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Mad Men Tuesdays: Sally Draper, Feminist Hero Edition

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, September 21, 2010 14:13 EDT
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Spoilers.

Quadmoniker didn’t like Ida Blankenship’s death, suggesting it was a cheap shot to serve as the show’s conflict. I suppose it’s going to surprise no one to say that I disagree. Not with the general principle, of course, but I don’t think the death really served as a conflict point. If anything, it was like the vending machine bit in last week’s episode—a comic subplot that, as comic subplots are supposed to do, echoed the larger themes of the episode and the season while providing laughs. I know it was a dark piece of comedy, but it was nonetheless played for laughs. Ida Blankenship died how she lived (on the show): as comic relief. Sadly, I fear that the end of Blankenship will become a pivot for the show, like the birth episode last season was: an idle moment of life happening before shit hits the fan. We’ll see.

If Blankenship’s death was a comic subplot, the question is, what purpose did it serve? Well, I think that’s obvious in an episode that focused on four—count ‘em, four!—important female characters who have, for various reasons, found themselves stepping on a path that is different than the narrow one prescribed for women at the time. The point of the episode is that stepping off the beaten path isn’t easy, especially when you feel alone. That’s the reason the final shot was on the three women in the elevator, staring into different directions and not speaking. Their pain, their lovesickness, their confusion—all this would be relieved if they actually turned to each other, but they don’t. In case you don’t get what’s stopping them, you have Peggy’s sexy if overbearing new love interest naming it for you. The idea of a “civil rights march” for women still seems ridiculous. They gather around in horror and awe as Sally Draper throws a massive temper tantrum because she doesn’t want to do as she’s told. But haven’t Joan, Peggy, and Faye all thrown temper tantrums of their own? They don’t want to go live with sad Stepford families in the suburbs. They want to live in the city! But because they have no community or marches or leaders naming their problem, they just stare into space, wondering why they can’t resolve these internal conflicts between what they’re supposed to want and what they do want.

Which brings me to Ida Blankenship. I think the initial read is that Blankenship’s death makes everyone sad because they feel like she didn’t really have a good life. Like Roger said, she died how she lived, answering other people’s phone calls. (The indifference of the Young Turks only makes the concerns of the older people more poignant.) The women might worry that their unusual paths in life that lead them to be standing in an elevator at their age instead of out in the suburbs means that they’re going to die old and alone, like they think Blankenship did. But then we have the scene with Bert, who we’ve come to understand was involved with Ida. In fact, before she dies, you get a hint that they’re basically an old married couple, doing crosswords together. I turned to Marc and said, “Actually, I think Blankenship died exactly how most of us kind of hope we do—with little pain after spending some time with the person we love the best in the whole world. And doing something, instead of just being idle and completely forgotten in a home somewhere.” Dying at your desk is mostly horrifying because it’s considered undignified, but the only reason it’s considered undignified is that it’s such a massive pain in the ass to other people. But what I got from Bert’s line about how she was an astronaut was that we shouldn’t cry for Ms. Blankenship. Her life may not have followed the prescribed path for women, but then again, who wants that when you can be an astronaut?

The real point of conflict in the episode was Sally Draper’s temper tantrum. I want to point to the way, however, that it’s paralleled to Blankenship’s death. They even go down the same hallway path from Don’s door to the front door when their inconvenient death/tantrums disrupt the flow of the office. A very old and a very young woman causing trouble—a harbinger for the trouble that mass numbers of women in the prime of their lives are just about to cause.

Which leads me to the painful but realistic squabble between Peggy and Abe in what was supposed to be their first date through ambush. I don’t think I have to spell out why both of them made good points but also screwed up badly because they have blinders on. Peggy doesn’t want to examine too closely her complicity with racism, and she gets all hepped up on rationalization through the Oppression Olympics. Abe hasn’t even thought about how sexism is a massive problem, for basically the same reason—he’s complicit with it because he benefits. (Which I think was the point of Peggy’s mealy-mouthed attempts to broach the issue of the client’s racist policies. She wants to throw that out there, so that when it gets rejected she can say she tried without paying any real price in terms of loss of business. She gets a feel good moment, but she still retains all the benefits of complicity with racism.) He projects all his desires on Peggy and then is completely confused when she keeps acting like a subjective human being with a mind of her own. What I do want to point out is that in their battle over who has it worse—black people or women?—they basically ignore the fact that half of black people are women, a fact that’s ignored precisely because it destabilizes the parameters of the conflict and calls into question why people should even get into this space where they’re squabbling over scraps instead of pulling a Sally and demanding it all. And if we didn’t get the point about who is being ignored in this “black people vs. women” squabble, Don actually utters the line, “Where’s Carla?” when he sees his daughter (a 10-year-old symbol of white feminism) standing in his office, making demands.

What seems on its surface to be even remotely simplistic, politically speaking, on “Mad Men” often turns incredibly complex if you look a little closer.

It’s painful for viewers to see the three adult women that are the focus of this episode fail over and over again to really take control of their lives and own their desires. I saw more than one person on these here internets moan that even Faye can’t just feel good about living her life by her own rules, despite being a spitfire. But I think the episode did a bang-up job of showing how constrained the views of women really were at the time, and how much that would weigh on individual women trying to find their way. I don’t think, for instance, that Don was actually trying to test Faye in any way when he foisted Sally on her. He just assumed that women know what to do with children. I don’t think he’s even that invested in that stereotype; he just never once had cause to question it in his whole life. So why should we think that in an environment like that, where there was literally no space whatsoever to talk about the woman who doesn’t have a maternal instinct, that Faye would be able to feel confident about herself despite what was definitely contextualized as a massive, even dehumanizing lack? I bet her entire education and career in psychology was dominated by discussion of how all women are fulfilled by motherhood, that this is the apex of female fulfillment. No wonder she feels like a freak.

And that’s the same story for all three women we see in the final shot. Their faces tell it all: they’re so thwarted from their own desires by social expectations that they mainly feel confusion and distress. But I was even more intrigued by the shot where they all stood in horror over Sally as she threw her tantrum. One thing you can say for sure about Sally is she knows what she wants and she’s willing to work towards her goals, even if it inconveniences everyone around her. In the final shot, I suspect each woman staring off into space and thinking about how much they want in life is wishing they could grab a little more of that Sally Draper moxie.

What did you think about the episode? Did you want to hide in the couch cushions when Abe and Peggy got into it like I did? Frankly, every time Abe walked onscreen, I hid in the couch cushions, since conflicts of the most uncomfortable sort always arose. What do you think of the Roger/Joan story line? I love the direction, by the way. Notice how his office and clothes are all gray, black, and white, and then Joan walks into his office and she’s all bright colors.

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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