Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Mad Men," Episode 9, "Dark Shadows"

The increasing openness of American society in the 1960s is the main theme of “Dark Shadows,” as the growing presence of Jewish Americans takes center stage.  The episode reveals that the traditional Protestant establishment is declining in power as the descendants of the turn-of-the-century Ellis Island immigration claim a larger role in Sterling Cooper as well as the nation as a whole.

Nothing demonstrates this dynamic more clearly than Roger Sterling’s efforts to woo Manischewitz, a Jewish winemaker that is aiming to reach out to a non-Jewish clientele, or as Sterling calls them, “normal people.” During dinner, the owner’s son reveals that his father doesn’t like yachts because the last time he was on a boat he was in “steerage,” a reference to the fact that he came to the U.S. on a ship from Eastern Europe and/or the Russian Empire.  This was a common experience for Jewish immigrants and other newcomers to America, as many came to the United States through Ellis Island between 1882 and 1924. 

Many white-collar industries, such as the financial world, were largely closed to Jews because of the country club prejudice espoused by Sterling throughout the episode.  As a result, the first-generation of Jews often had to go into business by themselves or with family members.  Educational doors were often closed as well, as Ivy League universities created quotas to limit the number of Jews attending their institutions. 

After the unifying experience of World War II, with many immigrants and their children serving abroad or sacrificing at home as part of the national effort to defeat the Axis powers, anti-Semitism began to diminish.   In 1946, polls conducted by the American Jewish Committee revealed that 64 percent of people had heard negative talk about Jews in the previous six months.  By 1959, only 12 percent had heard such remarks (Dinnerstein, Anti-Semitism in America, p. 151).  The academic quotas gradually faded away and major firms opened their doors to a new generation during the postwar period. In “Man Men,” Sterling Cooper is clearly late to the party, only hiring Michael Ginsberg in 1966.  Even Sterling noted in a previous episode that most firms already hired Jews.  In a New York Times piece written before the debut of the second season, creator Matt Weiner foreshadowed the show’s evolution, saying, “The story to me is about the onset of a subversive ethnic point of view that has not poked through to Sterling Cooper.  They’re dinosaurs.”(NYT, June 22, 2008)

Indeed, “Mad Men” has now reached this stage, as Don Draper now must compete with the upstart Ginsberg, whom the firm wouldn’t have hired a decade earlier.  Draper is clearly threatened by his younger colleague’s talent, to the point of not showing Ginsberg’s idea to a client so as to ensure they will take his own.  When he confronts Don about this omission, Ginsberg says, “I feel bad for you.”  Though Don responds that “I don’t think about you at all,” he is either lying to Ginsberg or to himself.

The new generation of Jewish Americans was by no means homogenous.  Some, like Roger’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jane Siegel, were very assimilated.  Others, like Ginsberg, who was adopted by a traditional Jewish father, appear closer to the immigrant experience.  Some have noted that Weiner is portraying Ginsberg as an almost Woody Allen-like stereotype (Allen’s career was just beginning to take off in the mid-60s). 

One shouldn’t exaggerate the openness of 1966.  The nation had only eliminated Jim Crow a year earlier with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and blacks, as well as women, hardly faced an even playing field in the workplace. Still, as Roger and Don are discovering, it is a greater challenge to be successful when institutions don’t exclude large pools of talented people.

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