A Fairytale of New York (Mad Men Blogging)

No, not the Pogues song. I’m talking about the scariest, darkest Mad Men ever. And that’s saying something. An episode that did a pretty good job of both indicting and reveling in all those ancient stories of violence against women. Stories that stick around. Stories we hear every day.

That’s Sally hiding from her evil crone-mother figure–the one on drugs, grasping a butcher knife, telling her horror stories. She’s hiding from the fairy stories, too–trying to stay alive like the lone survivor of the true crime story at the center of the episode. And when her parents come home, she stays in her hiding spot.

Thankfully they didn’t go as far as dressing Sally–or Betty, or Dawn, or Megan–in a red cape. But two women were in red: nightmare-Andrea, and awake-all-night Joan. Not just red dresses, but red tresses. Redheads = red caps, just like in the story. And unlike innocent Red Riding Hood, these two women were very sexual. And their stories this episode offer that same message that makes this apparently feminist show seem like the same ol same ol after all: women who want to have sex will get punished. They’ll get raped, or they’ll get strangled. They’ll get both and more. And, in the case of those nurses, they don’t even have to want sex. They’ll get punished anyway, just for wearing their nurse uniforms.

No wonder Sally is hiding. The more she sees of the adult world, the more she fears it. And no wonder she’s rejecting food: like many young anorexics, she might believe that if she stays thin enough, she can postpone puberty and adult womanhood indefinitely. Plus, old wife versus new wife: Daddy likes them slender. Eat like Megan, not Betty. But I digress.

Any moments of triumph here were quickly squelched. “Ginzo” (not quite the Gonzo that would be named later, or even the Ginsburg that he wants to be (I seriously can’t get enough of Howl lately)) set the stage for his principled rejection of the office gawking, titillated, by the candid, unpublishable photos of the Steck murders. He leaves the room in disgust, making him one of the good guys. But then later, he cashed in on the same feelings in spinning a horrortale version of the Cinderella story, describing Cinderella as wounded prey that wants to be attacked. The clients love it.

Between his fairytale-spinning and Grandma Pauline’s, we get a nice heavy dose of the pleasures of the horror tale. But we also get the unmistakable message that women are at the receiving end of all that horror. Even when women tell the tales, the story doesn’t change.

The other moment of triumph was when Joan kicked her nogoodnik louse of a husband out. When I was trying to get to sleep after this episode, I kept trying to fix on that long-awaited moment when Joan reminded him that he did, in fact, rape her. And she kicked him out for it, and for his general lack of respect. Good for her! Plus, you know, it solves the whole who’s-his-daddy problem. But the last scene of the episode squelched that triumph too: she’s stuck in that crappy apartment, wanting to get her job back, needing her mom’s help with the kid, with no clear way out.

When Don started having his fever dream, I had a brief surprise: a woman is the predator! What a nice twist! But then he killed her.

So here’s what I’m saying: Does this episode, and by extension the show, fall victim to the Steig Larsson Effect? That is, a series that ostensibly criticizes violence against women but portrays so many graphic depictions of it that one begins to wonder if the book is really so anti-violence as it says it is?

Who’s on first? And What’s on second?

I mean, it can get confusing, and this episode, frankly, left me confused. Who’s on first here? Is the pervasive specter of violence against women–so many stories about it, leaving so many women so very fearful–an act of violence itself? In literary criticism, we take it as a premise that words–stories–have the capacity of violence. By that logic, then yes: so many stories and images of violence against women–especially when so many characters relish the telling and viewing–adds up to violence.

On the other hand, what’s on second? Can we look at the terror that everyone feels–and the sweaty ugliness (Don’s, Peggy’s, Grandma Pauline’s) throughout the episode–as a commentary against the violence? That image of Sally under the couch hiding from the show she’s stuck in? Making the show itself positioned against the violence it lovingly depicts? You could also say that Don’s horror at his dream may indicate some critique of its violence. That for Don, too, sex = death in good old Freudian style. And that he sees this as wrong.

And by this perspective, the show’s fidelity to a kind of period realism makes an implicit case that a mimetic depiction of attitudes about women is its own criticism of them. This is the standard way to argue that Mad Men is feminist, and I have usually bought it. By this argument, one might say that the simple dominance of female characters in this episode makes it feminist, never mind that they are all either violated or quaking with fear about being violated.

Oh! And another thing!!! The folks over at Slate found the Peggy/Dawn scene to be somewhat drab, but I found it galvanizing. Peggy is seeking solidarity, but only because her privilege allows her to. The Slate commentators said that they were disappointed that Dawn remained a shallow character, despite the narrative opportunity to reveal more about her. But for me, that was really effective: she was the screen for Peggy to see herself. She was for Peggy what women tend to be for men in narratives. And what black characters always do for white ones. I think that was Weiner’s point there. Peggy was so clearly using Dawn to validate her own assumptions about herself–a sham solidarity. But I saw some sincerity in her desire for solidarity, which gave the scene real tension. Well done.

What do you guys think? I’m looking at you, Betsy and Alexbetty (do you still keep a blog?). But some of my still-academic friends might chime in too, if so inclined.

This show really knocked me out, and not necessarily in a good way. A discussion with you guys might help me get my head back on about it.

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4 thoughts on “A Fairytale of New York (Mad Men Blogging)

  1. Babette says:

    Very rich post! I’d add only that it was hard for Peggy to leave Dawn in the same room as her handbag full o’ cash (the under the table payoff for working all weekend). To me that spoke volumes!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, Barbara! Glad to see you over here! I will check your blog out too…
    I saw that moment with purse. It did speak volumes!

  3. I thought Sally was knocked out from the seconal, like a little Sleeping Beauty. But it also echoed the nurse who hid under the bed while Speck murdered everyone.

    I liked the fairy tale themes in this episode, and I thought we got to see a lot of nuances w/r/t the struggles that women faced. The fairy tales referenced, after all, are about women’s sexual awakening. Cinderella and Red are very strong characters who, if they’re not exactly taking charge of their destiny they’re at least taking advantage of the opportunities (unlike Sleeping Beauty). Even grandma survives being eaten by the wolf (Speck, I would think). It would have been spectacular if Betty had some role here, owning her new size and reveling it in (which I don’t think she did in the last episode. I know you thought so, but to me she looked resigned and guilty when she finished Sally’s sundae. ALso, I think Sally is on the road to being anorexic, what w/ not finishing the sundae last week, and not eating her tuna sammie this week).

    I do wish Dawn had more to do. Ginsberg has been given a lot more, which I don’t need. We’ve seen where he lives already! We have no idea what Dawn’s place looks like. More Dawn already!

    • Elizabeth says:

      You know what’s funny, Marie? I have believed that Sally’s eyes were open in that scene this whole time. I took a second look just now and see that yes, she was knocked out (exactly like Sleeping Beauty). You are right to find the agency that women have in these old stories, for sure. And also: it’s usually a wicked old crone that is torturing the young woman. Women are perpetuating these fears of growing older and becoming sexual (like Pauline and Sally.) Then the right man saves them from the more dangerous consequences of sexuality.

      Just to clarify–I don’t think that Betty was reveling in her new body. I meant to find ways that it offers her some benefits, despite all the self-hatred she clearly feels for becoming the person that she always feared being. Remember how her mom sent her to fat camp when she was a kid? And the series started with her still mourning her mom’s death, despite this (or because of it)? I’m just saying that there are probably reasons that she’s not “reducing” on her own, benefits she is getting from her current size, despite her conflicts about it. And though she’s probably not conscious of them, they are strong enough to impel her to act contra to a lifetime of beliefs and habits.

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