I love the 50’s shtick. The clothes, the cocktails, the post war-pre-shit-hits–the-fan wholesomeness of it all. I’ve loved it for decades, when I was probably one of Oldies 103’s youngest voluntary listeners as a kid. I kept loving it when I moved to Connecticut and gleefully discovered Connecticut radio is almost all Oldies stations, or was in the 1990s. Maybe what I love about this time period is this wholesome image that glosses over what we know was going on at the lunch counters and the voting centers. Which is why I love MADMEN. I mean, I really love it. I watched seasons one through three on DVD this summer and felt an overwhelming sense of loss when I got through it and had to wait for season four on television. I can forgive some of the less sophisticated dialogue (and believe me, having Don Draper go to California and meet up with the conventionally well read co ed was bad writing) because the camera angles and story are so spectacular. And I can also usually forgive the lack of non-white characters. Unlike FAR FROM HEAVEN, MADMEN does not promise it will give voice to the cadre of serving class characters that it introduces to Don Draper’s world, who also happen to be the only black characters the show offers up. I won’t even go in to the Chinese family the ad guys use to welcome Pete Campbell back from his honeymoon as a joke. Ballsy television in this post PC world, but not that funny when you are actually of the colored variety. And I get the joke. I repeat, it was not that funny when you are actually of the colored variety.
Despite all my love and forgiveness, a little part of me felt neither of these emotions when Lane’s new girlfriend showed up this past Sunday. My sister and I had high hopes. I had to check myself the week before because the way we were talking about it, we sounded like my grandparents when a black actor was about to make an appearance on TV. Their delight was palpable when the “black soap opera” began airing in the 80s. It took a few days of staying home sick at their house and watching TV with them to realize the show was not black, but simply had more than a few black characters on it. They were so proud.
And so once we got word a black character was coming on our beloved MADMEN and was signed up to do more than one episode, we were also ready to be proud. But here is my sister’s Facebook Wall post from last Monday, and I quote: “Black Playboy Bunny?!? WHA?” That’s what she said. You can look it up. And it rings true.
I have nothing against Playboy Bunnies. I used to want to be one. My mom got offered a job to be one. And I think probably only turned it down cause she wanted to help deaf and blind kids in state institutions whose parents just left them there alone all their lives (she was good at it). I just don’t understand why this particular character had to be one. And Lane? I will put my feelings aside, because I find Lane more than oogie, but I find it curious that Don Draper will sleep with anything with a vagina except for black women with vaginas. And we have them, trust me.
When I have brought up the lack of black characters on this show with anyone except my sister (who loves it just as much as I do), their eyes don’t exactly roll, but their voices do. But the show’s not about that, it’s about Don Draper. Don’t you just love Don Draper? And I do. I love Don Draper. I don’t understand it cause he is a horrible person, albeit a brilliant character. But, I find it interesting that this world only has black people in it when those black people are doing things for white people. Or when they are in black face. And even the black face was not problematic to me because in 1963 it makes perfect sense, that at a Kentucky Derby party this would be an acceptable and “funny for the white people” type of thing. Even though the party was not in Kentucky and none of those people are Southern. Cause who doesn’t like a good darkie joke? I am supposing the same people who don’t mind a good Chiney joke.
What I find so dismaying about the Playboy Bunny insertion is that this was a chance for MADMEN to give this character some texture. And I don’t mean by mentioning Freedom Rides or fried chicken or Harry Belafonte. Maybe by giving the character an arc and interior world just as rich as the Jewish store lady we saw Don hit it with. Or maybe even like the nice pretty teacher he semi lived with whose brother even got a life story of having epilepsy. They gave that guy whole scenes! But there is still hope, she only had about ten lines this go around. Maybe she, like many of the actual Playboy Bunnies, is working her way through medical school or law school, or is doing it to stick it to her parents who own on the Vineyard and are snootier than Lane’s cane wielding father.
I suppose I just find it hard to believe that the only black people these MADMEN guys keep running into are part of the help. In New York. In 1965. And I also find it hard to believe that in a show that is mastering the art of story telling in a world where storytelling is not as valued as it used to be, that it can’t think of any way black people might enter this world when they aren’t taking care of these people’s kids (Carla) or pushing elevator buttons (the elevator guy. I liked him. I do not see why we couldn’t have more of that guy. Just a little bit. Maybe if he had epilepsy or something) or carrying a tray (Lane’s girlfriend who didn’t even have some high gloss clever way of greeting Lane’s Dad after he embarrassingly has her serve them drinks at the Playboy Club. Yeah: wha?)
But Kirsten, the show isn’t about that. Um, is it not about people? In our country in nice clothes in (now) 1965? Cause um, yeah, black people were around. There’s evidence, there’s pictures of us there. And we had nice clothes and there are pictures of us in them, and not just pictures of us getting hosed down or chased by German Shepherds. And yes, I get the joke: proper Lane goes for a black cocktail waitress. Ha ha. And then Daddy beats him with a cane. More Ha Ha. I just don’t see why the cocktail waitress could not have more of an interior life that was skillfully shown in less than ten lines, which MADMEN seemed able to do so skillfully with every single other character in its cast—the whites ones, the women, the gay ones, the kids.
Wait for it, wait for it, you say? After all, the actor’s signed up for more screen time. To which I say: it’s been a long time comin’, and it shoulda done been here by now. This show is not reality. People write it. And in this case, they can write better.