Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

March 27, 2012

Mad Men: Confronting History

by Ron Simon

Over the last two months we have to question how much real progress have we made since the privileged white male era of Mad Men. The shooting of Trayvon Martin and the debate over women's reproductive rights seem like giant steps backwards in the ongoing battles for race and gender equality. As we enter the fifth season of Mad Men, all those little injustices in the sixties advertising workplace hit a little closer to home. But, while watching this Sunday, I was struck by a tweet from humorist Andy Borowitz (@BorowitzReport), stating that "SPOILER: Don and the gang are oblivious about future historical events, making the audience feel superior." Creator Matt Weiner has constantly striven to challenge his viewers' connection to history. Did something go awry with the civil rights protest that framed this two hour narrative?

Weiner has been so ingenious in engineering how his insulated professionals intersect with larger societal trends. He has avoided the conventional approach where his crew accrues some type of understanding of the forces shaping their world. His characters glean only bits and pieces of the bigger picture, especially when they least expect it. I think of Don hearing Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the radio after he has picked up schoolteacher Suzanne Farrell during her early morning run ("Wee Small Hours", Season 3:Episode 9). Weiner admirably resisted showing the iconic video footage; hearing the audio in a darkened car is jarring for the couple and the audience. Don, totally oblivious to King's import, is ready to switch the station. Draper's consciousness has proven not nearly as sharp as his suits.

Weiner has purposely subverted how personal memory of history is constructed in TV and film.  His characters, especially in the office, are bystanders at best to great events. Only half paying attention to such televised events as the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi ("The Jet Set", S2:E11), the staff is more involved in gossip and the minutiae of work than the outside world. Peggy's attempt to start a conversation about the assassination of Malcolm X ("The Rejected", S4:E4) is brushed off by Joey who sees no reason to "read stuff between the ads." From Paul Kinsey's questionable motives to register voters down south ("The Inheritance", S2:E10) to Betty's privatized hallucination about Medgar Evers ("The Fog", S3:E5) [pictured above], Mad Men's characters, immersed in careers and relationships, are refreshingly unaffected by the change that is gonna come. Weiner makes us rethink how we process transformation as we watch his self-obsessed ensemble.

Season Five abruptly plunges the advertising world into directly contact with a civil rights protest. Rowdy frat boys from a rival agency, Young & Rubicam, taunt and throw water balloons from above at African-American picketers for equal opportunities. Their insults of "Get a Job" directly echo the contemporary jeers at the Occupy Wall Streeters. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, a protestor confronts her tormentors: "Is this what Madison Avenue represents?" The answer will prove resoundingly yes, as Draper's firm uses the incident to make fun of their competitor, a stunt that ultimately backfires on them. Equal opportunity becomes the source of guffaws for the entire industry.

Private misunderstanding of history has yielded to communal practical jokes: the noble protestors vs. white male club of privilege. But in this episode, Weiner plays the confrontation mostly for comedy. I would agree with Borowitz's tweet, the viewer feels above it all, not implicated in any way. Tanner Colby's penetrating analysis of race and advertising in Slate demonstrates that the issue was much more complex and the industry's response more nuanced. Maybe this escapade will ironically lead to the integration of SCDP, but for now Mad Men seemed to take the easy way out, playing history for undemanding laughs. One wonders how Weiner will deal with the demands of "Black Power," which were first heard the same month that this episode takes place, June 1966.


Read Ron Simon's blog posts on the last season of Mad Men:

Don Draper Meets the Creative Revolution
(July 2010)

Mad Men: Clio Meets Emmy
(August 2010)


Watch the cast of Mad Men at PALEYFEST2012


  • Thanks for your observation Bob. Matt Weiner has been very scrupulous in making Mad Men accurate in every detail. I am sure that many of the plot points are based on historical facts.But I wasn't convinced by the humorous tone of the water incident and the reaction to it. For me it was played too much for laughs and didn't have the messiness of real life that Weiner is known for. Here is the link to the Times story:

    Ron, March 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

  • I read in the New York Times today that dropping water balloons on the protesters actually happened. Does that change your opinion at all?


    Bob Morgan, March 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm


Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio


Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.


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