The very white poetry of ‘Mad Men’

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Introducing Betty Draper's new chin. ()
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A few weeks ago, I attended a “Mad Men” viewing party hosted by my good friend, the brilliant Time Out New York film critic Keith Uhlich.

Keith quoted a writer who summarized “Mad Men” as “'Roots' for white people,” which prompted me, a black man, to ask everyone in the room my own questions: What was Superfly for white people? What was the Caucasian The Color Purple? Shaft?

Keith was quick on his feet: “The remake of Shaft was Shaft for white people,” he said.

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. (I was able to discern major plot twists based on the shrieks, gasps, belly laughs and applause from Keith and the gang.)

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For a black person like me, born and raised in what television would call “the ghetto,” it isn’t about good or bad. It’s about comfort zones. In early childhood, television taught me to see “white” as simply the default for “human.” Mister Rogers wasn’t a “white man,” but just a friendly neighbor with some weird friends. Ralph Kramden’s delusional dreams and schemes had no color.

It was like Kevin Lee, an Asian-American film critic and “Mad Men” expert who attended Keith’s party, put it: “The genius of ‘whiteness’ is that its ethnic blankness allows viewers of most any background to project themselves onto it, provided there's some attractive quality they find in it.”

But while that was true for me in the context of the TV programming I grew up with, I was acutely aware of “whiteness” elsewhere, and the cultural differences it implied.

White kids were bused into my special “Creative Education” elementary school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. until city officials decided to move its finest institution to the white north side of town, and suddenly we black kids were the ones being bused to another planet. A teacher’s redheaded daughter would sing “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie over the P.A. system. The other black kids and I would stare up at the loudspeaker like deer. Were we supposed to put our hands over our hearts?

Still, as I got older, I read books by white authors, enjoyed classic movies with all-white casts, contemplated overwhelmingly “white” art in museums, all with great appreciation and understanding, but those works which seemed cultivated expressly “for white people,” communicating on frequencies out of my “black” range (even when they featured black people), tended to fill me with uncomprehending dread. That’s right, I’m talking about “Silver Spoons.” And L’Avventura.

I don’t think I was ever as clueless as the black kid I happened to be standing alongside in an electronics store circa 1985, staring at a display TV showing the hit comedy “Cheers.” “This shit is for white people,” he groused. “What in the hell they laughing about?” He was wrong. “Cheers” is for everybody. As is “Seinfeld” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and “The Simpsons.” They’re just smart, and incidentally populated with white folks. (Conversely “The Cosby Show” and “Frank’s Place” were rare examples of “black” network TV shows that really belonged to everyone.)

“Little House on the Prairie,” “The Waltons,” and “The Brady Bunch” were not white shows. They were epic stories about families trying to make it in America, and they invited in anybody who happened to be watching, no matter how exclusive the cast coloring. Until real-world racism from beat cops and teachers and merchants told me different, I had thought I was a Walton.

Another kind of “for white people” work is much easier to grasp. It conveys up front the notion that white people are a breed apart, morally, spiritually, intellectually. Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and The Searchers, yeah, sure, but also the first scene of the first episode of HBO’s “The Wire,” a moment that seemed so condescending to me that I could go no further with the series that virtually every white writer I know loves to pieces.

The opening of the series is a murder-scene conversation between a young hood-rat witness and a sage, world-weary white detective about the death of a lowlife named Snotboogie:

MCNULTY watches as the body, now bagged, is hauled into the back of the MORGUE WAGON.

MCNULTY: I got to ask you. If every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away, why'd you even let him in the game?

WITNESS: What?

MCNULTY: If Snotboogie always stole the money, why'd you let him play?

WITNESS: You got to. This America, man.

The WITNESS looks away, oblivious to the poetry of it. MCNULTY turns around, takes in the scope of the tragedy that is Baltimore.

Yes, of course, the Witness wouldn’t grasp the poetry of his own words. Of course, this is McNulty’s moment to sigh deeply at the “tragedy that is Baltimore.” This America, man.

