Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Women’s Movements

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, hop a train to the city and watch last night’s Mad Men with your father’s “friend.”

No one knows where the next revolution is coming from. I suppose that’s why they’re revolutions. So it is that when hipster journalist Abe sits down with Peggy and starts talking her ear off about revolution—the upheaval in Greece, the civil rights movement in America—he doesn’t realize that he’s staring one in the face. “Most of the things that Negroes can’t do, I can’t do, and no one seems to care.” He snarks: “All right, Peggy, we’ll have a civil rights march for women.”

There was a massive one in New York, actually, though if Mad Men concludes its run before the end of the ’60s, it won’t get around to it. Abe and Peggy’s debate about relative rights is a little more of a blatant here’s-what’s-in-the-air discussion of issues than Mad Men usually does, but it’s in character for a didactic character like Abe (who later tries to “make up” by writing a piece comparing Peggy to a Nazi at Nuremberg who was “just following orders”).

And it was an appropriate subject for an episode that focused so intently on the lives and challenges of several of its women characters, as women.

The argument Abe and Peggy are having follows a thread in American culture from the slavery/suffrage movements of the 19th century through the Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama primary of 2008: whose rights are more curtailed? Whose liberation comes first? And the answer isn’t as simple as either make it out to be. Abe—like Rizzo, but in a different way—is another example of a “progressive” male who can’t see his own male privilege as being as big a problem as the other causes he fights for. (A recurring theme, too, in the ’60s Left; yeah, we’ll liberate the chicks… eventually.)

Which is not to say he has no point whatsoever: as he points out, it’s black people, not women, who are being shot in the street over voting rights, and we have yet to see a black Peggy in Mad Men’s offices. (An uncomfortable fact Peggy sloughs off—characteristically, Mad Men gives no one uncontested high ground—by saying that black people could work their way up in the business the same way she did.)

The mistake they each make is the eternal temptation to make it a competition, to measure whose oppression is worse. In reality, it’s not a straight comparison: sexism and racism simply operate differently, in different places. And Peggy, when not trying to show the (seemingly well-meaning) Abe what a jerk he’s being, can see this, asking why SCDP is doing business with a company that won’t hire black staff in the South. To which Don replies with the same sort of business-comes-first attitude he took with Sal (whom he was willing to tolerate as gay as long as it cost him nothing): “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like Negroes.”

If the Peggy-Abe clash is a little on-the-nose by Mad Men’s usual standards, Faye Miller’s story touches on a subtler form of stereotyping that still persists: is a woman who pursues a career—or who simply isn’t interested in being a mother, for whatever reason—somehow less womanly? It’s striking how Faye, who gets inside people’s heads for a living, who seems able to subliminally take control of any encounter, is suddenly struck stiff and awkward by the presence of Sally. (“Hello! My name’s Faye!” she announces, as if addressing an alien with limited English. Even more painful is when Sally runs off at the end and Faye sees how easily comforting the girl comes to Megan.)

Faye angrily tells Don, as if it weren’t already obvious, that he was setting her up in a test that she feels she failed. The moment Faye met Don, she had him sized up: a divorced man with a need for attachment who, she predicted, would be married within a year. Surely she guessed even then that Don was also the kind of man who would seek a substitute mother, something she couldn’t, or more to the point, didn’t want to, be. Yet she ended up with him anyway.

Why? Well, heterosexual man here, but… come on; dude is played by Jon Hamm. More than that, th0ugh, Faye knows that she’s an accomplished woman; she’s intelligent enough to know that choosing not to have a family does not mean she unsexed herself a la Lady Macbeth, and she’s opinionated enough to know that the idea that she’s less of a woman for it is unfair. She pursues a relationship with Don, having an idea where it might be heading. Does Faye know herself as well as she know her clients? And does she know Don as well as she thinks he does? Don assures her that her difficulties with kids doesn’t matter, but does he actually believe that well enough to act on it for the long haul? Or will he ultimately be overruled by the Don Draper who wants a Megan?

