Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The Beautiful Girls" Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 9

Mad Men' Mondays: 'The Beautiful Girls'

What's up with the show's cursory treatment of civil rights?

Matt Zoller Seitz//TNR//September 20, 2010

As edited down by me:

...You could also say the episode was about civil rights in a wider sense—a topic broached in the bar conversation between Peggy and Abe, with whom she'd locked lips at a beatnik party in "The Rejected." Abe pushes Peggy to justify working for an ad agency that's doing business with Fillmore Auto, a Boston-based company that's being boycotted in the south over its racist hiring practices. "Most of the things Negroes can't do, I can't do either, and nobody seems to care," Peggy says. And when Abe points out that Sterling-Draper-Cooper-Pryce has no black copywriters, she replies, "I'm sure they could fight their way in like I did. Believe me, nobody wanted me there."

I like how this scene allows for the possibility that both characters can be right and wrong at the same time. Peggy is drawing a false equivalency between a middle-class white woman’s struggles and the struggles of the descendants of former slaves. (She's also forgetting that there were no black secretaries at Sterling Cooper, and for all the humiliations she suffered in that job it's hard to see how she could have elbowed her way into copy writing without it.) Abe, meanwhile, has a touch of beatnik drama-queenery about him—he titles a prospective article “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue"—but he’s also an honorable man who won’t let Peggy’s sloppy thinking pass just because he wants to bed her. At the same time, Peggy’s comparison isn’t totally off-base. White women circa 1965 aren’t getting shot, hung, and attacked by dogs for daring to assert their equality. But there is discrimination, and Peggy deals with it every day. She’s right to be offended when Abe seems to brush off the indignities she’s endured.

In last week’s recap, I wondered if Season Four’s glancing references to the civil rights movement weren't a red herring, and whether the show’s true interest instead lay in women’s rights. With just three episodes to go, that suspicion looks as though it’ll be proved correct (unless Weiner and company rally by building the season finale around President Lyndon Johnson issuing his executive order enforcing affirmative action, and I really hope they don’t). If the season ends up having focused mainly on feminism, however, that will beg the question of why Weiner thought it was a good idea to make the civil rights struggle an atmospheric detail or a metaphor for something else. The only black characters on this show have been domestics and elevator operators—and now a mugger. Even if you take the show’s upper-middle-class white milieu into account, the arms-length respect paid to African American sacrifice feels like an evasion posing as an acknowledgment. The topic is so rich, and still so emotionally powerful, that treating it as a looming presence and nothing more is dramatically risky. Whatever “Mad Men” is doing here, it had better pay off....


How intensely aware were the denizens of the 60's that they were living through a social and cultural paradigm shift? I'm not sure I fully understand the author's beef that "the arms-length respect paid to African American sacrifice feels like an evasion posing as an acknowledgment. "

People who lived in the middle ages did not know they were living in the "dark ages" and 15th century Europeans did not look out of the window and say to themselves: oh, look the renaissance has begun. How wonderful. We understand better how the cosmos works and what's real perspective.

Language always lags behind the events. By the time language catches up to it, the reductive narratives have already set in. In this 60's period piece I suspect the intention is to reverse what has become the conventional wisdom about that decade. They try to divest the language of its excess baggage, strip the sentimentalized patina, refresh the meanings, in order to lend us back bang into the midst of it, with the innocence of ignorance of the world to come.

It's almost Miltonian in its ambition. And I think as least as much I have seen of this series, it has worked.

It's another Deadwood.

And it is very much in opposition to what I've seen coming out of the BBC, whose dramas of late tend to inject 21st century sanctimonious sensibilities and cliches into period dramas.

After watching the latest episodes of "Foyle's War" for example I can appreciate all the more the great intellectual work that has gone into the preparation of "Mad Men". Quite apart from the brilliant visual recreation of the sixties.

MZS (the blogger):

noga1: I'm not asking the show to afflict the characters with a false, anachronistic consciousness about the time they're living in. In fact I'm not saying anything at all about the characters. It's the show I have minor problems with. This is a writing and filmmaking issue: The storytellers are God and they can choose to emphasize whatever they want. I do think it seems odd and often ungainly when they choose to make one of the most important and emotionally wrenching political upheavals in American history a constant presence on the series, but as a Greek chorus, yet at the same time they find room to give an Italian-American gay man and a lesbian actual characters to play. That's why I use the word "evasive." It's as if they want to do more with this subject but are terrified of not being able to please everyone, so they're hedging their bets, obliquely acknowledging what's happening with black America but expending much of their energy on feminism and the middle class version of the counterculture, which it just so happens they're more comfortable with.

I would actually prefer it if the show were less aware of the Civil Rights struggle, and built that into its portrait of the time and place -- or else highlighted the characters' superficial awareness of what's happening just a bit more pointedly (since ironic humor is something the show does quite well). They're kind of half-in, half-out of it right now, and have been all season.

I don't think it's a call for anachronism or an example of PC thinking to say that if they can build a character for Sal, who doesn't really fit into the mainstream either, they should be able to dig into Carla a bit more, or bring a new, recurring black character onto a series that is set, after all, in New York freakin' City, a city that was on the vanguard of social change and artistic innovation. A musician, maybe, or a comedian, or a local politician whose approval they need in order to shoot an ad someplace. It's not unthinkable that they could manage this, and it wouldn't be "unrealistic" or anachronistic if they did it.

I love the show, you know. I just don't think they handle every single thing perfectly, and this is a big area that could use some work.


I thought Noga's point was beside your comment, MZS, though I like her point a lot, a lot.

I think yours is a wide ranging and, again, excellent review but I think your concerns about the treatment of the black white civil rights issues are not well taken.

As you comment in response to Noga "...the story tellers are God..." They can tread as lightly or as heavily as they choose on these issues and your concern that their skirting or under developing is "odd and often ungainly" especially in comparison with the treatment of the other issues they take is critically invalid, I'd argue.

This criticism is external to the show. The show's only obligation is to do well what it does--make television drama as it sees fit. As the old esthete said, "We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donné: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it." Which is a refined way of saying the "the storytellers are God". This particular criticism of yours violates that critical canon and is prescriptive. If you have an internal beef, one coming from within the show as a show, fair enough. That's criticism along the lines of "what he makes of it."

No comments:

Post a Comment