Tuesday, July 13, 2010

That blackface routine

The virtues of mad men
My Old Kentucky Home
Two entries today. The first is a bit of a rant about what I think is the single stupidest moment of smug superiority in the history of Mad Men.

The blackface routine is one of the single most irritating moments in the history of the show. I could write an entire essay here about why it wouldn't have happened. About why guys like Roger Sterling wouldn't have touched this with a ten-foot-pole in 1963. The scene is here solely to stroke the egos of the audience who have all been to university and studied the evils of the minstrel show. We are all supposed to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves because we see the racial insensitivity that "they" didn't back then.

But there is little point in doing that as it has already been done, and done well by Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic. His essay, which I cite below is the single best thing ever written on Mad Men and is well worth reading.
But even if the portrayal were as “dead-on” as The Times assures us it is, that portrayal is hardly neutral. In describing a scene in which sexist badinage is exchanged at an account meeting, McLean correctly points out that “the series is critical of this limited view and is not afraid to spell [its criticism] out.” That stance—which amounts to a defiant indictment of sexism and racism, sins about which a rough moral consensus would now seem to have formed—militates against viewers’ inhabiting the alien world the show has so carefully constructed, because it’s constantly pressing them to condemn that world. 
One point here is worth underlining. Mad Men is not historically accurate.  It doesn't even try very hard to be historically accurate, although it does keep patting itself on the back for doing so. The only thing it gets right consistently are the costumes and decor. (Which is standard performance for the entertainment industry. Gone WIth the Wind gets the costumes and decor right to but otherwise is about as "dead on" as Mad Men.)

And that should sound familiar because there is a tradition in American entertainment of claiming to be absolutely authentic while dealing in blatant and often cruel stereotypes and that tradition is the minstrel show. Mad Men is a minstrel show. Like any minstrel show creator, Matt Weiner claims to be  very authentic in his recreation but, as with the minstrel shows, it is laughably easy to show that he is only projecting his, and our, prejudices and fantasies up on the screen. The era you can learn a whole lot about by watching this show is the era from September 12, 2001 to the present. It tells you a whole lot about that era and does so brilliantly.

By disguising our own world as one back then, the show is able to portray things we otherwise wouldn't stomach about ourselves. It's a little like a show about a voyeur that makes a great show of condemning the voyeur as an invader of women's privacy but also makes certain that we get to see everything the voyeur gets to see, only well lit and from multiple camera angles.

Anyway, the short version of what is wrong with this scene is this: if you get ever in a time machine and find yourself at a garden party of rich and connected people where the host puts on blackface to sing My Old Kentucky home there is one thing about him that you can be absolutely certain of. What is that one thing? That he is a  Democrat.

Yes, I know, liberals were on the right side of the civil rights struggle and conservatives were on the wrong. But the Democratic Party was not on the right side. The key civil rights bills would not have passed if it the Democrats in Congress had had there way. The party was infested with throwback racists in those days. The problem with the Republicans and conservatives of that era was not that they were racist themselves (although some undoubtedly were racist) but that they were willing to tolerate racism.

By the way, as an example of how brutally insensitive the show actually is while pretending to be otherwise, watch (and listen to) the very last scene. The band is playing a  slow ballad and the camera pans over them to make sure we know that they are supposed to be playing the music we hear. What is that music. It's Ben Webster. Webster is one of the three greatest jazz tenor players ever. He had a magnificent sound, a sound that no one else could imitate. And yet here we have a show that suggests that a bunch of clowns playing society parties in 1963 could muster this sound up. The show itself engages in an act of cultural diminishing of African Americans that is at least equal to what we are told Roger Sterling has done.

Season three blogging begins here. The next post will be here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.  


  1. Interesting perspective. Difficult to read through the numerous spelling and punctuation errors.