Matthew Weiner, “MAD MEN” and Issues

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MATTHEW WEINER, “MAD MEN” AND ISSUES

Ever since the characters Roger Sterling and Joan Harris were mugged by an African-American man in the Season Four episode of “MAD MEN”(4.09) “The Beautiful Girls”, the topic of race in the series reared its head again. The ironic thing is that many of the series’ fans and the media still refuse to criticize the series’ creator, Matthew Weiner, for the series’ minimal exploration of race. Instead, they believe that Weiner will gradually get into the issue by the time the series focuses upon the late 1960s. 

Matthew Weiner reminds me a lot of the creator of “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”, Joss Whedon. Whedon had engaged in a good deal of in-depth exploration of feminine issues, yet barely touched upon race issues. And I see the same in Matthew Weiner’s handling of “MAD MEN”.

He tried to deal with the race issue with the character of Shelia White back in Season 2. Sheila was the girlfriend of Sterling Cooper copywriter Paul Kinsey. But eight episodes following her first appearance, Sheila’s character ended up being dropped in a very unsatisfying manner. Instead of showing the audience the circumstances that led to her and Paul’s breakup, Weiner merely had Paul reveal the news to his fellow co-workers, upon his return from a trip to Mississippi.

Weiner portrayed Carla, the Drapers’ maid, as the wise and dignified “Negro” – someone who turned out to be not very interesting. Poor Carla became one of those cliches that have permeated Hollywood for so many decades. In her case, she became the “dignified Negro”.  The firing of Carla at the end of Season Four has never sat well with me. I found it manipulative and a cheat. Weiner gave viewers (especially those from the white middle and upper classes) a chance to express sympathy toward a character, whose actions rightly led her to be fired. Betty had right to fire Carla.  The latter had no business allowing young Glen into the house, especially on the heel of his vandalism of the Francis household.  But since Betty was an unpopular character, and Carla was popular due to being a bland and non-threatening minority character, Weiner gave audiences a chance to congratulate themselves on being so tolerant and sympathetic toward a minority character.

I really do not see why Weiner could have approached the issue of race from a perspective not shown before – an African-American character that also happened to be an advertising executive. Most people do not realize this, but African-Americans began being employed by advertising agencies as far back as the mid or late 1950s . . . and not as service employees. Weiner had plenty of opportunity to approach this topic in the past two to three seasons. There is no need for him to wait until the series is set in the late 1960s.

Just recently, Weiner included a new addition to the cast – a thirty-something African-American woman named Dawn Chambers.  The character had been hired in the Season Five episode, (5.03) “Tea Leaves”.  Since then, Dawn has been featured in one major scene in which she sought refuge at Peggy Olson’s apartment in the wake of racial violence in Harlem.  But instead of audiences getting to know more about Dawn, the sequence centered around Peggy.  I found this very disappointing.  Since then, Dawn has been treated as background or a minor character with a few lines.

I can recall one particular critic, who has expressed contempt at Weiner’s handling of racial issues.  This critic pointed out that the FOX series, “24” had an African-American character as President of the United States . . . six years before Barack Obama became the first person of African descent to be elected to that office. If the producers of “24” (who were known for harboring conservative political beliefs) could do this, what had prevented Weiner from including a major African-American character as an employee of Sterling-Cooper after four seasons? Especially since there had been a small number of Black Americans who worked in advertising.

I also thought Weiner would deal with gay issues with the character of Sal Romano over the series. In the end, Weiner backed away from that subject, as well. Some claim that Sal’s story had simply ran its course. I disagree. Weiner had plenty of opportunity to continue Sal’s story. He had barely touched upon the issue of Sal’s marriage to Kitty, before he had Sal’s character removed from the series in the Season 3 episode, (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”. I found this decision to get rid of Sal very disappointing.  I later learn that actor Bryan Batt had left the series, due to personal reasons.  But Weiner never bothered to broach the subject of gay issues since Sal’s departure.

I suspect that like Whedon, Weiner will eventually approach the topic of race . . . but at the last minute. Hopefully, there will be a television series or movie that will be brave enough to give equal time to the topic of gender, race and gay issues.

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