It’s a Mad Mad World

Posted on September 26, 2010

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Cast of Mad Men

The Grio has an interesting article by Geneva S. Thomas of Clutch Magazine on AMC’s popular series Mad Men and the lack of diversity on the show. Here’s an excerpt:

“Sometimes it’s really not about us.

Recent commentary surrounding the absence of black people on the 1960s based AMC dramatic series Mad Men makes for a fascinating discussion around the need for black representation versus black entitlement. Why must every narrative, whether it’s a film or TV show, include us?

Several outlets like Black Girl Blogging and even our friends over at The Root have opened up critical discussions around the treatment of race on the hit television show. While Mad Men‘s third season is based in a civil rights-era New York, Don Draper and company seems to dance around the very present racial upheaval in America.”  http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/where-are-the-black-people-on-mad-men.php

 

 

I really like her phrase “Don Draper and company seem to dance around the very present racial upheaval in America.”

Dancing is exactly what they’re doing. The creators of Mad Men have been marketing the series primarily to white viewers, and for whatever reason they’ve not embraced the diverse fanbase of minorities who also watch the show. It may not be so much about entitlement as Ms. Thomas suggests, but of  individuals seeking some sort of acknowledgement that they too were around back in the 60s.

If you grew up during the 1960s then you know that racial upheaval and the civil rights movement weren’t something even Madison Avenue could shrug off. Though America resisted, kicking and screaming most of the way, the country did change. So a show like Mad Men, while relishing certain aspects of the past like high heels, cocktail dresses, and the male as breadwinner seems to be telling the viewing audience they don’t do race, ’cause that’s a whole ‘nother story they just can’t polish and package for AMC.

 

Dancing Around Racial Upheaval in America

It’s important to note that while Mad Men and The Help are set in the 1960s, and with Mad Men going further into the era, diversity behind the scenes will always play an important part in whether the viewer will see diverse characters on the screen or in a novel. But what’s also crucial is that the person of color on the screen isn’t a stereotype. And I believe what has happened with both these vehicles, is that one refuses to touch the subject, while the other did. But with the distortions in Stockett’s The Help, the question is whether its better to have a “token” character, or none at all.

But then, why is it such a problem in this day and age for some white writers to create a fully fleshed out minority character?

And why do many talented, capable writers fall back on known stereotypes?

In the case of Mad Men, since the series deals with an ad agency, there may be a reluctance to include an African American character because advertisers weren’t readily marketing to African Americans. But that doesn’t mean there were no ads using black models to sell products, and targeting black consumers. As proof, here are scans from Ebony Magazine, circa 1960:

 

Truth in Advertising

Bulova Watches circa 1960, in Ebony Magazine. Scanned by Vieilles Annonces

 

 

 

Jesse Owens for White Owl Cigars from Ebony Magazine. Scanned by Vieilles Annonces

 

  

  

Schlitz Beer ad from Ebony Magazine. Scanned by Vieilles Annonces

 
 
You can find more info on Ms. Vieilles Annonces here: http://www.flickr.com/people/vieilles_annonces/

I hope she doesn’t mind me using these ads for this blog. Because I think it’s important that people know just how diverse African Americans lived and looked, even under segregation. These are ads from the 1960s, so the point is, if the creators of Mad Men wanted to include African American business on their show, there is actual evidence that some well established companies did market to blacks, and used black celebrities often times to do so.

 

Pepsi Ad from 1960’s Ebony Magazine. Scanned by Vieilles Annonces

 

 

 

In the book “Black is the New Green”  by Leonard E. Burnett Jr. and Andrea Hoffman, marketing to affluent and middle class African Americans during the 60s and 70s is researched.

Black is the New Green Cover

I found an excerpt online from Chapter 2 of the book, and a link to the full section is provided:

 Through the decades, though Blacks were targeted by advertisers, and there were some Black faces in print and television ads, the people who created those ads were rarely themselves Black. In fact, there was a time when it was so rare to find an African American in an executive position in an advertising agency that the 1970 movie Putney Swope – tagged as “the truth and soul movie” – featured a comedic storyline about an advertising firm that accidentally voted in the Black partner as the new head of the company. In real life, of course, things weren’t quite that comical. The late Vince Cullers of Chicago launched the first Black advertising agency in 1956, while Luis Diaz Albertini founded the first Latino shop, Spanish Advertising and Marketing Services, in 1962 to attempt to both appeal to these minority segments as well as improve the images that represented them in the mass media. Jason Chambers, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, tells the inside story of the history of Blacks in the ad business in his book, Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry. He writes that Blacks in advertising in the early days of the 1960s and 1970s saw themselves as having a “dual responsibility” to their clients to sell products to the Black community while working to change its often negative image. “Their lowly status in advertisements confirmed their economic disenfranchisement, just as violence and Jim Crow laws confirmed their political disenfranchisement,” Chambers wrote, but “getting to that point . . . first required getting white-owned companies to recognize the black consumer market.”

