I believe that so much of the anger and defensiveness from Whites about racial issues derives from a fundamental lack of understanding about White male entitlement. Watching the TV show Mad Men, which has just completed its third season on the cable channel AMC, may correct this; and it can give a master class in the origin and perpetuation of Whiteness in America at the same time.
Mad Men is a deft critique of the facade that masquerades as America created by Madison Avenue polish and veneer. Some critics have blithely stated that it is a celebration of White male patriarchy. But they have missed the point.
It doesn’t celebrate the patriarchy but instead deconstructs it, thereby helping the viewer to interrogate old tropes that mainstream America had come to accept as true.
It depicts an America before and leading up to the Civil Rights Act, Women’s Liberation, OSHA regulations, harassment laws… and by doing this truly shows us why those reforms had to be created. It colorfully mirrors the dysfunctional house of cards that suburban USA was built on, replete with substantial bed-hopping fueled by suburban ennui.
Mad Men takes place in the very stylish, cocktail-chic advertising world of the early 1960s. For younger people, watching this show will feel as though you’ve entered an alien country. The world is largely White and stocked with countless acts of what we today would call sexual harassment, racism, substance abuse and homophobia; all illustrated with after-hours office sex parties, on-the-job drinking, heavy smoking, closed door secretary a**-grabbing, unsafe behavior with office equipment, and inappropriate remarks layered with double entendres.
The protagonist of the narrative is Don Draper. Don is White, as are most of the characters in this world, with Cary Grant looks. He invented himself out of a whole cloth of deception to create a Bryl-Creamed, All-American visage that was sold as the male gold standard to White America.
But like Dorothy in Oz, Mad Men looks behind the curtain. It’s not as alluring as the illusion. Don’s is a world where you can have three kids and a drop-dead-gorgeous Grace Kelly look-alike wife at home, ensconced in suburbia, while bedding a harem of hotties, including your kid’s schoolteacher. Such were the spoils of being White, male and over 21. It actually exposes the phony Western convention of monogamy and the emotional yoga entanglements that the institution of marriage can create when people try to fit square pegs into round holes.
White women were encouraged to find a husband quickly, maybe by going to college, and then get set up in a suburban castle far from the unwashed masses in the inner city. The inner city was reserved for artists, minorities, and the White working poor.
All of this largesse, of course, was created by Eisenhower policies that built the largest middle class this country has ever seen by taxing the rich at 90 percent. Middle-class ad men like Don Draper were able to buy big homes, expensive cars, major appliances, and European vacations because the social policies allowed it.
White women were either wage slaves or suburban Stepford Wives with Betty Crocker abilities and a June Cleaver finish. The masculine power turn-on was discovering how many ways one could mess up her pretty little White face.
This certainly wasn’t an idyllic time for everyone. Blacks and other people of color were pushed to the margins, unable to take advantage of the same opportunities afforded Whites because they were shut out of receiving FHA loans that would have enabled them to also escape to suburban enclaves. Whites, on the other hand, took full advantage of FHA loans and also participated in crafting urban policies that redlined Blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. Highways, for example, were bulldozed through Black neighborhoods so Whites could have quicker roundtrips from the suburbs to the city.
Gay men and women had to hide who they were and actively work to pretend they were straight. Gay men had to endure business trips where their straight married brethren openly took assorted women to hotel beds, while they had to hide their dalliances out of fear of losing their jobs if discovered.
This is a place where society still hasn’t come that far. Sadly, we still harass gay men and women on a daily basis. Our society makes it difficult for the LGBT community to be loud and proud when major newspapers employ bigots, like the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Katherine Kersten. She continues to write a hateful column that spews homophobic venom while trafficking in anti-intellectualism. This is shameful in the 21st century.
If Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch held Whiteness up as the gold standard, Mad Men does the opposite of that. It’s necessary for White people, as well as everyone else, to understand how Whiteness was created and cultivated. Only then will the mainstream understand their culpability in the incredible unfairness that is baked into our society. In this regard, Mad Men is insidiously subversive.
Not every story has to include people of color to be valid to those communities, particularly if the story is creating an indictment and intense interrogation of White male entitlement. Context matters. History is important. Otherwise, spin and revisionist narratives become dogma.
At the same time, people of color are coming in from the margins in the Mad Men world, just as we came in from the margins in White reality and rightfully bum-rushed our way to a seat at the table. Without the need for the majority to establish and maintain Whiteness, there wouldn’t be a need to ever subjugate or even create such a term as “people of color.”
With a less glorified view of “the good ol’ days,” I hope mainstream White culture will be more apt to stay with us at the table and recast Don Draper from leading man to archaic throwback.
Ralph Remington is the Minneapolis 10th Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Ralph.Remington@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.