Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men: The Flood or, what liberal racism looks like

As I indicated last week, I'm going to just do a short write up about the show itself today and focus more on the commentary tomorrow.

I haven't read any other commentary but I am curious whether anyone else saw this episode as racist. I ask because I sure did. Let me explain.

The actual #1 song the day Martin Luther King was shot was this one:

It had been number one for four weeks at that point and would be replaced by one of the most appalling number ones ever (Honey by Bobby Goldsboro) just a week later. (Whoops forgot to explain the significance of this. The show's fadeout tune was "Love is Blue" by Paul Mauriat, which had been number for four weeks before the event. Why did they go with "Love is Blue"? Well, quite possibly because it was cheaper. Then again, they may have thought it was "whiter". If so, that was a mistake. Otis Redding was the black artist for the white audience in those days.)

Why does that matter? It doesn't but, as someone who was just a little younger than  Sally and just a little older than Bobby, one thing I can tell you for sure is that the MLK assassination didn't matter to the lives of people alive at the time in the way that this episode gives you the impression it did. What you saw on Mad Men last night was an incredible distortion.

I suspect it comes from people studying this stuff at school. From an early age, they get told that this was the death of, as Jon Hamm puts it in the "Inside Mad Men" promo video that came with the episode. "this iconic figure". And that is the first hint. MLK wasn't an icon in April 1968. He was still a human being. A hero but a human hero. The icon painters hadn't done their work yet. They started the day he was shot, but it took a while to replace the actual man, with his very really flaws, with the icon.

For the staff at Mad Men, however, the icon is all they have ever had.

Combine that with memories of 9/11 and you have the sort of show they gave us last night.

If you didn't live it, the thing you need to know about the period between 1967 and 1970 is that it felt like it was all senseless killing all the time. You can tell people who lived through it because they all still flinch when they see an unscheduled news report on the television. MLK's assassination just didn't feel that strange sandwiched between the Detroit riots and RFK and the Tate-LaBianca as murders. Now we remember MLK as an iconic figure but he was something else at the time.

The revealing moment is the shows reference to "they" repeatedly as who did it. Everyone knows who "they" are although, in fact, no one does because "they" didn't exist. To get a grasp on how ridiculous this is, go back just a few days to the Boston Marathon and imagine someone responding within minutes of the event by referring to some "they" who had done this as if everyone knew who that meant.

King, like JFK and RFK, was killed by a disturbed and bizarre figure whose actions made no sense. This robbed the deaths of the three men of any meaning. Their lives made sense but there deaths did not. An immediate campaign began with all three men to make them into Christ-like figures whose death could serve as mythical foundation for the beginning of something.

But notice what happens with the show. With the exception of Roger, the event immediately becomes about them. It's their feelings, their reactions, their need to be with others that takes over. This is liberal racism at its most pernicious, the transformation of every important event in the history of the civil rights struggle into an excuse for white people to talk about their feelings.

What really hit me was the utter selfishness of Peggy—who had no trouble at all a few episode ago getting her boyfriend to bring two subs at the office because her ad campaign was more important than taking a break for dinner—interrupting poor Abe who is trying to do his job in a crisis to get him to talk about his feelings. Because that is what really matters. Men need to "open up" about their feelings and not keep them "all bottled up".

For if there was a theme to this episode, that was it: men need to talk about their feelings more. Never mind what Martin Luther King did or didn't die for, he didn't live so that white advertising executives could talk to their wives about their feelings and then have a hug.

What MLK actually meant to white people at the time was perfectly expressed by Roger Sterling:
The man could talk. I don't know why but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.*
And that is what white people hoped at the time.  Lynching was something that had happened in the lifetimes of most people alive in 1968, the Detroit riots were less than a year ago. My parents thought that maybe this guy could talk everyone's way out of a situation there seemed no way out of.

That was delusional but to transform it after the fact as an excuse to hang an excuse to talk about our feelings about is, as Roger describes something else in the episode, in really bad taste.

The only good moment in the episode was a lovely subplot about an insurance agent who has absurd notions about an ad campaign he claims was inspired by talking to Dr, King's ghost. The facial expressions on Stan Rizzo and Michael Ginsberg were magnificent. (By the way, Roger describes the insurance agent as someone who talked him off a roof once: is Roger dropping acid with this guy?)

Oh well, here is hoping this show was just the writers dealing with an event they felt they had to deal and not any indication of where the show is going.

*The same sort of magical thinking explains the election of Barrack Obama: the man can talk and lots of people convinced themselves that would make the problems go away.

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely true, MLK was not an icon in 1968 and his assassination did not have the impact at the time that this show would have us believe. I also agree about the racism. There were several awkward moments when Don, Joan, and Peggy kind of went overboard essentially patronizing the black secretaries, assuming they wouldn't be at work that day. It really wasn't like that back then, MLK did not become and icon until 10 or 20 yrs later. Having lived through the 60s--I was in high school and college--I have long felt that the Mad Men writers did not live through that period, and that they went with what they had read about it, and last night's episode only reinforced that. The one realistic thing was when Abe tells Beverly that he hasn't even had sex yet--not even once--which I found totally believable. I was 25 before my first sexual experience, and none of my friends in college were sexually active either, and I went to college in the NY metro area.