Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Men: What are Men For?

Peggy’s friend Joyce has a theory about what men think women are for. Men, she observes, regard women as the pot that holds male soup while it’s cooking. If pressed, they’ll concede that you can’t make good soup without a pot. But most men figure that, as long as they’ve got the right ingredients, pretty much any pot will do.

Last night’s episode turned the question around: it was about women asking themselves what men are for after they'd discovered that, in one respect or another, the men in their lives are substandard. Mad Men is a show about how having an identity involves a combination of self-creation and self-discovery.  Last night, females (Sally, Joan, Peggy and Faye) were doing all the creating/discovering.

The men were playing characters in a feminist screwball comedy. Don is supposed to be the commander-in-chief of a high-powered ad agency. But last night, whenever it was time to make an executive decision, he was called out of the room to attend, ineptly, to a female, leaving his colleagues to make a perfectly sound decision without him. The first time Don resents the matronly woman who delivered his wayward daughter to his office because he can't figure out whether to tip her or just thank her. Then he hasn’t the slightest idea about what to do with Miss Blankenship’s still-warm remains, leaving Joan to take charge. Finally, Don’s begging Faye, a woman he’s just started sleeping with, to mother his child. “I’d ask my secretary to do it,” he explains, “but she’s dead.”

By the next day it’s clear that Don doesn’t know much about being a father to Sally. She’s become a handful, not only looking like a young Betty, but having learned a thing or two from her mother about shoehorning a pliable man into a domestic situation. Sally’s unchaperoned trip to New York turns out to be a power play designed to remake Don’s domestic life to her specifications. You know Don’s in over his head when, after putting Sally to bed in his apartment, he pulls out his new diary to record his observations about the whole thing and can’t think of word to write.

Then there’s Roger and Bert. Roger has just gotten off the phone with a literary agent who’s telling him that his memoir, and the life it depicts, isn’t worthy of publication. Seeing Miss Blakenship dead at her desk has him thinking that there’s not much more to his life than his undistinguished career. “She died as she lived,” he remarks, “surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”

But Roger’s self-pity is nothing next to the distress Bert Cooper felt at the death of his old flame. Now, surgically unmanned, he can’t even manage to put together a presentable obituary (which Joan does effortlessly). The best observation this giant of the advertising world can muster is this: “She was born in a barn and died on the 37th floor. She’s an astronaut.” Quite a pitch.

The women in Mad Men are made of sterner stuff.

Joan would like nothing better than being a pot if only she could find a man with the right stuff to make some hearty soup. She got married in the expectation that she’d be the housewife of an accomplished surgeon, but she had to go back to work when her husband couldn’t keep up his end of the bargain. Miss Blankenship’s death hits her hard because, as she revealed to Peggy in the elevator last episode, she’s been thinking of herself as a glorified secretary who can salvage her self-respect only by playing the femme fatale. But her disappointment hasn’t turned into passivity; after she and Roger are held up on a dark street at the end of a platonic date, she’s the one that turns him into an object of sexual consolation.

Neither Faye nor Peggy are willing to be any man's pot.

Faye won’t let herself be turned into the keeper of Don’s domestic tranquility. When Don asks her to get Sally to behave, Faye thinks he’s asking her to audition for the role of stepmother to Don’s children. That’s not a role she’s willing to play. By the end of the episode, she’s the one calling the shots in their relationship, reminding Don that her decision to subordinate domesticity to professional accomplishment is irreversible.

And Peggy makes sure Abe knows that she’s not content just being the inspiration of his political rants. It’s not that she’s unmoved by Abe’s progressive politics; she knowingly exposes herself to a little ridicule by suggesting to her colleagues that SCDP shouldn’t be representing racist clients. But, although she'd never have voted for Goldwater, she'd love to have had the chance to show off her advertising chops by doing campaign spots for him.

The women of Mad Men know that life is a compromise between aspiration and circumstance. Each of them is calibrating the tradeoffs. The men haven’t figured that out.

5 comments:

Mad Woman said...

Loved your post and your take on the show. It was one of my favorites. Who knew Mad Men was a comedy!! The scene with Miss Blankenship was fantastic. I will miss her.
I agree with your observation that this is all about the women in the lives of the men at SCDP and its surroundings. Especially the scene when Sally goes to Betty in the lobby, with every woman an onlooker -- what are we to think of all these women and the choices they have made and will make.

BigLittleWolf @ DailyPlateOfCrazy said...

Wonderful post. Calibrating the trade-offs. Yes indeed.

As for the quirky (and apt) soup metaphor offered by Joyce (men are soup - you can't eat it without a spoon or off the counter) - we women may be their receptacles for heat and containment - but as Peggy put it, "I like soup."

Ah, the delights of this show. They are endless.

agmcfc said...

I agree that Sally's move was a deliberate, calculated power play. You could see it on er face as she observed the adults that her efforts involved some trial and error but that she was learning quickly by doing. Ultimately it was short lived so she'll have to up the ante next time. Hopefully that creepy kid Glenn won't reemerge.

Anonymous said...

Sally is the one to watch. She is like a baby Betty, but smarter and not as volatile. She knows what she wants. I think creepy Glenn will reemerge. He's too creepy not to. Also, I think he's Matthew Weiner's son.
PS I'm going to miss Miss Blankenship. She was getting sooooo interesting.

Anonymous said...

And going in 4 seasons ago, who would have thought Mad Men is a show that chronicles:1) what it's like to be a woman in a man's world, 2)the rise of women, and 3) of course, What Do Women Want?
Which of course, was one of the first rhetorical questions asked on the show during a pitch meeting. Remember the answer? I'll bet that will change as the show goes on, and on...
Honestly, I could watch this show and these characters for a very long time. It's a world all it's own, and the world we (once) live(d) in.