Mad Men's Bob Benson: America's New "Hispanic" Sweetheart? Or Undercover Hispanic: Lawrence

Posted: Apr 21 2014

You'd hardly know it but one of America's most popular and successful cable TV series recently introduced its first Hispanic character. And guess what? He's on the verge of becoming a "star."

Meet Bob Benson, the grinning, overeager junior account manager at Sterling Cooper, Draper and Pryce, the fictional ad agency depicted in the hit show “Mad Men,” winner of a record four consecutive Emmy awards for outstanding drama, which recently concluded its 6th season. Benson started appearing in the series as an ensemble player, but this year he became a central figure in nearly every episode“Mad Men” viewers, who tilt female (57%), are raving about him, the numbers show.

Undercover Hispanic Comes to Life
But here's the hitch -- or actually two. Bob's still not officially "out" as Hispanic on the show. To his co-workers at the firm, in fact, he simply looks and sounds like a chipper All-American guy who's doing his best to ingratiate himself with his superiors - and wildly succeeding. But in episode 12, when Benson ducks into an empty office and suddenly breaks into fluent Spanish during a heated phone call with a relative, we suddenly learn the truth.

Until then, the only clue to his ethnic origins was his close association with a mysterious character named "Manolo" that Bob had recommended to his boss as a possible concierge.   Now it appears that despite his apparent - and carefully crafted - assimilation, Bob has one foot in and one foot out of the decidedly white and "Anglo" corporate mainstream of the 1960s that “Mad Men” so convincingly depicts.

...More Secrets
In fact, Bob has another secret: he's gay. That's apparent when he has the temerity to "come on" to his boss, Pete, who is married, but heading for divorce.  Amazingly, Bob doesn't lose his job over it; in fact, Pete simply brushes it off, and the two go back to the business at hand. It's one of the hallmarks of the culture depicted in “Mad Men” that that the senior partners make no secret of their sexual desires, and generally act on them, even with fellow employees and sometimes on the spur of the moment. So, in a funny way, Pete, while clearly startled by his subordinate's aggressiveness, seems to sense that it's also a sign of his "maturation," as it were.  In other words, "Welcome to the boy's club, Bob. But, I'll pass."

Non-Hispanic Actor Playing a Hispanic
Hispanic viewers – if “Mad Men really has any, at this point - may have mixed feelings about a Hispanic character who's depicted as conniving and secretive, to say nothing of gay. But there are other reasons for concern. The actor playing Bob, James Wolk, isn't actually Hispanic -- though apparently he does speak fluent Spanish.   A non-Hispanic playing a Hispanic?   Perhaps in the duplicitous spirit of “Mad Men,” in which everyone seems to be hiding a dark secret of one kind or another, it makes perfect sense that a character that conceals his ethnic background and sexual orientation would turn out to have a different real-life background, too. But it hardly seems fair given that Hispanics are still so highly under-represented in Hollywood.  

Not Much New in Hollywood
Remember the 1960s, when Maria, the female Hispanic lead in West Side Story was played by Natalie Wood? Even Robert Redford's 1980s film, Milagro Beanfield War, cast a swarthy Italian actor in the Hispanic lead.   Maybe, in a subtle way, “Mad Men”'s writers are trying to tell us something.   In fact, actor/entertainer George Lopezhas been saying it for years. Despite their phenomenal population growth and expanding political and cultural influence, Hispanics -- in the media at least -- still face major obstacles to advancement.

That's hardly cause to cheer.

-By Stewart Lawrence
Stewart is a writer for Hispanic.com, policy analyst and author

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