I’ve seen a lot of discussion—and no small amount of griping—that this season of “Mad Men” is obsessed with the concept of “whores”, both in the real world sense of women who exchange sex for money and in the more abstract sense of people who peddle fantasies of authentic feeling for cash. Advertising is explicitly compared, frequently, to prostitution, insofar as it’s about exploiting people’s places of vulnerability, their hopes and dreams, in order to sell them dish soap and cereal. So I get it. That’s definitely there, and I think maybe seems a little too obvious and frankly unfair, because on some level, every profession is “prostitution”. Which is part of the problem when it comes to stigmatizing actual sex workers!
That said, one thing I think complicates things is that the show is obsessed not just with whores, but with mothers. This episode made the connections explicit, but it’s always been lurking in the background of this show. Like other themes, it’s been creeping up from subtext to text as the 60s gets brasher, more obvious and more chaotic. Most men who have a Madonna/whore syndrome have a mild version of it, where they struggle to find women they love or who have their children to be sexual people. Don’s runs much deeper, and has everything to do with his unarticulated emotional needs.
But what I really got from this episode is that the showrunners do not think that Don has a legitimate complaint when it comes to the desires he places on women. He sees in every woman a “whore” and a “mother”, but he doesn’t see them as people. There’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker or a mother (or both!) But, and I think this point is subtly drawn, Don is being held up as a villain because he can’t help but reduce women to these roles, which is to say he can’t look past what women can do for him to see them as full human beings in their own right. That’s why Megan’s nurturing, thoughtful love of him has been rejected, because she offers it with the caveat that he must also see her as a person who deserves love and support. That, I’ve come to realize, is what the scene of him walking away from her as she started her acting career was about. Unable to reduce her to a dispenser of Don-appeasement, he can’t even stand her anymore. Even though she has an entirely mature attitude about love and marriage as an exchange of support, instead of a situation where one partner takes and the other just gives.
Of course, Don is a motherless child whose problems go back to the fact that he never had a real mother to interact with, and thus can only grapple with fantasy mothers that are endless supplies of support with no needs of their own. That he doesn’t come across as more sympathetic in the circumstances is a testament to the show’s moral integrity; at a certain age, it’s your fault if you don’t learn to deal with your issues, seems to be the argument. Don has his own children and wife and friends now. He needs to step up and offer the love they deserve without being sucked into fantasies based in an endless well of self-pity.
The flip side of this is that the show magnificently shows the way that Don is bizarrely in a trap of his own, to use a naughty word, bubble of privilege. He mistreats women and reduces them to toys because he can. He struggles to even seen an alternative. Everywhere he turns in the culture—as demonstrated by the ads that the agency produces—women are portrayed as objects to be used, not people in their own right. Marc pointed out to me that Don isn’t made happy by his relentless insistence on abusing any woman who makes demands that he treat them like people. He’s lonely and sick because of it. The show does a good job, I think, of balancing examples of how Don’s sexist belligerence with women hurts women but also hurts him. This particular episode really demonstrated how much Peggy’s grown getting away from him.
Thoughts? I know most of the focus was on how disjointed and weird this episode was, but upon second viewing, it fell together pretty easily for me, in no small part because it borrowed its pacing and tone from “Rosemary’s Baby”. An interesting tribute to a classic film, in my opinion.
For those who are curious, the doctor with the shots in the episode is a reference to a real doctor who treated JFK, amongst other famous people. Apparently, this Aretha Franklin song is inspired by him.