I'm a big fan of the show Mad Men. Of its many strengths, one is how it depicts the bald, open bigotry that was so commonplace in the early 1960s, even among urbane white Northerners. It shows that racism in a straight-forward way, and lets the wrongness and immorality of those attitudes speak for themselves.
Mad Men had its season premiere a few nights ago, and the following morning an article in the New York Times focused on this aspect of the show. There was a discussion that got me thinking, so I'll paste it below:
Old attitudes about race in particular are so distasteful that it’s become almost taboo to show them, even in the past tense. So most shows refract unsavory times through a contemporary lens, often bending reality to showcase a main character’s ahistoric decency and open-mindedness.One the one hand, obviously it was unfortunate that Michael Landon, who was the creative force behind Little House on the Prairie, chose to leave out Dr. Tann, as it would have been very instructive to see a black doctor in the 1870s portrayed on television, and that is a well-founded criticism of the show.
That effort was at times so contrived that it turned more offensive than the truth. (“Little House on the Prairie” is a classic example of twisted storytelling: the writers of that hit show, which ran from 1974 to 1983, left out Dr. George A. Tann, a real African-American doctor who treated Laura and her family for malaria, and instead invented Solomon, a son of a former slave who seeks refuge and an education from the kind-hearted Ingalls.)
But this discussion got me thinking more broadly about the way Little House and other shows from the immediate period after the Civil Rights successes of the 1960s portrayed racism. The article criticizes Little House for storylines that showed "a main character’s ahistoric decency and open-mindedness" rather than the reality of racism, storylines that were "more offensive than the truth."
I'd like to push back against that criticism, because I believe it applies a 2012 lense to the 1970s, ignoring the fact that these are two very different times in terms of racism in American society.
A classic example of how Little House portrayed racism is the episode "The Long Road Home," which aired March 3, 1976.
For this discussion, the crux of the story is that Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon) and his good friend Mr. Edwards take a very dangerous, temporary job that teams them with two other men, a white bigot and a black man who, thanks to his vast experience with the dangerous substance the men are transporting, is a real expert on the topic (yes, I know this another classic trope a la "Bagger Vance" and other examples) and is, at least informally, the group leader. The long story short is that the bigot not only comes to respect the black man (whom Ingalls and Edwards treat as an equal as a matter of course), but even, by the episode's conclusion, to reject the discrimination and prejudice others foist on his black co-worker.
On the one hand, our 2012 thinking might well lead us to dismiss this as utopian claptrap that didn't reflect reality, namely in the fact that not only do Ingalls and Edwards treat the man as an equal, but that the hard core bigot "comes around" by the end as well. Was this a reflection of reality in late 19th century America? Hardly.
But, by 1976 thinking, the kind of racist attitudes reflected by the bigots of the late 19th century were still quite prevalent, and were still seen as acceptable by wide swaths of the population. People could and did, in 1976, express the kind of bald racism that in 2012 is really no longer acceptable in public.
That's why Landon chose to present things the way he did. He sought to instruct his audience that racism and discrimination were wrong, and that characters his audience admired rejected it, so they (the audience) should too. Is this paternalistic, naive racial liberalism at its "finest"? Sure. But so what?
Who knows how many kids watching that show internalized exactly the lesson the NYT critic scoffed at? How many kids watching that show said to themselves, "hey, maybe I shouldn't treat that black kid badly"? How many of them pushed back against bigotry they heard a friend or a parent express?
In 2012, it's all too easy to dismiss what Landon did. But Landon didn't produce that episode in 2012. For 1976, he was taking a strong, positive stand against racism. Without question, his art was not historically accurate or as sophisticated as is Mad Men (and that's just the example the NYT article cited for comparative purposes) in terms of how it portrays racism (or anything else, for that matter).
Landon was trying to fight racism by being aspirational because, in his time, too many people still expressed the kind of bald racism he presented as being wrong. He needed to present racism as something that bad people believe in, something that is a product of ignorance that education can defeat, because that was a message that countered dominant racist thinking at that time.
Mad Men fights racism today by being realistic, by showing just how strong it was not long ago because too many people today, even if they themselves reject discrimination, want to ignore the fact that racism was so predominant not long ago (let alone that it still exists today) so that they can tell folks to "get past it."
Just as the Mad Men approach makes sense today in terms of how best to have art that fights racism, I would argue that for 1976, the ahistorical aspirational approach that Little House presented fit the needs of that time, no matter how corny it seems today.
But what do you think?