Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mad Men: A Woman's Worth

*Warning -- Spoilers ahead from the recent episode of Mad Men.*

What. In. The. World. Was. That?

Dollar bills balled up and angrily hurled at a woman's face.

A married woman with a baby at home asked to put out in order to land an account for her firm.

Another married woman at an audition asked to turn around slowly so men could examine her figure, not her acting abilities.

Two ad campaigns which used women's bodies to sell products: One with a nude Lady Godiva image, the other by comparing a woman and her body to a car and its mechanical parts.

Women were but mere commodities in this episode. Things to be bought and sold. Possessed. Controlled. Consumed. Enjoyed by men. Discarded when they became too old, too used, too familiar. We always knew that the men on Mad Men viewed women this way, but never had their views been so nakedly laid bare.

Don -- himself the product of a commercial exchange of sex -- gave lame lip-service to his objection to prostituting Joan out to a client in order to get the Jaguar account. (I tried to imagine his reaction if someone had ever suggested that he lend Betty or Megan out for a night in order to win an account, and all I came up with were violent images in my head, Don's fists in a ball.) But for all his protestations, Don seemed more upset that he didn't win Jaguar on purely the merits of his own pitch, his own charm and brilliance, without Joan muddying the waters, detracting from his golden boy image.

Yet with Peggy, Don has always been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, he treasures Peggy's insight, talent and loyalty. But on the other hand, he takes her for granted, like she's a pesky little sister whom he can berate and embarrass without consequence because, at day's end, they're family.

You'd think that the son of a prostitute would know better than to throw crumpled up wads of cash into a woman's face in an attempt to belittle her and her accomplishments, as though whatever value she offers him is somehow contemptible and not worthy of respect. He should know that's not going to go over well.

Don has always acted as though he was Peggy's knight in shining armor, that he singled her out in order to give her a chance but in reality, she made the name for herself. Her talent was initially recognized in season one by Freddy Rumsen, who called it to Don's attention. And when Pete, with whom Don was feuding at the time, objected to the involvement of a secretary on an ad campaign, Don christened her a copywriter. The move was more about Don one-upping Pete than him championing a talented young woman. When the partners fled the sinking Sterling Cooper ship at the end of season three, Don treated Peggy shabbily, diminished her again like his kid sister. Although Don encouraged Peggy to return to the workplace after she had a baby, Peggy bailed him out with that whole Bobbie Barrett mess. She was at Don's side when he hit rock bottom. Neither of them can hold a moral high ground over the other. But they're not brother and sister. There's nothing tying them together except for good will, which Don torpedoed with the straw that broke the camel's back, with those crumpled dollar bills. How ironic in an episode about women's worth.

While he was screwing up his relatinship with Peggy, Don has no idea what to make of his wife Megan's declaration that she has a career that's just as important as his own and that if it leads her to Boston, he has no right to tell her she can't take it. He can't control her like he did with Betty, or Peggy for that matter. Megan's a mystery to him. Don just can't stop himself from stepping in it. Megan, meanwhile, like Joan and Peggy before her, was also treated like a piece of meat on her audition, asked to spin around in front of men who was casting for a play, her figure more important than whether she knew her lines.
Image credit: Michael Yarish/AMC.

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