April 29, 2012
The Long, Slow Walk to Why Women Love Mad Men
Oh sure, it's fun to play with pointy things....until someone loses an eye!
My college friend Nielsen was a racist. The man had many endearing qualities, and if you give me an hour I may be able to dredge up a couple of them for you, but it’s just a plain, bald fact that Nielsen did not like black people. And a plain, black fact that he did not like bald people, for that matter, making it a really lucky thing that we met when I had all my hair. But that is, as they say, neither here nor there.
One unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in April of ’78, my roommate Hoppy
and I rendezvoused with Nielsen and his long-suffering girlfriend outside
the Twins’ ballpark to see the home-state team take on the hated Yankees.
The first word out of Nielsen’s mouth when we approached him was “Niggers!”
He said this in part because he had already been drinking, of course, and, more to the point, because the condition of his face had compelled us to ask him what the devil had happened to it. It unfolded that while drinking in a sports bar in Mankato the previous evening he had triggered an altercation with some African-American patrons that had proven short and brutish and nasty, at least for Nielsen. Hoppy and I quickly changed the subject—probably to the lusciousness of the girlfriend in her summery outfit, since it was the thing that leapt most readily to our minds—so as to head off another loud ejaculation of the N Word.
Let’s stop here and contemplate how very, very hard it was to be beaten up by African Americans in Mankato in the Nineteen Seventies. First, you had to go out and find some. That, in and of itself, would wear out most applicants. Then, you had to annoy them to the point where they would forget the stark reality of their isolation in a rednecky rural southwestern Minnesota backwater and throw caution to the proverbial winds and just lay into you. In short, you'd really have to work for it.
Nielsen’s racial attitudes, like those of most racists, I suppose, could
be remarkably fluid. In the course of the Twins game, he repeatedly became
energized at the sight of Reggie Jackson chugging in and out of the visitors’
dugout, which we were sitting just several rows behind. And I mean, energized
in a positive way. At one point he insisted that I take his picture as
he stood and curled his arm in the air, in the hopes that the flattening
effect of photography would make him appear to be embracing the Yankee
slugger. I still have the photo, which depicts Nielsen’s blurry but clearly
battered face and an indifferent Jackson.
Not only that, but in the winter of the previous year, Nielsen and I (then
sharing an apartment) and our third roommate, Sodbuster, had sat glued
to the black-and-white hand-me-down TV in our apartment for every minute
of every episode of the initial screening of Roots. And not a single untoward racial comment was hurled in that apartment throughout that entire week.*
It’s a testimony to the power of Alex Haley’s story, plagiarized though it may have been, that it could so mesmerize the likes of Nielsen and Sodbuster. But do you know what American demographic enjoyed Roots even more than white racists did? I’ll tell you which group: African Americans!
Ha! You thought it was a trick question.
Now think about that for a minute. Yes, Roots was conceived by and for African Americans. And yes, the descendants of
Kunta Kinte do achieve a triumph—or at least, a temporary respite—at the
end of the series’ weeklong run. But this comes only after dragging the
viewer through whippings, mutilations, rapes, forced separations, two episodes
of intense exposure to the acting style of George Hamilton, and who-can-even-recall
what other indignities. And yet African American families all over America
kept gathering in the glow of their (presumably Admiral) televisions night after night to suffer along with each progressive generation
All right. So, then. Mad Men. Artsy-fartsy drama now in its fifth season. Despite its macho-sounding
title, it attracts a predominantly female viewership. It’s not that hard
to grasp why male viewers are in the minority. I’ve watched every episode
up to S05E05 (as they say in Pirate-Bay speak) and if there has ever been
so much as a glimpse of a nipple not tangled in a thicket of chest hair,
it got by me. And while the writers aren’t above throwing a gratuitously
gory riding-mower accident into the mix every couple of seasons, Mad Men can’t really compete with other dramas on that score. Heck, in Spartacus, a guy having a foot hacked off with whirling blades would still be even
money to rally and win the tournament.
The question, then, is why women do like Mad Men. This is a show in which a female character in any given episode is apt
to be harassed, molested, blithely cheated on, ridiculed, trussed up in
boob-mangling foundation garments, or even raped, while triumphs or even
respites are few and far between.
So here’s the thing: I think Mad Men is Roots for American women. There is evidently some yearning deep within all of
us, some sort of ancestor-centric voyeurism that makes us crave to relive
the agony of our less fortunate forebears.
Yep. That’s it. You waded through all that blather about my college friend and Reggie Jackson and George Hamilton just to get to that one crummy morsel of insight.
Come on. You didn’t really have anything better to do.
* I would be remiss if I failed to admit that a number of untoward sexual comments were hurled, particularly during those early episodes when the
topless slave women were being herded about. But I think this is excusable
when you consider the extreme dearth of images of moving, wobbling bosoms
available to us in those days. To expect silence from lads of our ilk upon
having topless black ladies thrust in front of us without warning, right
there in our living room, no matter how solemn the occasion, is just too
much to ask.
Kids, ask your parents—or your grandparents, if it’s come to that already, for heaven’s sake—about the rampant toplessness in the first few episodes of Roots on primetime network television. Yes, this really, really happened in
the United States of America in 1977. I swear. And the world did not come
to an end. We all thought it was a trend, that we’d be seeing topless Charlie’s
Angels or Suzanne Somers or even Wonder Woman before we graduated, but
no. No, the Knights of Standards and Practices decreed in their infinite wisdom that ethnic toplessness was acceptable in certain situations, but never ever Caucasian toplessness. I guess they counted a black boob as three-fifths of a white one.