- Mad Men, Competitive Women, and Invisible Hispanics
Peggy Olson is a copywriter at the fictitious Madison Avenue advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the Emmy Award–winning television program Mad Men, set in the 1960s. In one scene, she sits at a bar being wooed by a potential suitor. When Peggy mentions one of her clients, an auto supply firm, her drinking partner informs her of a boycott being waged against that particular company for refusing to hire “Negros” in their stores down South. Soon the conversation drifts toward the civil rights movement, and the young man questions how Peggy can provide services to the company rather than hold them accountable for their racist policies. Apparently feeling criticized, Peggy responds: “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either. And nobody seems to care. . . . Half of the meetings take place over golf, tennis, and a bunch of clubs where I’m not allowed to be a member. Or even enter. The University Club said the only way I could eat dinner there was if I arrive in a cake. I’m sure they can fight their way in [to a job as a copywriter] like I did. Believe me, nobody wanted me there.”1
The encounter between the fictional character Peggy Olson and her suitor reflects the turmoil occurring under the surface of the early 1960s. Peggy symbolizes the millions of women of that era competing for a seat at the table in a male-dominated world. But simultaneously, African Americans were also striving for their own rights. Peggy’s response reveals the tension existing between white women and black men over issues of equality, a historical tension that can be traced back to the friction between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and is still present today, as demonstrated during the 2008 Democratic [End Page 121] presidential primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.2 But in a black-white and a male-female dualism, this Latino man must ask: Where do my people fit in the equation? Within dichotomies that envision structural injustices as either sexist or racist, Latinas/os become the “new white woman,” relegated to the passive position most white women during the 1960s felt that they occupied. Valerie Saiving may have asked, “Where Is the Woman?”3; but today, I must instead ask: Where Is the Hispanic?
Emma lived two floors above us in our tenement building in Queens, New York, during the 1960s, and was one of many Latinas who left for the office buildings in Manhattan at 6:00 p.m. each evening to empty trash cans, dust furniture, sweep floors, and mop hallways. If there would have actually been a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Madison Avenue, Emma would have been cleaning up after Peggy Olson. Not surprisingly, there is no character on the show that lifts up Emma’s story for the viewers to consider. She, along with most Latinos/as, remains invisible. True, blacks in the era of Mad Men, when Reinhold Niebuhr and Valerie Saiving were writing, lived, and still do, in a society where structural racism exists. And yes, women are forced to operate, then and now, in a society where structural sexism is ever-present. Still, by creating neat dichotomies, not only are Hispanics, along with communities of color, excluded from the discourse, but the goals of liberation are dwarfed to the benefit of those still grasping for their power and privilege.
Niebuhr, like Peggy Olson’s young liberal suitor, was in favor of black civil rights. However, for him, racism was reduced to a manifestation of the sin of pride; an outwork and/or application of his Augustinian anthropology: “All human groups are essentially proud and find that pride very convenient because it seems to justify their special privileges and to explain the sad state of the [End Page 122] underprivileged. It is this combination of selfishness and pride which makes the problems of group relationships so difficult.”4 For Niebuhr, humanity was beset by the selfishness of hubris—“will to power” dependent upon woman’s negation of self. But as Saiving reminded us, the...