http://www.aef.com/on_campus/classroom/book_excerpts/data/1003

 

 

Diversity among African Americans was, and still is a fact

The point is, when depicting a culture, its important to research that culture and not just go by memory. Which Stockett apparently did and admits to doing. One black person, which was her maid Demetrie, does not and should not represent the depiction of many individuals of the black culture. That’s probably why Stockett ended up falling back on old stereotypes.

Much like the author herself, the character of Skeeter is considered a heroine, simply because she’s able to be in the presence of several African American females while recording their memories, which then enables her to get a brand new job in the big city (or in Stockett’s case, a best selling novel). I go more into why I can’t give Skeeter a pass in this blog post Is Skeeter almost too good, or just good at being two faced?

But really,  in The Help I feel segregation was just a means to an end, or a plot device. Much like Gone With the Wind told the love story of Scarlett and Rhett amid the backdrop of the Civil War, Skeeter and her pals were introduced via the backdrop of Segregation and Civil Rights.

That’s also the reason I don’t feel Stockett was the right author, especially since she promoted the book as if it  truly were about the black domestics who suffered almost daily abuse under a system that devalued their worth. Not only that, but she’s helped resurrect caricatures of the only roles African Americans were allowed to play in the older, racially exclusive Hollywood.

Aibileen is no different from Delilah, played by Louise Beavers in the first version of Imitation of Life though the real star was Claudette Colbert, and Annie, played by Juanita Moore in the second melodrama, starring Lana Turner.

Imitation of Life poster for both movie versions

 

 

Louise Beavers

 

 

Juanita Moore

 

 

 

Stockett was in her thirties while crafting this novel. She’d also graduated with a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, and also worked in the field of publishing for a time in New York City. I’d like to think she was able to mingle with a diverse group of people while in NY, or even at her Alma Mater. Unfortunately, her first novel doesn’t read like she had much contact with African Americans before, during and even after the book was published. The only person Stockett mentions is her maid Demetrie and now actress Octavia Spencer. And what the author says about both shows at the very least, how naive she is about her own views on race.

That’s probably why the African American characters sound so much like stereotypes while the white characters mimic the slickness of Don Draper and his crew. Skeeter and the gals have no pronounced Southern dialect. The more I go over the book, the more I’m convinced that it was deliberate.

 

Why would the author, and to some extent her editor (whom Stockett admits is the publisher of the novel, and also helped her edit pages) commit to advancing stereotypes?

 

Did the end really justify the means? While its probably gratifying to the author and publisher to know how many readers buy into these stereotypes, as time passes, The Help could very well be a millstone of infamy for Stockett, as she’s lumped with novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Three Golliwogs. I’m pretty sure those authors also believed the same thing, that what they’d created was a fair representation of an already maligned people.

But then again, since Stockett and co seem to be getting away with the caricatures, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Stockett worked in publishing for a number of years. And the industry of publishing is not diverse, no matter how much the titans of the industry want to bring up their minority programs and attempts at hiring. The perceptions of other cultures will remain distorted, as long as those in power continue to give their stamp of approval on novels like The Help, just because they can and they too have no real interactions with minorities.

So, in going back to Mad Men, I stopped watching the show once I realized what it was all about. The show is one long classic 60s black and white commercial, the ones with the Hertz man, in his sharkskin suit and fedora, lithely being pulled down into the driver’s seat. It’s also part Hollywood melodrama, where shapely Lana Turner and Susan Hayward have hunks like John Forsythe and John Gavin or some other snappily dressed leading man inflaming their passions, while they strolled around in gowns and A line dress suits created by some fabulous designer. And damn if they didn’t look in good in their anguish. Many times these movies would have a black maid, sympathetic to the main star.

And that maid was heavy set and dark brown, just the way Hollywood studios ordered. So the real question is, which image of an African American would Mad Men even present on the show? Historically, the maid and the Madison Avenue model are correct. It just depends on which one the producers feel the most comfortable with.

To be continued…

Posted in: Blog