Friday, August 21, 2009

Mad Men's Carla raises consciousness 140 characters at a time

Why do Mad Men fans write feeds for the characters? I know that for many of us, it's simply good fun. For others, it's fun and an interesting experiment in social media. For others of us, it's all that opportunity to touch on controversial social issues the show bravely explores.

Latoya Peterson writing for Racialicious observes there's a twitter feed for Carla, the Drapers' African American housekeeper, which puts forth perspective that is "all but absent on the show".

Some critics have taken Mad Men to task for not dealing with social injustice in a more frontal manner. But Weiner's characters exist in a universe where concepts of feminism and racism are just beginning to take hold. Where sexual harassment not only doesn't have consequences, it won't have a name for a good twenty years.

HighJive, a popular blogger who writes on race and "cultural cluelessness" concedes that "finding fault with Mad Men’s rendering of ethnic minorities in the advertising industry is somewhat impossible because, well, they barely exist. They’re invisible."

Indeed, when the twitter feed for Carla first appeared in December, there was no profile pic. There wasn't a profile pic for Carla for weeks. The writer explained why in an email:
I have no picture because I'm invisible.
Carla remained without a profile pic until Jan 19, the day before Obama was sworn in:
Finally found one of my own pictures. Makes me feel like today is a holiday.
From time to time, the writer behind Carla touches on racial inequity taken for granted in the world of Ossining, circa 1963. Here's her exchange with Betty during a twitter-based Tea Party:

Carla: This uniform makes me feel uncomfortable. But I can't show it; must maintain my "quiet dignity" for the party.

Betty: And be sure and put out Cointreau for White Ladies.

Carla: Oh, won't all of your guests be white ladies at the party?

Betty: You are such a character! Gin + Cointreau + Lemon + Powdered Sugar = White Lady. Don't forget to iron your apron!

Carla: We could offer Black Ladies as well. Brandy + Grand Marnier + Kahlua. Paul Kinsey told me he likes Black Ladies.

Carla: And at least, I get to keep my own clothes clean if Betty and her friends spit up the White Ladies on the black lady.

Betty: And change the record on the hifi to Bing Crosby, would you?

Clara: Putting on Bing Crosby record, wishing I'd brought my Louie Armstrong "Christmas Night in Harlem" record to play.
Some tweeters have taken issue with @Carla_Madmen's sangfroid, wishing her to be more politically conscious:
re: Fixation on the Drapers' lives...don't you need to be marching for your civil rights or something?
But Carla on twitter remains in character. She is no Rosa Parks. She is like thousands of women were then as now: ordinary women trying to make the best of the cards they'd been dealt:
March? I get plenty of exercise walking to and from the train.
I do not know who writes @Carla_Madmen. But we have developed an email relationship in which we exchange views on racism and other issues that Carla and Betty can't discuss. I sent her the Racialicious piece and asked for her views on how blacks are depicted in Mad Men. She wrote:

African-Americans are the only grown-ups on Mad Men. To the limited extent you see them, they lack any discernible faults. Whether that's due to their minor roles, I'm not sure. I think it will be interesting to watch Mad Men develop larger roles for minority characters as the 60's progress -- single dimensional with quiet dignity or a more full range of human emotions and foibles. It's obviously a potential land mine for the writers.
And a gold mine of material for the writer of Carla's twitter feed.


Anonymous said...

“But Weiner's characters exist in a universe where concepts of feminism and racism are just beginning to take hold. Where sexual harassment not only doesn't have consequences, it won't have a name for a good twenty years.”

From a white, male POV, maybe. But consider those on the receiving end of that racism and sexual harassment—forget in 20 years, they’ve lived with it forever.

I doubt stoic or a universal awareness to rise up is at work, rather, I would assume there’s a universal resignation to the reality of their situation.

That’s one of the main problems I always had with the show. There’s this convenient disconnect with realty, from both the writer and the fans. Mimic the show’s authentic Mad Ave fashions or blog about the Golden Age of advertising the show depicts? Sure. Talk about deeper issues though?

Well now that’s just being ridiculous.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Thanks, Bill, for the read and for this considered comment.

True, Weiner's characters exhibit "universal resignation to the reality of their situation." But to me, dramatizing that reality is what makes the show social commentary.

By setting the drama in overtly racist and sexist times, I think Weiner points up that these problems persist today. Okay, the isms aren't as blatant in the postmillenial workplace. Ethnic slurs and race/sex-based hiring are no longer tolerated. But that doesn't mean racism and sexism are gone.

What hits me when I watch the show is not just how much has changed since 1963, but how little has. I'm not just viewing historical drama, I'm seeing what's happening in times we live in today. Even the fashions make it seem contemporary.

