to emphasize the racism going on–is whether or not they have people of color on the writing staff. I can see the writers getting excited about spotlighting the sexism of the era, making it really there instead of leaving it out–they do a good job, by my lights–and listening to, say, white women on the staff, and then putting in references to racism as best white people can without consulting writers of color. So they pat themselves on the back for portraying sexism and racism, but their intent was to focus on the sexism first and they just neglected the race angles. It’s just speculation, but it’s been a theory of mine.

  18. little light
    little light August 5, 2009 at 12:46 am |

    Honestly, G.D., I think I probably reacted extra-poorly to you, with less benefit of the doubt, because of your last post and your response to the criticism. Maybe we could talk about that some time, and clear that up.

  19. little light
    little light August 5, 2009 at 2:14 am |

    That makes sense, G.D. I think I was most surprised that it vanished without warning or explanation–it read to me as trying to hide mistakes, rather than be accountable, like being criticized was so upsetting that the whole thing had to be stricken from the record rather than respond to what was being said–but I see your reasoning. While I might have preferred an editing of the post with the conversation preserved to show both accountability and a willingness to respond to criticism, it seems like that’s what you were trying to pursue and it seems obvious you know where you went wrong. I just wish there had been more of a chance to discuss things without the whole conversation disappearing.
    If you’d like some starting places for self-education, I’d be happy to hook you up.

  20. Donna
    Donna August 5, 2009 at 2:16 am |

    First I have to say that I have never watched Mad Men and am only going by what I have heard from other people. I’m thinking this may have to do with class too. My understanding is that the show is about upper class/upper middle class and those aspiring to the upper classes, no? Anyway, if this is true than there is the idea that the upper classes are less racist, because being racist is viewed as unsophisticated and ignorant…low class. People think of Archie Bunker who is working class, when they think of northern racism. (That’s another major tv character written as racist that you missed in your comment, and he wasn’t written as irredeemable or evil.) This may account for some of the reason why the show is not highlighting the racism of the 60s as well as the sexism/misogyny.

    I also agree that they are showing some racism, by not having black/latino/etc characters. Northerners do exhibit racism through gated communities and suburbs where other races and ethnicities are excluded. The same goes for the work place, a black man wouldn’t be hired because of the racist idea that he can’t possibly be smart enough or work hard enough compared to a white man, so he would only get a job like elevator operator. I do think that was a reality in the 60s with black people only “qualified” to do blue collar or menial jobs.

  21. Amanda Marcotte
    Amanda Marcotte August 5, 2009 at 8:23 am |

    But when that period is discussed in the broader culture, it’s normally presented as Bull Connor on horseback or George Wallace’s standing athwart the entrance at the U. of Alabama. You know, villains.

    I’d argue that the show is trying to argue that this dichotomy was already in existence for the people in this particular subculture. These are exactly the people who first tried to distinguish themselves from Those White People by avoiding the move overt name-calling. In fact, the show alludes to this pretty directly, in the scene where Paul introduces his black girlfriend to Joan, and Joan reaches into her pocket and pulls out the race-baiting card by taunting her ex’s new girlfriend with the, “Oh he thinks he’s so open-minded” crap. The racism is there, no doubt, but the characters are supposed to be wannabe writers, creative people—they listen to jazz, read modern novels, and are absolutely hip to the idea that overt racism is unacceptable. Unless they’re lashing out, like Joan is.

    You definitely get this sense when it comes to the Jewish character from the first season. They both a) show that no Jews work in the top floor of Sterling Cooper and b) that the people who do work on the top floor of Sterling Cooper would rather die than say anything overtly anti-Semitic. When it comes to POC, you have the same situations, repeatedly. Main characters are shown trying to be less racist, but failing miserably.

    There is potential cowardice in the fact that there aren’t more POC in hefty roles, forcing more awkward interactions. Then again, the show is trying to really show how marginalized anyone who wasn’t a WASP was in that world. This extends even to Don Draper, who is merely pretending to be a WASP to have access to that world.

    Weiner clearly needs to write a similar show taking place in the South, but then again, you write what you know, and he knows the mid-Atlantic area best, it appears.

  22. Amanda Marcotte
    Amanda Marcotte August 5, 2009 at 8:25 am |

    Oh yeah, they also collect modern art, read Beat poetry, and read works of 20th century philosophy, and I suspect we’re going to get references to art house movie theaters before too long.

  23. RMJ
    RMJ August 5, 2009 at 8:45 am |

    Before I get into adding content, I have to take a second to applaud the conversation that LL and GD are having. Well considered, intelligent, and calm on both parts – bravo.

    I think the violence distinction is important here. One perspective that I think has been left out in this conversation is that of anti-semitism – it’s not a common topic of conversation (that I can see – there’s only 14 entries here) in feminist blogs, but it’s frequently and virulently displayed in Mad Men, particularly in season 1 when Don has an affair with a Jewish client and handles an ad campaign for tourism in Israel. That’s how race began to creep in in the time period we’ve seen thus far – POC were literally erased, but Jewish people were beginning to encroach upon their privilege.

    Since I’m not Jewish, I may be reading this wrong – apologies if I”ve made a mis-step.

  24. Jen
    Jen August 5, 2009 at 9:46 am |

    I think you may have missed the anti-semitism that was central to the plot of the first season in your assessment of racism in Mad Men. That was pretty front and center in most episodes. You are instead, I believe, talking about racism against people of colour specifically? I don’t think that its inclusion or exclusion was really a strategic attempt to avoid losing sympathy, but simply the writers being historically accurate. The men of Mad Men interact with woman far more often than their interact with people of colour, but when they do interact with people of colour their racism is no less heinous than their misogyny.

