Failures of imagination: In praise of historical inaccuracy
Plus: A Snake Falls to Earth, Severance and Kevin Can F*** Himself
This month’s essay + roundup is brought to you by the advent of Spring, otherwise known as Pre-Summer, or The Re-emergence of Lawn Chairs. Reading time is 11 minutes.
I’ve been watching Mad Men. Other than the description on Prime, I knew nothing about the show going in. I especially did not know that it has a cult following, and apparently is—as the kids say—GOATed. And let me tell you—I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this show. The characterization and storytelling are nothing short of phenomenal. I’m still at Season 3, but I see myself watching it to the end—because I love it, but also because it discomforts me.
As much as I understand the economic, political and cultural climate of the American 1960s, I simply find it difficult to agree that anything non-white during this period does not deserve airtime.
Now, this is not a Why are there no Black main characters in Mad Men? piece, because those have been done to death. This is more of a refusal to believe that there’s no way the writers could not imagine non-white characters—Black characters, to be specific—outside of how they did. I’m insistent that there is a difference between did not exist and was not given airtime: teh former is a fact, the latter is a choice. And writer and creator, Matthew Weiner, who made this choice, has repeatedly defended it, saying things like:
“I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America…If I was telling a story of the black experience, it would be very different. But I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing…Guess what? It’s a shameful part of our past. It’s real…Black people still do not have representation on Madison Ave.”
I consider this use of “historical accuracy” to cower out of choices made as a failure of imagination. The problem is not that Mad Men doesn’t give airtime to Black characters—it does, if only briefly—but that the creators could only imagine such “real interaction of white and Black America” manifesting within situations of subservience: secretaries, elevator operators, housemaids, waiters. This might have typically been the case and is therefore historically accurate, but that is making the mistake that non-prevalence = non-existence. Because if even one single Black person existed in Madison Avenue in 1965 who was not a secretary or housemaid or elevator operator or waiter, isn’t that also historically accurate?
In search of Blackness in 1960s Madison Avenue
My understanding of the choice made by the creators of Mad Men not to center any non-white character is that they believe none of these peoples’ stories would (1) fit into the ad world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and their various home lives (and not within a subservient framework); and (2) would be worth centering and giving airtime to. So I decided to do some cursory Googling to see if there were any real-life Black folks at the time who did indeed meet these conditions, and what do you know—there absolutely were.
I’m not the first to do this—the New York Times already highlighted Black presence in Madison Avenue as far back as 1960, including “a graphic art director at CBS, helping to shape the look of early television.” Note, it doesn’t say Black television but all television, which means the Mad Men character Harry Crane, who is head of TV at Sterling Cooper, might as well have been this guy. I say this because creator Matt Weiner was quick to point out that “telling a story of the black experience would be very different,” which baffles me because, while I’m sure one cannot tell the story of a Black person in 1960s America without touching on race, it sounds more like Weiner is saying, “I didn’t want to touch too much on race, so I decided not to center any Black person, even if they may have existed within the periphery of my characters.”
I say this because Weiner centers another historically maligned group in Mad Men: women. Women faced significant discriminatory barriers in this industry during this period as well, but somehow there was room to imagine and include deviations from the typical. I’m pretty sure secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson getting her own office and name on the door was not a prevalent or common occurrence in 1960s Madison Avenue either, but somehow it was within the imagination of the Mad Men creators. This inclusion did not “change the show” as Weiner has suggested for Black inclusion, but instead made it better.
Here’s another instance of a Black ad executive from that NYT article:
“In 1955, Young & Rubicam hired Roy Eaton, a Phi Beta Kappa with a master’s degree in music. Mr. Eaton, who applied to the agency virtually on a whim, talked executives into letting him write tryout ad copy, and then sample jingles. Charles Feldman, the agency’s creative director, hired him as its first black professional. According to Mr. Chambers, Mr. Feldman told the new employee: “The reason I had you write the jingles is that, though you obviously have creative talent, if you were white you would have been hired immediately, just on the basis of the commercials you wrote. But I want a Jackie Robinson. I want someone who is not only good, but superior!”
Sounds like a rad story, right? Like it would fit right in Mad Men, right? In fact, sounds very similar to the tale of, oh, I dunno, one Peggy Olson, right?
We could go on and on—and indeed, others have, explaining how Black and white America in 1960s advertising were not as separated as we’d like to think (e.g. special departments focusing on Black and Latin markets were alluded to in Mad Men but not seriously engaged with). In fact, actress Erika Alexander wrote “a Mad Men episode with negroes” just to buttress the point that it could be done. (A Slate article says: “Alexander’s goal for the screenplay was to incorporate black characters “organically” into Mad Men, to prove that the show’s writers can in fact do so themselves. And overall the script succeeds.”)
