One of the common complaints about Mad Men issued by those wishing to appear to be daring contrarians is that the sexism of the show is often of the mustache-twirling type. “Why can’t it be more complex?”, they whine, posing as if they have secret knowledge that the pre-second wave era wasn’t as bad as it was. When people say this, however, I think they inadvertantly expose themselves as not as familiar with the mid-century surburban literature that the show owes its entire existence to. For instance, on Mad Men, Don drives his wife to drink by philandering with women who are by and large his equals. In John Updike’s contemporary novel Rabbit Run, Harry Angstrom cheats on his wife by exploiting a marginalized woman (who gets by with prostitution) for housing while refusing to let her use contraception, on the grounds that it fucks up his mighty mojo. When this drives his wife to drink, she accidentally drowns the baby in the bathtub. That said, you get the feeling that Updike has more love for his creation than Weiner for Don Draper. (After all, Don eventually pays for his sins by getting kicked out of the house. Rabbit, not so much, though it is a bit more complicated than I have time to explore here.) All of which is to say that Mad Men actually soft pedals the attitudes of the era more often than not, for the entirely reasonable purpose of not making the audience hate the male characters so much that they can’t get invested in their storylines.
Well, usually. And then, when they buy your investment, they hit you over the head with a plot that seems like it could have sprung from the pages of mid-century literature instead of sticking to the concerns of our era, refracted through a 1960s lens. Which is totally what happened last night with the Joan story.
As you’ll see from the video, Marc and I have a very different take on what happens with Joan than a lot of reviewers, who are stuck on their horror at what transpired. What can I say? I’m not surprised that the male partners conspired to prostitute Joan; they visit prostitutes all the time, and don’t have much language in their culture for understanding prostitution outside of a woman’s “honor”. (The only objection that even Don can come up with is that Joan can’t be for sale because she already has an owner, her husband.) In a lot of ways, Joan just did what she’s done her whole life, which is to leverage her sexuality for survival and often advantage. Is prostitution really different from trying to get a rich husband? Sleeping with high level executives for favors, gifts, and maybe a shot at the ring? The only reason this one’s a shocker is Joan has actually worked herself into a position where she felt she didn’t have to prostitute herself anymore. But as we note in the video, she created a situation where she never will have to again. That’s why, as you’ll see in the video, we’re way more skeptical of Don’s motivations in trying to stop her than most reviewers. I think this episode is going to be an excellent litmus test for viewers’ unexplored attitudes towards sex work. The reason that we’re more appalled that the partners would pimp Joan out than we have been at their frequent visits with prostitutes before is simple: We think of Joan as a “real” person that we respect. But really, all those prostitutes are “real” people. These men have always been like this; we just have to deal with it now that their gross attitudes are being inflicted on a character we love.
But Joan herself does something very unusual on this show: She overcomes the odds and snatches a victory.
Most TV shows are interested in looking at characters as moral actors making choices of their own free will, but Weiner is doing something much different with Mad Men. The show is far more interested in exploring how circumstances are everything. The characters are routinely shown as making bad choices because good choices are unnervingly off the table. I like that, because it’s much closer to reality than most shows; most people who make bad choices do so because the “good” choices aren’t very good. Peggy and Joan’s paths to power exemplify this. The reason Peggy gets to play the game on her terms and be rewarded for her work instead of her sexuality isn’t because Peggy is smarter or bolder or better in any way. It’s because she was born about 7 or 8 years after Joan. That’s it. Peggy got to come into her own in a world that’s got a little more room for valuing women for their minds instead of reducing them to sex objects. But Joan is able to turn that boat around for herself. If the men who rule the world only see her as a sex object, by god, she’s going to sleep her way so far to the top that they have no other choice but to see simply as the boss. Once in a blue moon, someone does figure out how to game the system. Of course it was Joan Holloway who had that shot. Obviously, men of that era—and frankly still—think that it’s more dignified to hire or pimp out a prostitute than to be one. But I felt at the end that Joan’s quiet dignity and history with these men will help level the playing field.
One last thought: Joan and Peggy are the characters who really surged ahead in this episode. Megan, however, fell behind yet again. Of the three, only Megan is married. For women on Mad Men, being married is like the kiss of death, which I think is pretty consistent with the strictures of the time that feminism was fighting against. Of course, the real question is how much have we really changed? What was a little disconcerting to me about this episode is you could have had all three storylines happen in 2012 with very little tweaking. Feminism has opened more doors, but the interpersonal political bullshit has far from faded.
By the way, Jaguar put up the most epic tweet last night after the episode ended. (Since they’re product-placed out the ass, I’m sure they got the script well ahead of time.)
Naturally, the spoiler police were all over them, demonstrating neatly that being a member of the post-airing spoiler police is more about killing everyone else’s fun in order to prove your importance to the world than anything else. There’s a lot of ego on deck when you demand that the rest of the world not enjoy having online discussions of their favorite shows because you’re too weak to skip over spoilers until you have time to watch your DVR. And yes, I live by my own standards. I often don’t get to see “Game of Thrones” or “Girls” until a day or many after it airs, and so I just skip over the freaking Twitter comments about them until after I’ve seen it. Any kind of rule that would prevent Jaguar from delighting the world with this tweet for no other reason than the rest of us have to cater to your schedule is narcisstic and weird.
What did you think of this episode? Do you agree with Marc and my assessment of Don as kind of a fool? Do you think Peggy did the right thing? Joan? How much do you want to kill Pete Campbell? What do you think of the men’s choices, especially in light of my theory that Mad Men is about how much we are all products of our era? Did you like the bait-and-switch of the title, which led you to believe the episode was about adultery, but in fact, it ended up being a reference to the different choices that different women get to make?