Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mad Men: Ownership, Objects, and "The Other Woman"

It's not unprecedented for Mad Men to drift into the exploration of issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia - all of which were drastically different in the 1960s than they are today.  But no episode of the show has been as brilliant, evocative, and horrible as "The Other Woman."  And while it's certainly worthwhile to talk about the episode in terms of plot development, character arc, and larger storyline - as you might with any other hour of television - the most important investigation of "The Other Woman" is without a doubt under the lens of feminism.

In 1967, the world was different.  It's easy to watch Mad Men and covet Joan's wardrobe and Don's fedora, or chuckle at all the indoor chain-smokers, or marvel at how The Beatles are spoken about as contemporaries, not legends.  But the show makes the effort to go even deeper - to pull the curtain back on the insidious normalcy of prejudice: towards women, towards black people, towards Jewish people, towards Japanese people, towards gay people.  Mad Men has characters that fall into these categories, because these people still existed in the 1960s, even though society at the time wished they didn't.  And the disadvantages these characters face as an inherent and unshakeable fixture of their existence are often displayed by the show, yet can be ignored by a modern viewer.  

In the case of "The Other Woman," Mad Men painted a disturbing portrait of womanhood in 1967, framed with the misogyny of ownership and a discourse on the voice of woman.  Peggy, Joan, and Megan were all struggling to make decisions for the betterment of their own selves, trying to be in charge of their destinies and fulfill their own personal identities.  Yet, these decisions were entrenched in a man's world, on a man's whim, and with a man's permission.  

For Joan, the decision concerned her body.  Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been fighting to win the Jaguar account all season, and in "The Other Woman," they finally got a guarantee for the ticket: Herb Rennet, the head honcho, wanted a night with Joan - and not just for dinner and drinks.  This bold proposition quickly spiraled out of control at the hands of Pete, who was so focused on the "prize" that he never stopped to hear Joan's opinion on the matter.  After all, this is business, and there's always someone who has to "go the extra mile."  In this scenario, that person was Joan.  Joan could sleep with the head of Jaguar as requested, thereby securing the account, and in return receive $50,000 for her time and body.

But Mad Men crafted an episode that went beyond the discussion of business prostitution and Joan's dignity.  "The Other Woman" simultaneously showed us the ad campaign for Jaguar, which provided the stark backdrop demonstrating what exactly defined a woman's place in the world of men.  Because the Jaguar was impractical for the married family man, it was instead advertised as "a mistress," a fulfillment of desire.  Megan summed it up succinctly: "a wife is just a Buick in the garage."  So, an easy and disturbing exercise in feminist critique would be to rewatch "The Other Woman" and replace every instance of the word "car" with the word "woman."  There is little difference, in cultural suggestion of 1967, between a living human woman with free will, and a car.  Mad Men delineated it all with Ginsberg's winning line: "At last, something beautiful you can truly own."

Of course, this all relates back to Joan, as the quiet nucleus of this episode.  How much does it cost to own a woman?  To have her exactly how you would like her - customized, for you to control, to exist for your every pleasure?  Joan was placed at the center of this discussion, and yet, she got little say in the matter.  She could no more express her opinion about being owned than could a shiny red Jaguar.  Pete goaded her by comparing her to Cleopatra, a queen, and Roger and Bert, while seemingly unsupportive of the plan, never bothered to address Joan directly.  Lane only encouraged her to leverage partnership in the company simply to cover his own ass, which is sitting on secret embezzlement and financial problems.  

Only Don ever took the initiative to speak to Joan in person about the matter, when he discovered Pete actually propositioned with a deal.  Rushing to Joan's apartment, Don assured her they didn't want to do business with people like Herb Rennet.  With tears in her eyes, she held his face, told him she was fine, and wished him luck for the ad pitch.  What we didn't know, at the time, was that Joan had already made her choice.  Brilliantly cross-cutting Don's building pitch with the horrifying dread and tension of Joan at Herb's apartment, Mad Men hit the thematic notes with precision and power.  Don asked, about obtaining beautiful things: "What price would we pay?  What behavior would we forgive?"  Simultaneously, we see Herb unzip Joan's dress, and Joan's eyes fill with tears and a stoic, detached determination.  If that weren't emotionally traumatic enough, the denouement for this peak was the unsettling reveal that sank in with the quick flutter of Joan's emerald green robe.  She had already sealed the deal before Don got to her.  And suddenly, it seemed so clear, as the scene repeated itself.  Christina Hendricks' lowered eyes and assured "I'm fine" became one hundred times more heartbreaking with the new information, as we realized that maybe, if Don had gotten there sooner, she wouldn't have gone through with it.

Or would she have?  There's plenty of debate as to whether or not it's in Joan's character to accept the offer, or if she'd have too much self-respect to say no.  However, I find this discussion to be beside the point.  Inspecting Joan's moral code to look for clues indicating one way or the other seems to suggest overlooking the fact that she was propositioned in the first place.  Why scrutinize Joan's ethics and not the ethics of the men surrounding her, refusing to speak up?  I will say, though, that  Mad Men portrayed this scenario with the right kinds of grace and power when dealing with feminist issues - yes, Joan was powerless, but she was not a victim.  She had no control over the situation she was in, except in her one choice: to say yes, or no.  It's not an easy choice.  But it's Joan's choice, and the narrative was very clear that Joan made her choice.  However, the choice did not begin with Joan.  The choice came to Joan because it was placed there, by the misconception that woman, and her body, could be owned - purchased and delivered for customer satisfaction.  For Joan, she didn't have a choice about her body or her place in the world.  It is 1967 and she is just one woman, raising a child by herself.  She is just one woman, making one choice, in a man's world.  She did the best with what the world gave her, while trying as much as possible to retain her dignity and identity, to the extent that the world would allow her.

