Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"MAD MEN": The Waste of a Potential Character



After the character of Dawn Chambers was introduced on "MAD MEN" during Season Five, some fans and critics had expressed disappointment at the series' failure to dip into her character. However, many of them - especially those writers from the SLATE online magazine, who with article after article, continue to defend creator Matthew Weiner's handling of race issues on the show. Even non "SLATE" articles such as this one get into "defend Matthew Weiner" game, claiming that "MAD MEN" is the wrong series to begin the topic of race. And honestly, I got pretty sick and tired of it all. 

Race has really been a problem for Americans to deal with, let alone confront for God knows how long. It certainly seems to be a problem with Matthew Weiner. During an appearance on PBS's "CHARLIE ROSE", guest host Gayle King asked the following question:

"As you move through time, I’m wondering will we see some black people?"

Weiner gave this answer:

"I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America. … How is [integration] coming into their lives? [Black people] in the service industry, they’re in entertainment, and this is how people are experiencing civil rights, on television. Hopefully when we get to the part of the ’60s [where race is more clearly addressed on the show], you won’t have trivialized the contribution of someone like Martin Luther King. I don’t think people understand what that impact is, to have a world leader, an international figure who is an African-American who is telling the truth and poetic — Don hears the speech, “I Have A Dream,” and he turns off the radio. It’s just a news event. They don’t even know. If I was telling a story of the black experience, it would be very different. But I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing.

Like you see a movie about California in 1970 and you see black and white kids going to school together. Guess what? There was no integration in California public schools until, like, 1972. It’s a shameful part of our past. Guess what? It’s real."

I suspect that Weiner was trying to simplify a situation that proved to be a lot more complex and chaotic. Yes, the California public schools did become officially desegregated by 1972. But Weiner failed to point out that a good number of them had ended segregation long before 1972. I should know. I had attended grade school in Southern California between 1971 and 1974. There were already African-Americans and Latinos kids attending school with white kids at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood, California; a Los Angeles suburban district in the San Fernando Valley by the beginning of the 1970s. I do not recall any conflict between white and minority kids at the school I had attended during that period. Nor do I recall any white parents protesting against the idea of their children attending school with minority students. Hell, only the mentally and physically disabled kids were segregated from the rest of the school's students. Frankly, I find Weiner's simplified comments about segregation in California schools a cheap way to excuse for his failure to directly address race on "MAD MEN".

After Dawn Chambers was introduced as Don Draper's new secretary . . . nothing really happened. She was merely regulated to the background, except in one episode called (5.04) "Mystery Date", in which fear over racial violence near Harlem led her to spend the night at Peggy's apartment. Viewers learned nothing about Dawn. They did learn for the second time during the show's history that Peggy was capable of subversive racism. After "Mystery Date", Dawn was shoved into the background. She did not emerge as a major player in an episode until Season Six's (6.04) "To Have and to Hold". In this episode, Dawn clashed with former office manager-turned-partner Joan Harris after Harry Crane's secretary, Scarlett, convinced her to punch the latter's time card in her absence. The incident not only led to an embarrassing conflict between Joan, Harry and the other partners; it also led Joan to leave Dawn in charge of the time cards and with the key to the office supply closet. Although Dawn expressed gratitude for the new responsibilities, Joan warned her that she might not be so grateful in the foreseeable future. In this one scene, Weiner set up the possibility of some kind of conflict between Dawn and the firm's white secretaries. And as the season unfolded, Weiner did nothing to exploit this possible story line. Instead, Dawn resumed her role as a background character.  In the end, nothing really happened to Dawn by the series finale.  She remained an office manager after McCann-Erikson swallowed up Sterling Cooper & Partners in Season Seven's (7.11) "Time & Life".  However, her chances of surviving with McCann-Erikson remains to be seen. 

Now, one might bring up the topic of the episode that followed "To Have and to Hold" - namely (6.05) "The Flood". In this episode, the show's various characters learned of activist Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968. "The Flood" featured reactions and points-of-view from many of the show's white characters. Although the episode also featured the reactions of Dawn and Peggy Olson's secretary, Phyllis; it never explored the assassination from their viewpoints. Many critics and fans defended this aspect of the episode, labeling it original. I merely rolled my eyes in disgust. Would it have really killed him to convey Dawn's own personal perspective on the assassination? Even for one lousy scene? 

After Dawn receded into the background once more, the show continued on its merry way. The last time Weiner brought up the topic of race - in more than a few seconds - occurred in the episode (6.08) "The Crash", when Don and Megan Draper's Park Avenue apartment was invaded by a middle-class African-American woman who happened to be a thief. "Aunt Ida", ladies and gentlemen. This home invasion occurred while Don and Megan were gone and the Draper children were staying at their father's home. And while actress Davenia McFadden gave a memorable performance, I found myself wondering what on earth had Weiner meant by getting to the point where race is more addressed on the show? In a potential storyline that was dropped by the following episode? In an episode about Martin Luther King's assassination in which audience never get a personal peek into a black woman's view on the event? Or in an episode in which the main character's apartment is robbed by a middle-aged thief, who happened to be black? "MAD MEN" had just finished its penultimate season, which was set in 1968. And it has yet to unveil the black perspective of one or two characters on the show. Not really. Not with any real depth.

