So there I was last night, watching the most recent episode of Mad Men. Don Draper, the best-looking semi-villain you’ll ever see, appears to be getting his life back together. He’s swimming more, drinking less, and going out with a woman who’s as smart as he is.
Fine, all right, great. Way to go, Don.
But Don’s tentative progress wasn’t what intrigued me and disturbed me. What really got to me was the other story line about the only two professional women in the office, Peggy and Joan. At a certain level, you could easily describe the two women — Peggy’s the ambitious, talented working girl about to come into her own and Joanie’s the sex siren and office manager.
But that would ignore the complexities and subtleties of their characters. Peggy’s been testing the subversive bohemian currents of lower Manhattan and Joan’s clearly the smartest, most perceptive operator in an office of operators. That’s what I love about the show: Just when you feel you understand a character, something new and unexpected gets slipped in and you find an unappealing jerk kicking up his heels doing a giddy Charleston with his wife and a failing physician who turns out to have a gentle, intuitive touch. You end up adding, instead of subtracting or staying the same. It’s more like life and the people you think you know.
All of which is a lengthy introduction to what I really meant to talk about, but sometimes I can’t help myself. What riveted me about the episode and made me shift uncomfortably on the couch were the scenes of some of the office men’s normal, old, good-natured boys-will-be-boys exchanges with Peggy and Joanie. It’s the way the culture was in the early 1960s, it’s what the world took for granted. Men could joke about women asking to be raped, they could hang up crude caricatures of them in the workplace, they could insult them — and what were the women complaining about? Couldn’t they take a joke?
I got in touch with Jane Boursaw, a well-known reviewer of TV and film at Film Gecko, who had this reaction:
“My first thought after watching Sunday’s episode was this: Good for Peggy for standing up for Joan and taking the pornographic drawing to Don. And good for Don for telling Peggy, ‘You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself.’ And good for Peggy for firing Joey.
“But then we got the shocker of Joan telling Peggy that her firing Joey just told the world that Joan is ‘a meaningless secretary’ and Peggy is ‘another humorless bitch.’
“I love Mad Men because it’s not only very entertaining, but it’s also a great history lesson. Things were really complicated in the 1960s. It wasn’t just a matter of women standing up for themselves and each other to break through the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of the era. It was a time of figuring out how to do that without going backwards.”
Jane goes on to mention something I hadn’t appreciated — that the same sexist cultural dynamics are playing out in the life of Don’s ex-wife, Betty, who usually ranks as the most unsympathetic character in the entire series. (Bad parents rarely fare well in public opinion, but bad mothers are poison.) Betty had quickly remarried a husband who’s now criticizing her public behavior in a way that wouldn’t happen today.
But, most of all, once Jane mentioned Betty, I realize you can see how haunted and uneasy she is. She’s a drop-dead beautiful woman whose powers will wane with age — and then what will she have left and who will want her?
I know, I know — it’s “only” a TV series. But when programs are done this well, this incisively, they become something more than entertainment. They make you think of the bad old days when many women knew instinctively that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to call it. They make you remember the potency of ridicule. They remind you of an earlier generation of women who never had the advantages we now take for granted.
“We owe them a lot,” Jane Boursaw says. Amen, sister.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about how I’ve heard enough “good news” for women