I don't think the constraints of 1963 setting allows for characters to rise against the system. The show is about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. The drama wouldn't be nearly as compelling--or believable-- if they possessed 2009 consciousness.

California Girl said...

I cannot say I've given any of this any thought. I have not. I guess i just watch the program in the context of the period in which it is portrayed. That being said, I am continually irritated and bemused by the manner in which the women in the office (all white) are treated. I am a generation removed from them yet I feel a kindred spirit as I am a Baby Boomer and I struggled against much of what they struggled against. The show is fascinating, frustrating and MADdening. I'm sure it is doubly maddening for people of color who find themselves portrayed in a stereotypical way reminiscent of the Forties and earlier.

HighJive said...

Latoya’s piece for Double X, which she admits underwent extensive editing, actually taps into something I’ve never been able to articulate clearly until Latoya mentioned it to me. That is, Mad Men exhibits an “erasure” of certain racial issues. It’s like seeing the old photographs of Blacks being blasted by fire hoses – yet never seeing the Whites holding the hoses. Matthew Weiner is being very polite in his handling of Blacks and racism – which is completely out of character when considering how he handles all other cultural matters. It’s revisionist history for a show boasting historical accuracy. Blacks are portrayed as heroic, and they receive uncommon courtesy from nearly everyone. Meanwhile, when it comes to discrimination towards women, Weiner has no problems. We’ve seen Peggy Olson sexually harassed and disrespected quite openly and regularly. Don Draper sexually assaulted at least one woman. Even Joan was raped by her fiancĂ©. Bias towards gays is also openly depicted. The young turk creative who admitted to being gay in Season 2 was the target of quite a few hateful homophobic remarks. And in the first episode of Season 3, we witnessed a full-blown sex scene between Salvatore and a male hotel employee. Again, Weiner has no issue dealing with biases he’s comfortable with (I always presumed Weiner was gay, but later learned he’s married – which technically doesn’t mean he’s not gay). Anyway, there is no negativity ever directed toward Blacks. Additionally, although Weiner is comfortable showing just about everyone else having sex – including Sal and the hotel dude – he never allowed any scenes of Paul Kinsey banging his Black girlfriend. Why? I contend it’s rooted in the creator’s cultural cluelessness. It’s not about being accurate to the reality that Blacks were and continue to be invisible in the ad industry. It’s about being ignorant about Black culture, and therefore being uncomfortable, unwilling and unable to deal with it. At least that’s my opinion.

P.S., I’ll bet cash money the person tweeting as Carla didn’t use a photograph of the character for a long time because no photographs were available. I tried for a long time to find an image of her to no avail while posting weekly on Seasons 1 and 2. The character and actress are not even on the website cast list – while the lowliest crewmembers are. Another example of “erasure” perhaps?

Anonymous said...

“It’s revisionist history for a show boasting historical accuracy.”


Hj summed up what I’d always took 24 paragraphs to say about it. ;-p

Left to their own devices, I don’t think people infer some deeper social commentary—they just want to be entertained.

I know you’re a fan of the show and have lived through a lot of what you see in it, I just don’t need to see a Smithsonian exhibit of how messed up we were as a country masquerading as entertainment.

Anyone in advertising who is clueless about the “isms” it depicts and who thinks it’s not a problem anymore, just because they look around their agency and don’t see any of it on the surface, helps perpetuate the problem.

It’s there, it’s just far more nuanced in many cases and still blatant in others.

Least that’s my theory. ;-p

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@CaliforniaGirl I agree that even though we watch the program for entertainment, not polemic, Weiner's views on sexism and other sorts of discrimination come across loud and clear. I think he means us to find the show, as you say, "fascinating, frustrating and maddening." In other words, engaging.

@HighJive You (and Latoya) make an interesting point, one I hadn't thought of before. "Matthew Weiner is very polite in his handling of Blacks and racism – which is completely out of character when considering how he handles all other cultural matters."

True, Weiner often makes blatant the bias that existed in the 60s against women and non-African American minorities. When asked if he's hired Jews, Don is quick to report "Not on my watch." And in an early scene, Pete returns from his honeymoon to find his office overtaken by a family of "Chinamen" his co-workers have brought in as a joke. And as for gays...well, poor Sal.

But when it comes to blacks, you're right, he treads lightly. You point out that African Americans "receive uncommon courtesy from nearly everyone." (Which was certainly not characteristic of the day.) @Carla_Madmen wrote that black characters in Mad Men are "single dimensional" and lack "any discernible faults." Perhaps Weiner has decided that racism isn't one of the issues he wants to (or is equipped to) explore? Or perhaps it's an issue he's postponed delving into until this season...when cultural events will provide a certain backdrop for it.

BTW, have you read AMC's interview with Deborah Lacey, the actor who plays Carla? The first question posed is pretty ironic, given the topic we're discussing.

