The Beautiful Girls: Mad Men Season 4 Episode 9 (Commentary)
It’s like men are this vegetable soup and you can’t put them on a plate or put them on a counter. Women are the pot. They hold them. They contain them. Who wants to be a pot? Who says we’re not soup?
~ Joyce on gender relations
Most episodes of Mad Men are a banquet, but some are like pots of soup, and “The Beautiful Girls” is like the vegetable soup in Joyce’s worst metaphor of the (20th) century: Thin, with a few nourishing bits floating in it that don’t require much chewing to digest. What a disappointment from an episode that’s obviously meant to propel the sociopolitical storylines of both civil rights and feminism, which Peggy links for a clueless Abe Drexler by explaining that most of the things Negroes can’t do, she can’t either, as a woman, but nobody seems to care.
But she says this while sitting in a bar (one at which the bartender listens to her, and not Abe) not while seated at a lunch counter that has refused to serve her (or outside which a mob waits to beat her). And while she’s right that she can’t enter the men’s clubs that her male peers use to conduct business deals (unless she’s there to pop out of a cake), Abe’s equally right to point out that “there are no Negro copywriters.” Peggy argues that there could be, if they only tried hard enough, since no one wanted her but she found her way in, thus conveniently forgetting (or omitting for the sake of argument) that Freddy Rumsen gave her the initial opportunity, Don Draper has continued to give her more and more of them, and even sexist old Roger gave her Freddy’s office. Nobody’s done that for any of the black men we’ve glimpsed on the show – hell, they just started hiring Jewish copywriters at SCDP!
Beyond the alphabet soup simplicity of this storyline, which includes such head-smackers as Abe’s snigger “All right, Peggy, we ‘ll have a civil rights march for women,” (oh right, that’s exactly what feminists did later!), what’s truly irritating about “The Beautiful Girls” is that it takes nasty anti-feminist stereotypes of the 60’s and 70’s and presents them as fact: That lesbians were behind the women’s movement and that it focused on the needs of middle class, professional white women rather than addressing the greater problems of less affluent and minority women.
Joyce, the show’s token lesbian, is Peggy’s guide to feminist thought while Peggy – the young woman who is so bright that it’s suggested she’s not just the next Don Draper but an ad woman for the new media and culture that is rising up – Peggy is so out of touch that she’s not even aware one of her clients is being boycotted for racial discrimination, despite arguing with Abe that her job is precisely to help her clients with their public problems. And while we’ve seen her experience a constant stream of sexism at work (not to mention in her personal life with the likes of Pete and Duck), she needs a wise young lesbian to explain it to her, in what seems the intended payoff for Joyce’s character being on the show. (Joyce’s relegation to social translator reminds me of the “wise Negro” trope that’s been hung on films like “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” in which a black man appears to help a white man, rather than living out his own story.) Peggy may be the one who actually gets involved with men, but she’s portrayed as utterly lacking in understanding of the gender until Joyce explains why Pete Campbell’s soup was not mm-mm good for her after all.
Of course, despite the fact that she’s the rare woman who is succeeding in a traditionally male job, a highly coveted job at that, Peggy needs feminism. Or does she? She’s being sexually harassed at work, but her male boss actually lets fire her harasser, a development that screams “anachronism” (yes, indeedy, that’s what bosses did in those days – let women fire men who harassed them). And while they do harass her, her male peers also listen to and accept her ideas, especially when she presents them confidently. (Because, oh, that’s right, all women had to do was persist and speak confidently and men in the mid-60’s listened to them.) Just as she argued about “the Negroes" simply needing to assert themselves (thus denying the need for a civil rights movement), it’s suggested that Peggy was able to overcome sexism on her own, without any need for that pesky feminist movement still to come.
And yet she will benefit from it, shoring up her position as a professional and moving even more smoothly into that executive role that we know she’s destined for no matter what social changes occur. By making feminism optional for Peggy and for Dr. Faye Miller (who has a PhD and a thriving professional consultancy when both were quite rare for women), we’re left with the suggestion that the feminist movement was a discretionary advancement that plumped the lives of already thriving women, rather than a social revolution that dramatically changed both working and personal lives for both genders.