“Mad Men” doesn’t condescend in that way, but I still find it hard to relate to. Money and status seem to be on the line in nearly every encounter. That’s why one character, a formerly slim, icy and glamorous blond who has become plump and was rechristened by “Mad Men” fans on the internet as Fat Betty, is a tragicomic figure in this show’s universe.

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. It made me think of John Cassavetes’ brutal kiss-off to middle-aged Gena Rowlands in Opening Night: “You’re not a woman to me anymore.” Fat Betty is the flipside of chubby, lonely but bubbly Queen Latifah staring down the abyss in the comedy Last Holiday.

In the abstract, the show's emphasis on ruin, alienation and social faux pas ought to speak to me as a fragile human being living in a fast-moving, competitive society. That the characters have something to lose and something to gain from scene to scene satisfies the most basic dramatic necessity.

But it's what Don and his people have to lose that ultimately renders it esoteric. 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.

"Whiteness" has always been a socio-economic matter. In a "Mad Men" essay entitled "The Sad Clown Dress," Deborah Lipp describes a moment where Betty Draper suffers a humiliating night of faux pas and discovering that her cheating, secretive husband is not exactly the princely hero he projects: "The surface of perfection is gone. She’s exposed and looks broken. But underneath is a new found conviction about herself. Finally, she faces Don without makeup, without a hairdo, without even a color. The white robe accentuates the starkness of this moment. Now it is Don who’s afraid of losing everything. And it’s his expression of fear that brings her back. The next day, the house is filled with warm, renewing light. Betty is back to being an immaculate housewife, as if nothing happened. But a TV commercial brings it all back. It has all crumbled. Her perfect home, her handsome husband, they are empty surfaces that have all been sold to her. Betty is no longer buying."

It would be interesting to see what Quentin Tarantino, a product of multi-ethnic working class neighborhoods in L.A., would do behind the camera on a “Mad Men” episode. His punk history lesson Inglourious Basterds revels in “mistakes” (starting with the title) and the perseverance of life’s D-students in a world of letter-perfect sociopaths-in-power. What mischief, what banana peels would Q.T. set in Don Draper’s path?

What approach would we see from filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr., who actually worked in the real-life New York ad agency milieu in the 1960s, funneling these experiences into the anarchic Putney Swope (1969)? In Swope, militant blacks take over a swank agency, a one-joke premise crawling with cobwebs by now, sure, but one which still packs a punch in the stubbornly segregated Bloomberg-era Manhattan.

“Mad Men,” which so far has given a few lines to a black maid, a black girlfriend and, in the latest season, a black secretary, actually does resonate in that way: In any of the “good jobs” I held in Manhattan across 20 years, I was either the sole black person or one of two black people in the office. A smattering of Asians or Hispanics completed the rainbow.

But that may also be the reason I had such a hard time finding black professionals to talk to who watch “Mad Men.”

One black computer programmer who requested anonymity was candid about why he doesn’t: “'Mad Men' isn't for me…. I don't know any black people who watch the show. I know they're out there, but I've never met any of them.”

The programmer was quick to add that it’s not because of the low melanin content, but because it’s too familiar.

“It's not necessary for me to need a black or minority character to enjoy a movie or show, but ‘Mad Men’ is just so appropriately shiny and false,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of dealing with the sales people I've dealt with over the years as a software developer. I've worked in offices for 25 years now, and I've been the only Negro in my different office departments more years than I'll admit. It's that way right now, in fact.

“Programmers don't come in our shade unless they're from India. Until the 2000's, I didn't see many minorities of any stripe in high positions at places I worked. So for me, I've spent my entire career watching white office folks bicker, fight, backstab, love, hate, succeed and fail, all the while doing little to involve somebody like me. So why the fuck would I want to watch this on TV?”

In an email exchange after we saw each other at the critic-party, Kevin Lee said he identified with the show, which read to him as a corporate-America survival guide.