Slap in the face

Some friends of mine recently lent me the first season of the AMC series Mad Men. The show is about a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency and life in general in 1960. My friends recommended the show but warned me that the sexism (of the time) was blatant.

Funny, but although the sexism did not go unnoticed by me, the racism jumped out in the opening scene of the first episode. So I wonder, how come my white friends didn’t mention that?

Could it be that they just didn’t notice it?

Everything about this show is subtle but can also come as a slap in the face: from the ad men labelling their secretaries ‘girls’, to the adult slapping a child for knocking something over (and the parent of the child making his son apologise to the adult and telling him to get his mother to clean up the mess), via the white account executive ignoring the black elevator attendant, the chief secretary warning the new secretary not to be overwhelmed by the advanced technology of the electric typewriter, and the agency head searching the company for a person of Jewish faith to make the Jewish client feel ‘at home’.

In many ways, one could sit back complacently and think, “Goodness! Hasn’t the world changed!”, especially with all the smoking and drinking going on in practically every scene. But I look at it and see how much hasn’t changed.

And I wonder, if the blatant racism of the time is just not obvious to my friends, and presumably others, how aware are they of today’s racism?

10 thoughts on “Slap in the face

  1. I guess it just went over their heads. I wonder why the writers are so much more aware of “subtle” racism.

    (I am not familiar with this series, but your descriptions make the scenes seem very intentional.)

  2. From what I’ve read, the creator of the show is a bit of a perfectionist and researched the era in a LOT of detail.

  3. I’m a huge fan of Mad Men, and I for one always noticed the subtle racism the writer’s tried to convey, as did everyone else in my family watching (I’m not saying that for brownie points, just to show that there are some white people whose head it didn’t go over – if there’s us then there has to be more! Uh, I hope). I’m actually really looking forward to seeing how they explore racial issues in the second series as the timeline moves closer to the civil rights movement.

    Mad Men is a *wonderful* show. Your post just reminded me how much I can’t wait for the next series. Roll on next Tuesday…

  4. Thanks for commenting, imay. However, you might like to note that I didn’t say the racism went over the heads of all white people. I just said that it seems to have gone unnoticed by my friends, and therefore one could suppose that other white people also did not notice it.

    More specifically, I wondered if they noticed such subtle racism in their everyday lives, i.e, when they are not focusing on whatever is going on on their tv screen.

  5. Thanks for replying, sinoangle. I don’t think I phrased my comment very well. It was late and I was excited to see one of my favourite bloggers writing about one of my favourite shows, so I just rushed it out.

    Re-reading my comment I get that writing words to the effect of “racism doesn’t go over all white people’s heads” in response to your post made it sound like I found something about your post patronising towards white people and made me sound patronising towards you, which wasn’t my intention at all.

    I agree with you that a lot of the subtle racism of the Madmen world probably goes unnoticed by many white viewers, and that it is interesting and valid to ask if those viewers could be similarly oblivious to the many, seemingly less blatant, forms of racism that still occur in their real lives. I only intended to respond to that question by saying that this white viewer did notice the show’s attempts to convey the racism of the era, and that I’m probably not the only white viewer to have done so.

    However, that’s just me being perceptive about a TV show. Noticing racism in real life, in a society that is steeped in it, isn’t like that. People with privilege are often blind (whether they want to be or not) to many of the inequalities that surround them. For instance, I doubt any of the white characters in Madmen (which means nearly all of the characters in Madmen) would think of themsevles as sexist or racist simply because of the fact that racism and sexism were so all-pervasive in their lives that those attitudes seemed to them unquestionable, unnoticeable and even natural, whereas the modern viewer (for the most part, I hope) is often shocked or infuriated by these characters’ outlook.

    I would say that to a very large extent the same is still true in our society. Racism and sexism are still wildly pervasive, yet still going unnoticed, even by people who would think they know better.
    I wonder if in sixty years in the future a show will be made set in the 00s and a more aware audience will be amazed at how eff-ed up society was “back then”.

    Wow, this is a long comment. I’m not really sure how to end this so I’ll just say once again, thanks for the response and for the amazing blog. It opens my eyes a little more every day (and I hope you’re enjoying your DVD).

  6. You notice what you are interested in, in most cases. I’m interested in nationalism, so I notice it all the times. Maybe your friends are more concerned (for various reasons) with gender than race.

    I have this similar history with Borat. When it came out, friends and profs suggested I go and see it because it is so funny, such a good auto-irony of the ignorance of North-Americans. I couldn’t drag myself to see it, because the trailer and the whole idea looked so discriminating and offensive, particularly to Roma people. But in North America, there’s little awareness of Roma. My friends used to imitate Borat saying “Fear me not, gypsy”. I’ve asked them if they’d do this if the movie would be using Aboriginals or African-Americans to be auto-ironic, and they said “no, i didn’t realize it”. I think we all have our glasses that frame what’s important and what’s not.

  7. Thanks for the comments, thinkingdifference. While I agree that people mostly notice that which speaks to them personally, I think your observation is rather dismissive. It implies that we are not capable of noticing anything else. It is the “they’re just ignorant” school of thought.

    And that is pretty depressing.

    The questions I asked myself, in writing this post, were really not “did they notice?” and/or “how come they didn’t notice?”, but “what would make them notice, in particular, in the real world?”

    Reframing things, such as you did with your friends re Borat, seems to work for specific situations, but what can we do in general, without appearing to be ‘hunting for racism’?

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