  25. Kaija
    Kaija August 5, 2009 at 10:47 am |

    I think one of the strengths of the show is how the issues of sexism and racism are clearly a driving undercurrent in the lives of the characters, though it’s subtle and unstated, shown not described, so that it’s a powerful subtext instead of a we’re-going-to-beat-the-viewer-over-the-head-with-this obviousness (that approach is why I HATED the movie “Crash”, which I thought was a crude attempt to pat white people on the head for their “awareness” that (gasp) racial issues and bigotry exist in modern America).

    I agree that the sexism is more emphasized than racism, but probably because of many of the reasons mentioned by the previous comments (love the discussion, BTW) and that the very subtlety may escape some of your usual TV-watching population, but I for one am glad that there is this kind of stuff to watch as an antidote to the “Everybody Loves Raymond” and other crap. But then again, I love subtext and things that make me think/analyze/reflect as well as entertain me.

    I just bought the first two seasons on DVD and will have a friend record the season three episodes for me since I don’t have cable/watch TV :)

  26. killjoy
    killjoy August 5, 2009 at 1:31 pm |

    Actually, the white characters on MM interact with black people pretty regularly, but in an extremely superficial and hierarchical way. The elevator attendant whom most of them just ignore (Pete insults him once, and Paul tries to be buddy-buddy with him when Sheila, Paul’s black girlfriend, is there), the people serving food at the office food cart, the janitors, etc., are all black. But because almost none of these characters are given names or backstories, perhaps the MM writers inadvertently encourage white viewers to objectify them the way the white characters do?

    I’m reminded of the scene where oh-so-liberal Paul is taking a bus down to the South to participate in a civil rights demonstration with Sheila, and he sits there and lectures a bus (on which he is the only white person) about how consumerism and advertising will bring about racial equality, the dollar has no colour, blah, blah, blah. The black passengers just sit there, obviously unimpressed, but not saying anything.

  27. Katie
    Katie August 5, 2009 at 8:34 pm |

    G.D. -

    My take on your piece was mostly a reaction to the very last line. I don’t think we do consider racists to be evil and immoral, given the amount of racism I see on TV and various famous folk who do racist things and are slapped on the wrist. I think maybe we’re not arguing the same point though, and perhaps it’s moot!

  28. sally
    sally August 5, 2009 at 8:56 pm |

    Given the last presidental election, if you called Hillary any number of words, it was okay in the media and that person could still be considered to be thoughtful and get airtime. If you called Obama the n-word, you’d probably lose your job (unless you were Jessie Jackson, who actually did this when he thought his mike was off). There are still racist people now and they push that load where they can, but there are lines that won’t be crossed because of some standard of taste.

    We’ve seen radio personalities punished for being racist. Sexist? Not so much. Somehow sexism is not as ugly as racism. Women, I guess, they feel kinda sorta deserve it. Many people don’t think a person of another race can take anything from them, so they don’t hate them. But still, the patriarchy’s men and women are giving women the side eye for even thinking about taking.

    They ARE dancing around the issue, because sexism is nearly a fetish in the show. But the sexy secretary had a life of her own and a retirement to think about in real life. It was not a pleasure to be under someone’s thumb in pumps. The power issues have an element of sexual tension to them in the fake TV drama but racism – not so sexy. Could you imagine a science fiction show where women played the male characters and the men the women? What a man-hating show it would be called.

    Certainly, in the times, a black, hispanic, asian, woman or even as was mentioned, a Jew would be mocked as soon as they left a room. Even divorced people were considered oddities and even dangerous socially. On the other hand, a Catholic had an issue getting to the white house because he might be too religious.

  29. Nick
    Nick August 6, 2009 at 1:03 am |

    What G.D. said in comment 17: When TV characters are written as racist, it’s usually as shorthand: you’re not supposed to like this person. and pretty much everything Sally said in comment 31 are what I was trying to get at in my overlong initial comment.

  30. Deborah Lipp
    Deborah Lipp August 6, 2009 at 10:13 am |

    We’ve spent a lot of time discussing racism and sexism at Basket of Kisses. Is Don a misogynist? How much of a misogynist? How much violence is in the Draper marriage? How do we place the racism and sexism in context of the times?

    With racism, again, how racist was what Joan said to Sheila, and how much was she using race as a handy bludgeon, that could easily be anything else, to get back at her ex? And does it matter? How much are Carla, Violet, and Hollis Magical Negroes instead of people?

    I have been surprised at how many regular Basketcases (hey! Shakesville has Shakers, Pandagon has Pandagonians, we have Basketcases) are people of color, considering how many complaints there are out there about how white Mad Men is. I had one troll (we’ve banned very few people, but this guy was sent bye-bye) who sneered at a “bunch of white people” talking about race (he was a Superior Liberal type). In fact, as a looked at the comment thread, about a third of the commenters were people I knew to be African-American (and truly, how could he tell one way or another?).

    One aspect of the show that’s interesting is how Don relates to blacks, which I wrote about here: http://www.lippsisters.com/2008/10/04/dons-relationship-to-blacks/

  31. Deborah Lipp
    Deborah Lipp August 6, 2009 at 10:15 am |

    killjoy, just to be nitpicky, Paul is not the only white person on that bus. Just the only one pontificating like the pompous ass he is.

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