@mtlb Understand your POV and you're not the only resister I've heard this from. A friend who was a housewife in Westchester in the 60s refuses to watch after seeing one episode because she says it makes her feel suicidal.

HighJive said...

Ad Broad,

It’s probably more insidious and sad than what you’re speculating. See, Weiner knows it’s OK for his characters to display misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism for a host of reasons. Weiner gets away with the anti-Semitism because he’s Jewish. He gets away with the misogyny because society has gotten beyond it to certain degrees – and it allows Peggy to shine as a heroine-trailblazer. He gets away with blasting gays because they continue to be one of the few targets that people feel comfortable shooting at (see Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest movie or Bob Garfield’s open letter to Omnicom CEO John Wren). But no way can Weiner’s characters display blatant racism towards Blacks and still be respected and loved by audiences. It would make things too uncomfortable, especially if they were portrayed as accurately racist.

Another guess might have to do with the creative consultants, which allegedly come from the ad industry. It’s OK for the consultants to admit there was misogyny – after all, Neil French was banned, but he’s hardly been branded for life like, say, Michael Richards. But no way will the consultants confess to their racism. That’s a label no one wants to wear, especially since the issue remains a hot topic and grounds for a potential class-action lawsuit.

BTW, I’ve never been impressed with the show for different reasons than Bill. My issues have nothing to do with the cultural stuff or anything like that. I just think the writing is terrible. So corny and contrived and poorly executed. It’s like a lot of ads today – extremely well art directed, but poorly written with not much of a concept.

Anonymous said...

Well, as for the show itself, since Hj brought it up, ;-p, I watched the very first two episodes so I could at least say I saw it. I think art direction, set design, etc., nailed the period. The performances struck me funny in two ways:

1) It feels like it’s trying to create some noirish vibe that captures the perception we have now of films then Hitchcock, etc. (I actually thought Barry Levinson would’ve made a good choice as director here. Several of his films like Diner, Tin Men and Good Morning, Vietnam capture dialog in the 60s with an understated, natural feel.)

2) The real problem I had though more than the racism thing, was that it was utterly humorless. One of the things that makes dealing with the day to day crap in advertising is your coworkers who you joke with to get through it all. I’ve worked with some amazingly talented, funny people, yet I don’t see any of that vibe in this show.

Paranoia and backstabbing though? Check. (Things which Trust Me amplified as well.) Sure, those things are there in real life, but not every single person in an agency, certainly to that degree.

I also get that it’s a show first, and as such, needs to entertain. But that’s how all movies and shows are. The industry industry the main characters work in is generally jut a backdrop, (Nothing In Common, Kramer vs. Kramer, etc.) so I may be expecting too much. ;-p

There’s a new show out from Austrailia called :30 Seconds, but it’s a comedy more in line with The Office than anything.

Anonymous said...

(...The industry the main characters work in is generally just a backdrop...)

And “mormen” was the word verification on this comment btw. ;-p

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@HJ Thanks for further thoughts. Whoa. You're done an impressive amount of thinking about this. I see what you mean about characters being contrained from displays of racism that were de rigueur for the day in order not to alienate post-millennial audiences. And I buy your speculation that creative consultants OK with misogyny are loathe to seem racist. But your last point?! Just goes to show how subjective it all is. I think the writing is superb. Spot on dialogue. And so much conveyed in the caverns of silence.

@mtlb That's something I never noticed before. The humorlessness. I don't mean that the show isn't funny--for me, it's often funny, devastatingly so. But you're right, the office characters don't engage in that zany, manic, often sick humor particular to deadline-driven creatives. Perhaps because Sterling Cooper isn't really creative? Was B&B less funny in those days than DDB?

I got a glimpse of 30 Seconds thanks to your blog. Hilarious. Hope to catch it when (lucky me) I'm in Sydney next month.

HighJive said...

Ha! Well, I do caveat everything by stating it is my opinion. Although I contend the “caverns of silence” are more about art direction versus writing. It’s about watching the scenes and pretty characters versus listening to them. Guess I mean dialogue versus writing maybe. Compare the writing and dialogue to shows like Sopranos or The West Wing or even Third Rock. It’s just not there. The scene in the latest episode with Peggy mimicking Ann-Margret in the mirror was nothing short of ridiculous and asinine. If that’s brilliant writing, then somebody owes a Pulitzer Prize to Draftfcb.

BTW, have you ever read this old review?

golublog said...

I love that line though maintain my quiet dignity. Very nice.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@HighJive--sorry your kind comment is appearing so late. My comment alert bot is sometimes wonky. Loved this thoughtful Mad Men review. Even tho it illuminates your point, not mine. Thanks for excavating it for me.

@golublog That's one of my favorite of @Carla_Madmen's lines too...