Of course, one encounters the excuses made by critics and other fans. Excuses such as:

*Blacks in the 1960s only worked in service occupations.
*Dawn is a minor character.
*Both racism and gender are side issues on the show.
*Dawn is not intimately connected with a main character (as if this was an excuse to minimize her character).
*The number of blacks and other minorities in the advertising industry was less than 5% during the 1960s.
*Matthew Weiner can write about what he wants. "MAD MEN" is his show.

The above are only a handful of excuses I have encountered in the past. Allow me to address them.

*Blacks in the 1960s only worked in service occupations. - Contrary to social myths, middle-class and wealthy African-Americans have existed in the United States since the Colonial Era. Their numbers may have been a lot smaller than the middle-class and wealthy white Americans, but they have existed for over three centuries. And yes, there were African-Americans who have worked in advertising since the mid-1950s. The argument that a black copywriter or executive in a 1960s advertising agency would be unrealistic does not hold water for me; especially since the series featured a 20-21 year-old woman with no college degree and EIGHT MONTHS of secretarial experience becoming a copywriter by the end of the first season - a situation that I find ten times more unrealistic.

*Dawn is a minor character. - Really? Then why did Matthew Weiner even bothered to include her in the series' cast of characters, if she was mainly there to serve as background? And why on earth would he waste the show's only black character (since Carla's departure) as a minor character, when he could have easily used her to explore race issues on a personal basis?

*Both racism and gender are side issues on the show. - Race has been treated as a side issue on "MAD MEN". Gender issues have been fully explored, thanks to characters such as Peggy Olson, Betty Francis (formerly Draper), Joan Harris and Megan Draper.

*Dawn is not intimately connected to a main character. - Since when was sex the only liable excuse to explore any character? Dawn did not need a romance or tryst with the main character or one of the major supporting characters to have a bigger role. As I had previously stated, she has been the only major minority character on "MAD MEN" for the past two seasons. That fact alone should be a good excuse to explore race in the workplace . . . or at the now dubbed Sterling Cooper & Partners.

*The number of blacks and other minorities in the advertising industry was less than 5% during the 1960s. - That is true. But that is not a good excuse to exclude a story line for Dawn or any other potential minority character. The number of women in the advertising industry was just as low or almost as low. That did not stop Weiner from exploring gender issues or allowing the 21 year-old Peggy Olson to become a copywriter with no college degree and eight months of secretarial experience, Joan from becoming a partner with the firm or Megan from becoming a copywriter following her marriage to Don.

*Matthew Weiner can write about what he wants. "MAD MEN" is his show. - I have no argument with that excuse. "MAD MEN" is Weiner's show to do what he please. But if Weiner is only interested in exploring race from a limited point of view, why did he bother to include Dawn to the cast of character in Season Five? What was the point? But if Weiner can do whatever he wants with the show, as a viewer I can either praise or complain about any aspect of his show. Which is what I am now doing.

Speaking of Weiner, I am drawn back to that comment he made on "CHARLIE ROSE". In his comment, Weiner said:

"I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America. … How is [integration] coming into their lives? [Black people] in the service industry, they’re in entertainment, and this is how people are experiencing civil rights, on television."

What wish fulfillment story? No one is demanding that the employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners or McCann-Erikson accept Dawn without any bigotry on their part. No one is demanding that the series' white characters behave with any political correctness when they are around Dawn. Some of us would be interested to know Dawn on a personal basis and watch how she deals with racism in the workplace. Was that so damn hard for Weiner to fathom? Apparently, Weiner suffers from the same myopic view that all black Americans only worked as servants or entertainers before the 1970s.

After Season Six, Weiner had one more chance to explore Dawn's world from a persona point-of-view.  Needless to say . . . he failed.  Miserably.  My instincts that Weiner would continue his usual shuck-and-jive regarding Dawn and race issues proved to be right.  I should have known that Weiner would not be able to rectify six seasons of treating race as a minor issue with one last season.  Poor Teyonah Parris. Weiner had a perfect opportunity to explore race with her character. Instead, he simply wasted her time -except in one episode - for three seasons.  

Whatever feelings I had about the series when it first began had somewhat eroded with Weiner's reluctance to fully explore the issue of race and his treatment of one or two other characters.  Perhaps other fans of "MAD MEN" had not mind. As I have stated earlier, Americans are generally reluctant to confront the issue of race - even to this day. They are especially reluctant to face the fact that racism is alive and well in the United States, despite the presence of a president of African descent in the White House. This is very apparent in many of the show's fans and critics. They either make excuses for Weiner's failure with race issues or pretend that such issues do not exist. I came across several articles on the Internet about "To Have and to Hold". Very few articles explored Dawn's role in that episode. Some of them briefly mentioned her presence. And some pretended that her presence had a bigger impact in that episode (and others) than it truly did. I even came across one article that featured a photograph of Dawn and Joan from that episode. But it never mentioned Dawn's name, let alone her situation with Joan and Scarlett. I found that a joke.

For a series that explored the nation's changing social scene throughout the 1960s, I find its creator's reluctance or refusal to explore one of the biggest social issues of that decade remarkably short-sighted and a major blight on the series' reputation as one of the finest in television history. The ABC series "HOMEFRONT" told a story about a small Ohio town in the years following the end of World War II. This series only lasted two seasons and featured "MAD MEN" cast member John Slattery. Yet, it not only explored gender, class and religious issues, but also race without any of Weiner's pussyfooting. Between the acting, writing and willingness to confront social issues on all levels, "HOMEFRONT" makes "MAD MEN" resemble a portrait of mediocrity in my eyes.

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