Underscoring this weakness is the fact that the main drama of “The Beautiful Girls” (note the diminutive) is focused on the women’s private lives, in which they each make choices that limit our sympathies:
Peggy’s being pursued by lefty journalist Abe Drexler, and even though she rightly labels his anti-corporate harangues and horror at what she does for a living as a criticism of her, and even though he endangers her job by penning an article, “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue” that attacks SCDP clients in a way that would point to her, at the end of the episode, she admits to Joyce that she might be “lovesick” as much as angry. (Guess that Campbell’s soup tasted better than we thought if she’s hoping for a helping of Abe’s stew of self-righteousness.)
In the junior division of female discontent, Sally (I guess that’s why the title is “girls”) runs away from home and begs Don to take her in permanently, not simply because she truly loves her daddy but because her mother’s character has devolved from a deceived woman understandably conflicted in her feelings about her lying and philandering husband to a shrill harpy who emotionally abuses her daughter and thus utterly repels our sympathy. As the portrayal of Betty continues to ill-represent the very real dilemmas of housewives in that era, so too does Sally’s behavior, which comes across largely as bratty, smug and manipulative, thus contradicting and undermining the pain we’ve seen her character endure earlier this season.
Meanwhile Joan’s sad and angry that her husband’s been called up to Vietnam immediately after basic training, a development that along with a cliched mugging, drives her not only into weak-kneed speechlessness that doesn’t fit the Joan we know, but also into a predictable relapse with Roger, who proves he’s a stand-up guy, but not in a moral sort of way. Stripped of her wedding rings as well as her purse (that symbolic stand-in for the female genitals), Joan seems unprecedentedly vulnerable, unmoored from her feminine power and social position, making Roger’s reassurances that “everything can be replaced” and “you’re fine” sound hollow to us as well as to her.
Most disappointingly, we find out that Don apparently discarded the newfound self-awareness and sexual sobriety that had him trying to pace himself with Faye and is nipping off to his bachelor pad for nooners with her (and pointedly finding himself speechless when he tries to write in the journal that he’d addressed so eloquently last week). In another predictable plot development, he asks Faye to take care of the wayward Sally, and to our utter lack of shock, we find out that Faye is Not Good With Children. (Haven’t you heard? Successful career women aren’t.) Angry but also worried that she’s been put to a test by Don and failed it, Faye defends her right to be a childless professional woman in yet another excruciatingly obvious bit of dialogue, “I love children but I chose to be where I am, and I don’t view it as failure.”
Don reassures her that it doesn't matter, but meanwhile we see the next plot twist coming: Megan, who I’ve previously called a Jane Siegel doppelganger, is already warming up in the bull pen to become her parallel, the second Mrs. Draper, after proving her mettle both by dealing with the final sail of Ida Blankenship as well as comforting Sally in a convincingly maternal way. And who wouldn’t wish that the sweet traditionally subservient Megan take care of Sally instead of that literally cold blonde take-charge gal Faye, whose cool leg Don has found refreshing but whose arms he seems ambivalent about after seeing she can’t handle his little girl?
Miss Blankenship, you’re not missing anything. ~ Roger
And then there’s Ida Blankenship. What can you say about an old girl who died? That she loved crossword puzzles, wearing wigs, and speaking bluntly? That she believed being a secretary means never having to say you’re sorry? (As well as never having to lower your voice, even when you use words like “toilet” or “psychiatrist.”) Ida, we hardly knew ye, but we aren’t the only ones at a loss for words at your sudden demise. Roger and Bert, at least one of whom knew you intimately, can’t manage to write even a single word of your obituary and have to call in the ever-resourceful Joan, who makes sure you’re identified as not just a secretary but an executive one (a distinction as important in her world as rank in the military). Hearing you thus labeled, Bert finally finds his voice and gives you a fitting lift-off to that secretarial pool in the sky, even if it’s not fit to print: “She was born in a barn in 1899 and died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
But Ida’s posthumous promotion to what was in 1965 the uber-male job is an elevation in name only. As Roger wryly notes, “She died like she lived -- answering other people’s phones.” We’re meant to take the sailing of the good Blankenship into the hereafter as the end of an era for women, when even smart cookies like her were limited to supporting roles in the drama of business. Blankenship begrudgingly says of Faye, “She’s pushy, that one; I guess that’s what it takes” -- suggesting that even in 1965 all it took was chutzpah for a woman to succeed. But Ida was pushy, too, and never got past the exalted post of executive secretary. And while it seems at first a sly reference to her past as “the queen of perversions,” when she tells Peggy after Don’s blown her off, “It’s a business of sadists and masochists and you know which one you are,” she’s actually senselessly blaming Peggy for not being powerful enough to tell her older male boss to do her bidding.