All of this to say: Mad Men’s banner of historical accuracy only applies when convenient. The creators made a choice to trade in half-erasure while citing historical underrepresentation, showing only the parts of Blackness in 1960s Madison Avenue and beyond that they felt comfortable with. Well, I don’t know about you, but while I might watch and enjoy the show, I will continue to feel uncomfortable with this portrayal because it simply isn’t true, and I think everyone deserves to understand that.
“Historical accuracy” is a mask
Mad Men isn’t the only one with this failure. Some stories (looking at you, Friends) do not even have a defense at all, just all-out erasure. I think I can sit with the fact that Weiner & co actually have a defense, albeit an unsatisfactory one. But then we encounter something like the Bridgerton novels vs TV show—the former of which I haven’t read, the latter of which I’ve seen—and things get a little interesting.
There are camps that insist the idea of a “post-racial” Regency drama is too fantasy-laden, and perhaps even outright disrespectful of those who suffered most during that period. On the other hand, some welcome the idea of a fantastical ton with erased racialization because it likely means we get to witness more people of colour in key roles on screen. To them, historical accuracy is overrated. They want authors to take creative liberties. (Although the author, Julia Quinn, would beg to differ).
I think there’s space in both camps for all of us (though most of us would not approve of those cover redesigns). I appreciate that fiction can be used to educate as well as entertain—and it should. I believe historical accuracy is useful, and helpful when historical incidents play a heightened role in the story being told. However, when historical incidents are not central to the events of the fictionalized tale, and the storyteller has informed us beforehand that this story is not a re-enactment of a factual event (and Mad Men is a good example of this), I say let loose the historical inaccuracy. Take creative liberties.
If a storyteller insists that the sanctity of historical accuracy in a piece of fiction is most important—even more important than diversity, representation and inclusion—then perhaps said storyteller is telling us more about themselves than anything else.
⭐ A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger
I’m not surprised that this novel is on many award lists this season. It’s Darcie, afterall, whose writing is clutch and whose choice of storytelling angle is always pleasantly fascinating. What I’m surprised by is that it’s been described as everything from a middle-grade novel to a YA novel, but it feels very mature. This story—of Oli, a cottonmouth from the animal-people world, and Nina, from Texas—follows two interesting characters as time and other events lurch them toward an inescapable encounter, and is quite different from much of the MG/YA I’ve read this year. In that, don’t go in here looking for a fast-paced plot or exciting battle scenes, but trust that you will find intrigue, suspense, humor, melancholy—the whole nine yards. It’s a great book for readers of every age who don’t mind taking time to savor the various layers of a story.
⭐ Kevin Can F*** Himself, S01: This take on the absurdity of the American Sitcom Wife—written by Valerie Armstrong in response to the sitcom Kevin Can Wait—is really two shows. On one hand, it “spoofs corny family sitcoms” by keeping all living-room segments bright, breezy, “funny” and colourful. Then, behind the scenes, when the women of the show step away from that living-room-as-standing-set, we see all “the darkness behind the bright lights and bad jokes” that they have to deal with. Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) stars as the wife who decides she’s going to kill her man-baby husband, Kevin. The show goes to some dark places, which makes the light, breezy parts feel even more absurd. 100% would recommend.
⭐ Severance, S01: I never knew the words “macrodata refinement” and “waffle party” would raise such horror in me, but this show—about workers who “sever” their personalities between home & work lives, essentially creating two different people—did just that. There’s so much about it that’s reminiscent of my time as a cog in a multinational corporation. From the false belief in a “work family” and that “the work we do here is important” (as a character queries: “Is it, really? Why—just because you said so?”) to anti-work literature with popcorn aphorisms (“At the center of industry is dust”) and being unable to explain what one even does and how it impacts the world. Overall, it’s an intriguing and quite human show about why people make the choices they do—including the choice to be severed.
⭐ Impact Winter by Travis Beacham: This Audible drama by the creator/exec producer of Carnival Row features not just a stellar cast (Esmé Creed-Miles! Himesh Patel! Liam Cunningham! Indira Varma! Bella Ramsey!) but wonderful storytelling and exceptional sound editing. I’ve been on the prowl for movie-for-your-ears fiction podcasts to listen to on my walks and while biking or doing housework. This was the perfect listen, not because I’m a fan of vampires (I’m really not—too pasty and disgustingly good-looking, lol) but because I remain in awe of the storytelling choices made. Free to listen if you have access to Amazon Music.
🌐 On the interwebs
Lore Olympus: This free webtoon by New Zealand artist Rachel Smythe (now a bestselling graphic novel, I hear) follows Greek gods reimagined as LA-type high-rollers, centering Persephone and Hades falling in love. It’s witty, sharp, romantic, and best of all, damn funny.
MIT Technology Review on AI Colonialism (I particularly found the section on racial control—South Africa's private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid—haunting).
In Case You Missed It
I was profiled by Open Country Mag for their “In-Depth Special Issue on Contemporary African Literature,” featuring colleagues, contemporaries and changemakers in the African literary scene. Read all the stories here.
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