As far as TV dramas go, AMC’s Mad Men shines in its ability to accurately document various cultural groups and the social movements of the 1960s in New York, and to a lesser extent, Los Angeles.
Last week, Mad Men gave us a taste of something the show has been largely missing since its premiere seven years ago: the LGBTQ struggle in the ‘60s, when engaging in homosexual activities could get you arrested, violently beaten by the police, or worse. But considering the program’s loyalty to detailed portrayals of the struggle of women in the workplace and out, why are we just now seeing the plights of the gay community? And why have certain landmark events for the progress of gay rights been omitted or only mentioned in passing?
The introduction last season of Bob Benson as a major player in the corporate power struggle of Madison Avenue places him in the familiar position of closeted gay man desperately playing along to get by. It’s something we haven’t seen since Sal Romano was fired at the request of Lee Garner Jr., the overbearing Lucky Strike magnate, in "Wee Small Hours" (season three, episode nine).
Ever since Sal’s departure, a major void remained unfilled, and while gay characters such as Kurt, the out and proud German creative who gave Peggy a fabulous makeover, and Joyce, Peggy’s radical gay friend who played cupid, introducing Peggy to her longtime boyfriend, Abe, stuck around as minor supporting characters, we haven’t seen a major gay character grapple with the conflicting nature of displaying a straight, traditional façade in order to maintain the status quo and further his career.
In last Sunday’s episode, entitled “The Strategy,” Benson bails out his bloodied friend, a visiting Chevy executive from Detroit, after he falls victim to abuse from a homophobic NYPD officer who arrests him for attempting to fellate an undercover policeman, a kind of entrapment that was very common throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. And yet it’s 1969 and this is the first example of the violent dynamic between the law and gay citizens that we’ve seen so far.
That scene’s significance is difficult to understate, considering the landmark Stonewall Riots of June 1969 had happened/will happen/are happening around the same time as the episode (see the use of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” later in the episode, which was released on June 14, 1969).
Stonewall is often called the single most important event of the gay liberation movement, which gained traction alongside the civil rights, antiwar and counterculture movements of the ‘60s. Since then, gay pride has expanded to all corners of the world, and today, gay rights are arguably at the top of the docket when it comes to human rights issues in the United States.
So why not show it? If the Stonewall raid were ever going to be addressed on Mad Men, this would’ve been the perfect opportunity. We’re shown the tumultuous relationship between police and an increasingly vocal gay community, and we’ve already seen the different ways in which homophobia smears the halls of SC&P, but why not address the gay rights movement directly? On one hand, we have to remind ourselves that this show isn’t about the events as much as it is about the characters, but on the other hand, the characters are undoubtedly affected by sociopolitical events of the time.
Between Bob’s ambiguous past —as revealed last season by Pete’s nosy detective work—and his momentous proposal to Joan, we’re meant to understand that this is a man so tragically invested in the establishment of a heteronormative façade, he’s willing to suppress a significant part of his identity in the interest of looking the part, echoing the same conflicts that consume our protagonist, Don Draper.
In a way, Benson is presented as a sign of the times: a closeted gay man playing by the rules, albeit still failing (assuming we’re never to see him again). In fact, he’s positioned in such a manner so that —and this might be a stretch—Joan leaves him to wallow in the shame of rejection by going out and drinking his sorrows away at a gay bar, as many gay men were known to do at institutions like the Stonewall Inn.
Looking at Bob Benson from a broader perspective, this week’s mid-season finale can go one of many routes: Benson could leave SC&P to pursue a job with Buick, possibly losing Joan’s friendship over a conflict of interest, and thus falling into the pit of previously discarded gay characters (Sal, Kurt, Joyce, etc.), Benson could stay with SC&P, pursuing Buick from within the firm, opening the door to more story arcs about his struggle to balance identity with acceptance, or Benson could come out and tackle the same consequences Sal faced as an outed gay man in a conservative hetero work environment, perhaps successfully this time, affirming his position within the context of the fictional gay community as a new gay man in a new era; the Mad Man Sal longed to be.
Of course, another, more disappointing route could be the complete dismissal of all of this, moving on without further elaboration on Benson’s conflicts or the Stonewall riots, which would follow in the show’s tradition of omitting key points of gay liberation and throwing gay characters by the wayside, never to be mentioned again. In hopes of retribution, I’m pulling for more Bob Benson and a glimpse into the chaotic protests that changed the world for the LGBTQ community, but we’ll see tonight.
Ramy Zabarah is a writer living in Brooklyn. He tweets here.