Mad Men Throws Down the Race Gauntlet


In an episode that featured Roger Sterling in blackface, last night’s installment of Mad Men felt like the show’s writers were aggressively responding to blogosphere criticism that they’ve been skirting the race issue. (“Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality,” wrote Latoya Petersonon on Double X. “For a show that takes place in the early ’60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission.”) While we’d argue that while rarely seen, Mad Men‘s fleeting black characters are the only people on the show who exhibit self-awareness or maturity, and that race/gender/sexuality issues should take a backseat to narrative in this case, we were still dying to read the blogger reaction to last night’s minstrel show.

“Showing Roger Sterling’s performance as common and unremarkable, combined with his off-handed comment of how he ‘did it with shoe polish and she just laughed and laughed,’ helps to establish how blacks were perceived then, far more than the various scenes in which the characters politely ignore or converse with Hollis in the elevator.” – Latoya Peterson on Double XX

How polite.

“The scene is repulsive, and intentionally so; we’re supposed to recoil at the sight of Roger enacting retrograde ideas about race and class. Instead, though, I recoiled at Mad Men’s decision to go there. The scene isn’t gratuitous: The episode is largely about generational and class conflicts, and the blackface crystallizes Roger’s boorishness for both Don and the modern viewer. But I’m still not sure it was necessary or warranted (or advisable for a show that is still working to attract new viewers; did you see the ratings for episode two were lower than those for the premiere?).” – Julia Turner on Slate

Interesting point, but with viewership up 33 percent from last year, those early numbers would have been almost impossible to sustain.

“While Joan and Paul’s performances were about saving face, Roger’s was all about putting on another one. It’s good to see that Don was squirming at the sight as much as most viewers at home, though many of the guests laughed, either cause they’re casual racists, or because they’re trying to keep the boss happy by playing along with his shtick. Either way, this performance solidifies Roger as a major asshole, if we needed that made any more plainly.” – Brian Moylan on Defamer

Ha. We’ve actually never thought of Roger as an asshole, just rather weak.

“Two things I didn’t love so much: The awkwardly long song that Roger sang in blackface. First of all, blackface. I know that was (and in some cases, still is) done by clueless idiots, and maybe Roger’s performance went on for a long time in order to make us feel as uncomfortable as Don became. But in the final analysis, what did it prove? That Roger is a ham who loves attention? That he wants everyone to think of him and Jane as an entertaining couple? That he’s out of step with the times if he thinks blackface is a laugh riot? Whatever the point was, I wish the scene had gotten there sooner.” Maureen Ryan on The Watcher

Agreed. The only scene that felt longer was that battle of niceties between Jane and Joan.

“Roger performing in blackface. I’m at a loss for words.” – Keith Phipps on A.V. Club

Not exactly a whimper, but far from the bang that we (and perhaps Matthew Weiner) might have expected. So what did you think of the episode?