The Orange Couch, Episode 13 of Mad Men: “The Phantom”
Last night’s episode was classic Mad Men, in that I initially thought it was a little slow, but thinking it over, there was so much to unpack. It actually reminds me of the season finale of the first season, which had the jolt of Peggy giving birth, but is actually more memorable for the quiet contrast between Don’s speech about nostalgia and his arriving home to an empty house. I think this really comes across in the video, because we talk about so much: Sylvia Plath, LSD, Don’s problems, the horror show that is Beth’s marriage, and various other phantoms.
One complaint I’ve seen a lot from people about this episode is that it didn’t address what are the most emotionally compelling stories for most of us: Joan and Peggy’s. That, I realized, isn’t right at all. The script on the page may not seem to do much with these characters, except advance their stories, but both of their stories were wrapped up (for now) in a compelling way through very straightforward visual rhetoric. The implications for feminist viewers of the show are really interesting, too.
Starting with Joan: In “The Other Woman”, Joan reminds her creepy john that the Trojan War and the Arabian Nights are different stories. And, if I recall correctly, they really are, if you look at it from the woman’s perspective. Helen of Troy’s is a tragic tale; while she survives the war, her chosen husband is murdered and she is returned—basically raped—to the the husband and people she rejected, knowing that she’s going down in their history as a villain. Scheherazade comes to a much better end; her use of her feminine charms to manipulate her situation results in her life being saved and her gaining real power as a woman. The implication of the mix-up in that scene in “The Other Woman” is that there’s no way to know which story is Joan’s. Is she Helen? Or is she Scheherazade? It was the topic of fierce debate online. Some people felt that Joan’s victory would always be tainted, which means it’s not a victory at all. Some of us—myself included—took what we felt was a more pragmatic view. We believed all the more noble routes to power were shut off for Joan, and while her colleagues won’t be thrilled with having a female partner, they’re also going to have to accept her power.
Interestingly, this debate reflects the internal struggles of second wave feminism, especially around the issue of “selling out”. Radical feminists then saw themselves as collectivists and because of this, there was a fierce response to any feminist who started to stand out from the crowd a little because of her talents. You were expected to be a humble member of the masses and not display ambition, because that was perceived as a way of saying you’re better than everyone else. Equality for women, it was felt, couldn’t be achieved by playing by the patriarchal rules of having leaders and spokespeople, or by presenting your message in a watered-down pop culture form, etc. Unfortunately, I think what happened was it became clear that an utter rejection of the rules of society means that you’re always marginalized. Demanding that women shun things like ambition, work that engages capitalism, or pop culture in order to be good feminists put a limit on their abilities to grow the power of women. Eventually, the whole purity thing basically collapsed and it was understood that simply creating an alternative culture isn’t enough, but that you have to deal with the world as it is—with all the ugliness that implies—in order to change it.
Joan’s dilemma reflects this problem. Do you work in the system—one that treats women like objects—if that seems like the only way to achieve your goals? Or do you embrace a separatist view where you feel you’re always living your values, but you basically are shut out of any opportunity to better things for yourself and everyone else? I think the show made it clear whose side they were on in this eternal debate with this image:
We know that it’s not going to be easy for Joan. She will still have to face a lot of stereotypes and abuse from her colleagues, as we saw. But she’s also getting shit done, as evidenced by this new office and her centralized spot in it. And you know what? There’s never going to be another all-male meeting at SCDP where they talk about pimping out their female employees. Getting a spot at the table isn’t everything, but it’s an important first step. There’s no shame in sex work except that generated by sexists who want to keep prostitutes marginalized. At a certain point, if you let the opinion of sexists keep you from grabbing for the ring—the fear that they’ll judge you—you’re always going to be kept from reaching.*
What’s interesting is how much the audience contrasted Joan and Peggy in this, saying Peggy did it the “right” way. I don’t think that’s so clear-cut on the show that this is true. After all, Peggy’s leftist friends and boyfriend judge her for being a straight-up capitalist. It was clear from those discussions and others between Megan and Don that we’re meant to hear the criticism that advertising is crass and people who do it are—wait for it—whoring out their assets. We already can tell Peggy is going to sell out feminism to sell cigarettes (watch the video for more on this). Peggy’s at the hotel and looks out the window and sees this:
Mostly I think doing that was a way to convey that Peggy is alone (like everyone else in the montage) and to be funny. But it’s also a great symbol for the battle over art and commerce, one which we discuss in-depth in the video. Activists and artists are routinely portrayed on the show as people who sneer at the crass commercialism of advertising and imagine their own work transcendent. The image of dogs fucking unsettles people because it undermines these kinds of distinctions. Dogs are gross creatures that we imagine we’re so much better than, but watching them fuck reminds us that for all the love poetry we have written, at the end of the day, we’re more like them than we like to think. What’s critical here is that Peggy is confronted with a symbol of the baseness of her creative outlet, and she sits down on the bed and smiles a big ol’ charming smile. Yes, she’s saying, my work is crass commercialism, but at the end of they day, she can’t be motivated to give a shit. She gets to do what she likes and make money at it, and you can call it selling out all day, but she’s done apologizing for it. And now she’s going to write an ad campaign that managed both to piss off self-identified feminists and, at the same time, use a little sex and charm to sell the idea to middle America that hip young women know about their feminist ancestors and they are grateful to them for all the work they’ve done. Which is nothing to sniff at, as impure as it was.
*You see this double bind in a lot of more mundane ways, such as the way women are often shoved out of conversations unless they interrupt a man who’s speaking, which causes people to think they’re bitchy. No way to win, so you might as well get your voice heard.