"The Other Woman" also presented Peggy with the opportunity to improve her future.  Even though she's in charge of all accounts except Jaguar, she's somewhat dissatisfied with her job.  This episode found her selling a successful (gender-swapped!) ad idea on the fly and yet Don rewarded the location shoot to Ginsberg, who technically held the account.  When Peggy protested, Don was quick to assume she just wanted to go to Paris and threw money in her face.  Literally.  He threw money in her face.  From there, Peggy was encouraged by Freddy Rumsfeld to move on from SCDP, despite her loyalty to Don, and seek a position up the ladder.  Even though she was emotionally reluctant to do so, she pursued the interest, won herself a $19,000 salary at a competing firm, and had to give Don her notice.

It couldn't come at a worse time, as Don had just realized that Joan had gone through with the Jaguar transaction and became a partner of the company.  And it was particularly telling, what with the frame of the episode, that he didn't take Peggy's speech seriously at first.  Earlier, we saw Don literally throw money in Peggy's face so that she would leave him alone, and at the end, he tried the same tactic - but this time to coerce her to stay.  What price would you pay for something - or someone - you valued?  This instance of a man trying to buy a woman plays in direct contrast to Herb and Joan.  Peggy is being bought for her talent, and loyalty, and dedication - not for her body.  The distinction is clear - notice that the writers gave Joan a moment of intellect with Herb, correcting his botched metaphor using Arabian and Greek myths.  But this bit of intelligence is ignored, and she is instead instructed to remove her dress.

But Peggy, even though she chose to leave, was rewarded for her choice.  Her farewell with Don was emotionally distressing, and particularly fascinating under a feminist lens.  Instead of shaking her hand as you might in business, Don instead grabbed her hand and kissed it, holding on from his seated position with the amount of worship one might save for a queen.  Combined with the moment where Joan mournfully watches Peggy's retreating back as she walks out of the office, I was at my fill of emotional devastation for the hour.  I worried that Peggy might not be making the right decision.  But then, as Peggy stepped into the elevator, a smile played at the corners of her mouth, and Mad Men gave us the greatest music cue in the Kinks' "You Really Got Me."  I breathed a sigh of relief, unable to resist the charm of success.  Peggy's gonna be okay.

From the looks of it, so is Megan, who held the final choice of the hour.  Having done well on the audition, she received a callback for a Broadway show.  The only problem: it would require her to live in Boston, away from Don, for three months.  "Forget it!" he barked, and just like that, Megan was expected to relinquish her choice.  But Megan refuses to just give up her own personal aspirations simply to please Don.  Not only that she suspects that he doesn't take her seriously - her dreams are petty and meaningless, and likely to stay unfulfilled.  

Now, I don't understand Megan hate.  I really don't.  Because this character is great.  Not only does she seem to be tapped into zeitgeist of the growing feminist movement, she manifests it in her actual relationship with Don.  She flat out tells him she does not intend on failing.  Three cheer!   She also explains to him that if she were forced to choose between her love and her career goals - something that has happened on countless occasion to women through history - she would choose him.  But she would hate him for it.  This honesty from Megan is refreshing, as is her ability to understand her own emotional spectrum.  (It seemed rare on this show before she showed up.)  So, Don relents, and "allows" Megan to go on her final audition.  But tellingly, the only moment we see from this is the casting directors asking Megan to stand in front of them and turn around, so that they may look at her.  In that moment, Megan was no more than a Jaguar in the showroom, spinning silently on a dais, waiting for a man to choose her.

In the end, Joan made partner, Peggy had her new job, and Megan may still have a shot at the role.  Each achieved some level of success.  But at what cost?  Navigating their own lives involved being at the whim of men's desires, and worse yet, wallets.  What price would they pay?  What behavior would they forgive?  They had choices, yes.  But they live in a man's world, where they are often objects, to be purchased, and looked at, and bought.  This dictates what kinds of choices they have access to, and redefines the ways they go about trying to make the choices they do have.  "The Other Woman" gave a nasty glimpse into this world, in 1967, and highlighted it with tragic accuracy.  There may be several ways to look at this episode, but from no other perspective is it more disturbing than under the importance of women, and their access to personal choice, self, and success.

6 comments:

  1. Oh lord, you have no idea how relieved I was when the Kinks started playing. That moment was TENSE. And then she smiled and the Kinks happened and the elevator was just the normal elevator, not the Elevator Shaft of Doom.

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  2. brilliant review, you always succintly put into words how i feel. hahaha I was terrified Peggy was gonna step onto nothing! overwhelming sense of relief at the end of that one. this season has really started to bring it.

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  3. The Don/Megan conflict is a bit more complicated than that, I think, since Mad Men is a smart, complicated show. Don clearly thought the play was in New York (seems like a miscommunication there), and I think it's easily understandable that he'd initially react poorly to being told suddenly that his wife was planning to move to another town for three months without consulting him. Apart from the duration and the vastly different risk level, it's not different from Greg signing up for the army behind Joan's back.

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