Ida has been portrayed as confused and out-of-touch, but her sly flashes of wisdom make her foghorn cluelessness seem suspiciously like a put-on, a classic way for the less powerful to assert themselves while avoiding punishment. Even her death is an Ida special, embarrassing and horrifying the SCDP staff as they frantically try to wheel her body out literally behind the backs of the Fillmore Auto Parts clients, symbolically covering her in the conventionally feminine by throwing the afghan that Harry’s mother made over her lifeless form.
It’s a complicated idea, but in advertising we don’t really judge people. We try to help them out of these situations. ~ Peggy
Meanwhile the SCDP staff try to talk those “perfectly nice for racists” Fillmore clients into marketing auto parts to average suburban men, who by using them to repair their cars can thus prove their manhood both to themselves and to women, who (as a purring Dr. Faye assures them) all “love a man who is good with his hands.” When the Fillmore brothers are concerned that they’ll lose their existing professional mechanic customers by marketing to the “suit and tie” crowd, Ken suggests a slogan that will straddle both worlds – “Where the pros go and everyone’s welcome.” -- which echoes Peggy’s complaint that she’s not allowed where men are. Don complains this is not one but two strategies, glued together with an “and,” reflecting the uneasiness that most men in that era had with the idea that the two genders could mingle freely and equally in all situations, both professional and private. (Tellingly, Don curtly says, ”You can’t do that,” while the younger generation as represented by Ken blithely replies, “Sure you can.”) By the time Don returns from directing the disposal of Blankenship’s body (that symbolic burial of the traditional woman), the team has come up with the slogan, “For the mechanic in every man,” thus keeping a traditional gender balance in which men can find any ability at all within themselves -- and women aren’t mentioned at all.
I’m really sorry. I’m much better on paper. ~ Abe to Peggy in the bar.
But being ignored may not be the worst case scenario for women. After having admitted at the bar that he’d thought of showing up at both her office and her home but instead had finagled the fake-spontaneous meeting with Joyce at the bar, Abe shows up uninvited at Peggy’s office, insisting that she has to read what she’s inspired him to write, despite her protestations that she’s busy, simply “because I came all the way up here” as if that effort on his part trumps her own legitimate work. Having behaved like a child demanding his mother’s attention right now (the mirror of Sally’s behavior with Don), he badgers Peggy into complying, only to behave even worse upon hearing her response of horror and fear at what he’s written.
First he tries dictating her emotional response (“You’re not supposed to be insulted, you’re supposed to be flattered.”) but failing at that, he rejects her for not living up to his fantasy of her. “I guess I read you wrong. You looked so earnest,” he says, crestfallen that she’s rejected his love-note-cum-manifesto and chosen not to throw her career to the winds after a mere ten minutes of fraught conversation in a bar that he’s built up into a froth of freedom fighting. He’s tried to enlighten her and convert her and woo her, all on spec. Having failed to sell his manuscript to her, we can only fear that he’ll sell it to someone else – and Peggy down the river in the bargain. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” goes the old saying, but rejected men are the ones who are truly dangerous. Peggy has earlier confessed to Joyce that she fears the male copywriters she needs to hire because the better they are, the more her job is in danger. Now male words threaten her job from the outside as well, without her having done anything to deserve their sting besides catch the romantic fancy of an ideologue.
You don’t want this to get worse, believe me. ~ Don
In the end, we see four women exit the offices of SCDP in a decidedly deliberate fashion: Joyce walks directly into an elevator by herself and departs, while moments later Faye and Joan do an about-face to board a different car that opens up behind them, an image of reversal to the past. Before they can depart, Peggy calls out and Joan holds the door until she boards, allowing her to join them in their downward descent.
Look down. Everything’s going to be fine. ~ Roger to Joan