Mad Men’s unflinching a portrayal of gender in the workplace was exemplified in this week’s elevator conversation between office manager Joan and copywriter Peggy. Peggy has just proudly asserted her authority and fired a young freelancer, Joey, who sexually harassed Joan (and by extension Peggy and all women in the office) with an explicit, degrading cartoon. Joan responds to Peggy’s smugly-delivered but genuinely-felt overture with a “thanks but no thanks”:
Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.
Joan’s response resonates as a heartbreaking moment when a gesture at female solidarity gets swatted down. Instead of recognizing kinship with Peggy, Joan clings to her place in the pecking order. She does so even though her power–that of being a charming, competent hybrid mother-mistress figure–is losing its edge. Joan, who has been raped by her husband, is a victim of rape culture again, and the scene in which Joey responds to her scolding with increasingly barbed sass (he tells her she walks around trying to get raped, and calls her a madam from a Shanghai whorehouse among other insults) is viscerally painful to watch–she looks like a hunted animal. Her later claims that she could have handled the situation her own way seem dubious at best.
But Joan has also offered an accurate reading of how gender stereotypes can trap women in a no-win position. The setting in the elevator underscores Joan’s words about the way both she and Peggy are literally boxed in by stereotypes.
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Bloggers have been divided over who was “right” in this exchange–could Joan really have quietly dealt with the situation better than Peggy’s straightforward “look what I did for you Joan” approach? Or is Peggy, humorless bitch stereotype aside, demonstrating a new kind of power that Joan never thought possible? The answer is mixed. Of course, Joan’s analysis of the way men view women is absolutely correct. The tough ones are branded sexless wet blankets. Meanwhile women who use their wiles and sexuality to advance themselves can have those qualities turned against them: hence the suggestive, rude, and menacing jokes.
But the times they are-a changin’, and the momentum of progress lies with Peggy. She may have to be seen as a humorless bitch, and she may have to shoulder her share of exclusion and harassment, but she won’t have to put up with the vicious humor that Joey employs against Joan. She can fire him, and she does.
Peggy Olsen, the smart girl in the room, is the advance guard of this new battle of the sexes. Her background and personality are her own, but her struggles as the only skirt in a sea of suits, will be instantly recognizable to any woman who’s had to hold her own in a a male-dominated environment. Peggy makes the decision to pursue her career despite a work environment that is relentlessly hostile and a family and outside world that doesn’t understand her. Why? She confesses in a moment of candor to Don that she cares more about her work than her personal life. She knows she’s supposed to settle down, but she approaches the prospect with little enthusiasm. In a previous episode Peggy chose to stay late to work on a project (and platonically bond with her boss); as a result, her nice young man, waiting to surprise her for her birthday, summarily dumps her.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Joan, who was top (female) dog when Peggy first arrived, in charge of all the secretaries. She assumes that the goal of any working girl is a few years of fun followed by catching a good husband. Back then, she urged Peggy to watch her figure and buy fashionable, tight-fitting clothes, to get birth control, to be everything to her boss–wife, mother, mistress. These are qualities she herself has mastered, and she is still valued for them by the firm’s partners. When an ad that Peggy helped conceive goes up for a major award, Joan rather than Peggy goes to the ceremony. She is needed to charm and impress potential clients with her statuesque beauty and conversational ease, and to comfort her male colleagues by holding their hands. But despite the reverence Joan receives from elder statesmen Don and Roger, she is losing control of the young men.
And Peggy, as she ascends the hierarchy, is gaining it. While her work experience is often frustrating, occasionally, the boys club opens its doors. And her burgeoning sense of sisterhood stands in direct contrast to Joan, who carps about Peggy’s weight and the secretaries’ appearances and rarely engages as an equal with other women.
From the beginning, Mad Men has shocked with its brutal portrayal of sexism (Don outright refuses to do business with a woman in the very first episode) and skirt-chasing. As the mores of society loosen up and more women enter the office, the sexism has changed to more blatant and vulgar, the “liberated” young men quite comfortable making ribald jokes right to their female colleagues’ faces rather than chuckling at them behind semi-closed doors or giving their secretaries’ rear ends an appraising stare. If the relentless stream of sexist drivel that emerges from the men’s mouths can seem tiresome to viewers in the span of an hour, the writers seem to suggest, how would it feel day in, day out?
Think of all the confident, beautiful female attorneys and detectives and doctors on television–certainly representing an improvement over past portrayals–and then think of how sanitized their workplaces are without the aggravation they probably face due to their gender, even today. The sheer grit Peggy and Joan must muster reflects on the experiences of women working right up to our enlightened era. Just look at the treatment of the Hillary Clinton campaign to see that the “humorless bitch” stereotype has endured–and look at the Jets sexual harassment scandal this week to see that Joey’s treatment of Joanie has endured along with it.
Mad Men occasionally veers close to being a mite too cold, an impeccably-produced mix of obvious symbolism and characters as unlikable as they are well-dressed. This season, when principal character Don Draper “turned heel” and began to bury his sorrows in drink, lash out at the world and mope, I began to feel alienated. Perhaps the writers wanted to create that effect, but regardless, it’s been a relief in the past few weeks to see the show returning to what it does best, which is give its characters just enough humanity to invest us in the social issues they contend with. The more one turns the Joan-Peggy encounter over, the more one sees a layered story that represents both the importance of feminism and the hurdles it faces. Mad Men works best when we can see how much has changed and how much hasn’t.