I’m Peggy Olson, and I’d like to smoke…..

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 31, 2009 21:29 EDT
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Update: G.D. has thoughts on this week’s episode.

I want to start this off by saying that I was wrong. G.D. wrote a post about how “Mad Men” deals with overt misogyny and not racism because the writers realize that you can sell a likeable misogynist more easily than you can sell a likeable racist. In comments, I suggested that perhaps it’s a geographic thing—by the early 60s, that sort of overt racism was already being treated in some circles as low class, especially in the Northeast. And I still think that’s true to a degree—Joan’s nasty comment to Paul’s girlfriend only worked because Joan was deliberately crossing an etiquette line (as well as a moral one)—but then again, the country club racism that drives Republicanism knows no geography and thinks so highly of itself that it can’t be hemmed in by what the mere middle class thinks. So, I was wrong. The writers were going to get you sucked in, and then hit you over the head with Roger in black face singing “My Old Kentucky Home”, making you feel like a shit for every time you enjoyed his rascally ways.

Pete and Trudy doing the Charleston was probably my favorite moment in the episode, mostly because it drove home how rarely you see a moment of pure joy in these characters’ lives, and plus it was a reminder that as tense as their marriage is, they did originally marry because they were in love. But as innocent and gleeful as it seemed on its surface, taken with everything else that was going on at the country club—particularly with Roger in black face—the meaning couldn’t be clearer. These people are living in the past. Trudy and Pete weren’t even born when the Charleston was popular. In fact, they’re almost as far from that era as we are from the era of “Mad Men”, and I think the writers were going a little meta there, as if they were saying, “We don’t show you this era to tempt you to nostalgia, but to make you question why people have nostalgia for that era.” The Charleston is from the same era as the shrill racism that characterized the early 20th century, to the point where the KKK was a viable political party. Nostalgia is rarely innocent. Most people who long for the 50s do so because of the racism and sexism of the era, not despite it. Interesting, I will say, that Pete was offended by the black face routine, but he, obviously, isn’t going to connect the dots between his nostalgia and Roger’s. Makes me wonder if the writers are worried about people who tune in to get a rush of nostalgia without asking the hard questions about the injustices of the era.

As an aside, it was interesting to me that the black face thing made Don uncomfortable, and he snuck away. I didn’t take that to mean that Don isn’t racist, exactly. More that he had an uncomfortable realization that the people laughing at this crap hold poor white people of the sort he comes from in only slightly higher esteem than they do black people. That’s what the whole thing about pissing in the trunks of cars was about. I think in this episode Don realized he doesn’t much like the people in the world he’s penetrated by lying, cheating, and stealing.

Of course, the marijuana scenes were the ones burning up Twitter, but I have to admit I didn’t initially think much of them, except that it was showing the present and future in contrast with these drunk idiots at a country club indulging racist nostalgic fantasies. But upon further reflection, I have to say that it was interesting that we find out that Paul was a scholarship student at Princeton. That means that the three people left behind to work were the sole woman trying to break into the boys club at Sterling Cooper, the left-leaning privileged young man who quoted the SDS manifesto at a client last season, and an exemplar of the new American middle class that was beginning to emerge as things like the GI bill made it easier for entire classes of people go to college, people whose parents would have never dreamed of it. Basically, the sort of people who are about to move from being a minority in their world towards the kind of people who largely redefined what being a middle class American would mean, kicking off the culture wars that we’re still fucking fighting. They’re in the same world as the folks at the country club, but they are threatening to turn their world upside down, and even they don’t really get that.

The Joan scenes were great, too. I think Joan has started to wake up to the fact that her husband-to-be isn’t a very good doctor, and that social climbing through him might not work out as well as she’d hoped. The whole thing is even more embittering, because Joan is hyper-competent, and the world routinely refuses to reward her for that with anything but more shit work. The last scene with the accordion drove this home. Of course Joan can play the accordion. Is there anything she can’t do? But instead of being treated like the smart, talented woman she is, she’s reduced to a trophy, a decorative object for display and entertainment. That she was playing the accordion and not any other instrument isn’t a coincidence; she’s acting the part of the trained monkey. No one imagines her as someone with actual human talents and skills. They treat her like an animal whose purpose is to amaze them just by showing that she can act like people.

Nice touch, too, making Sally read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ross Lincoln pointed out to me in chat that more than a few of the wealthy white people that the show chronicles would agree with Gibbon’s belief that “feminizing” influences destroy great civilizations.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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