Mad Men has struggled to include diversity in its story lines, but following the 1960’s advertising world and the personality flaws of its inhabitants hasn’t exactly lent itself to any depiction of the black experience.
The black characters thus far have been accessories. Among them, the Drapers’ maid Carla was on the verge of becoming a breakout role before Betty Draper unceremoniously fired her, the black girlfriend of a Sterling Cooper account executive walked away because she was just as much a prop in his life as she was in Mad Men’s cast, and Naturi Naughton’s role as a “chocolate Playboy Bunny,” was the epitome of depicting black bodies and black problems, but all through white eyes.
Still, there were black people around in late 1960’s Manhattan, and the fifth season opened up by finally delving into how racial tensions affected every American during that era. Thanks to a lame practical joke war with another firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the advertising firm depicted on the series) was forced to hire a black secretary.
Enter actress Teyonah Parris, who has already brought a subtle authenticity to her role as Don Draper’s new secretary (and the firm’s first black employee) Dawn Chambers. Dawn has already endeared herself to viewers by keeping her head high in the midst of behind-the-scenes whispers from co-workers. The character was also featured in an especially illuminating series of scenes in which she both bonded with and faced prejudice from the firm’s most liberal-minded character, Peggy, demonstrating the innate prejudice of white Americans during those times. In an interview with New York Magazine Teyonah Parris opens up about how she sees her character and crafting her approach to working in the entertainment industry. An excerpt:
People have criticized the show for not having more black characters, but others think the show is just being true to the context of an ad agency in the mid-sixties. Do you have any thoughts? And since you’re playing the first black employee, do you feel pressured to have a lot of opinions about this?
I did not feel a lot of pressure. I am happy to be a part of the show. I know that this show hasn’t had an African-American in the office and I know that comes with a lot of responsibility as to how I portray this woman, but I can’t think about that. I can only go in and do what I think this woman would do. I try not to think, ‘Oh, I have to represent every single black person in the world that was there in the sixties.’ I have to tell this one woman’s story and what that was for her. I’m kind of on the fence because as a black actress, there aren’t a lot of roles out there for us, and so you see a great show and it’s like, Oh wow, I would love to be on that show. Oh, but there are no black people on it. So that part is frustrating and I understand that, but at the same time I don’t expect to be a part of everyone’s story if it’s not true to the story that they’re trying to tell.
Parris recognizing that she does not have to tell the story of every black person who was alive during that era is a sentiment that I hope Mad Men‘s writers have grasped and will continue to grasp in upcoming episodes.
Read more of the interview at New York Magazine Vulture.
Do you watch Mad Men? What do you think will happen with the Dawn Chambers character?