[Incidentally, while Sally is not yet old enough to be part of the world of careers and sexism, she’s smart kid who’s seen a lot of how men deal with women, and she picks up quickly on the dynamic between Don and Faye. Excellent performance all around from Kiernan Shipka, who conveys Sally’s intelligence and confusion, caught between childhood and an adult perspective. You can see how hard she’s working to be in control and perfect—presenting Don with the that’s-not-Mrs.-Butterworth’s French toast—which makes her loss of control at the office that much more powerful.]

Joan, meanwhile, is a professional who’s negotiated the world of men as long as, though from a different career perspective than, Faye. When Roger offers to “take her mind off things” as Greg is called up, and then sends the masseuse, she recognizes it as a generous gift, but—this being Roger—a proposition as well. Joan has been to this rodeo before, and she and Roger know each other well enough to have a nostalgic diner meal and leave it at that—until the mugging. That they hook up immediately after could be taken more than one way. On the one hand, this could be Joan returning to a traditionally feminine role, falling for her protector. On the other hand, her day-after reaction to Roger, who argues that there’s still something between them, shows her asserting power: She doesn’t regret anything, yet she makes the decision that it was what it was and nothing more. It may not be equality, but it’s agency, and it’s what she has.

Each of these women’s stories played out, of course, against the tragic-farce backdrop of Miss Blankenship dropping dead at her desk. (A fantastic bit of physical comedy by Elisabeth Moss in her reaction, capped off by Peggy’s exchange with Sally: “Do not come out of there!” “I know!”) Miss Blankenship, from what little we’ve learned of her, has lived her life as a woman in the office seeing things in dualistic terms: you’re either a sadist or a masochist, you’re either a pushy woman or one who gets along.

As Miss Blankenship’s body is brought from the building, each of the women left behind her—Peggy perhaps most successfully, but not perfectly—is trying to figure out how to avoid those either-or choices. When Bert Cooper eulogizes her, he notes the technological differences between the world she was born into and the one she died in: “She was an astronaut.” As a woman in business, though, she only rode that rocket to its first stage. It’s women like Peggy, Faye, Joan (and Sally), who someday may or may not make it to a higher orbit. But for them right now, this moment, as we see at the end of the episode, the elevator is going down.

Now the hail of bullets:

* RIP, Miss Blankenship. I may not have always loved how Mad Men used the character, but they left nothing on the table sending her off. Her final exchange with Bert may have been my favorite Miss B-ism ever. (“Emu.” “It starts with an L.” “The hell it does.”) Another favorite bit: Harry’s off-screen reaction (“My mother made that!”) as his afghan is repurposed as her shroud.

* There hasn’t always been much notice of it in Mad Men’s swanky world, but as the mugging showed us, 1965 was already a time of urban blight in New York City, which would soon lead to the idea that the city was “ungovernable” (and its later low points in the budget crisis of the 1970s and the crack epidemic of the ’80s). A nice touch to show us how New Yorkers are already aware of the threat of crime: Roger immediately knows that, confronted by a man with a gun, you look down to show that you will not be able to ID him, and he can therefore let you go alive.

* Speaking of Roger: turns out we’re not the only ones who thought his memoir sounded like a dud.

* In Don’s apartment, Sally’s wearing a monogrammed necklace, which—unless I remember wrong—was his Christmas gift to her, and, I suspect, is there deliberately for him to notice. Absolutely heartbreaking, this girl trying to scheme her way into a home.

* I think I’m a little bit in love with Peggy’s lesbian friend, Joyce, to the point that I don’t even mind if she calls me vegetable soup. Also noted: Rizzo—whose free-thinking, clearly, does not extend beyond his pants—not-too-subtly serenading her with “Downtown.”

* Rum French toast? That’s no mistake, that’s genius! Boy, could I go for a glass of Mrs. Butterworth’s.