Getting the Milk for Free (Mad Men Tuesday)

Peggy roasts a ham! She wears a retro dress! Look at how good a homemaker she is, with her era-perfect Kennedy portrait and textile exotica. Her proto-Anthropologie oven mitts and apron:

Poor Peggy. She can serve a ham to her Jewish boyfriend (“It’s my favorite!” he said a little too eagerly), she can banter with the boys about playtex bras, and she can agree to shack up. But she can’t get herself to feel good about her liberation. And if she can’t feel good about it, in the pop-psych, trip-happy style of the 60s, she ain’t liberated. It’s all in her head, man.

And in many ways it is. Peggy can’t find the cajones to ask Abe directly if he will ever want to marry her. She can’t believe in herself enough to ask for what she wants.

And at work, while she thinks of herself as bossyboss with all the experience and chops of her onetime mentor Don, she’s still stuck in a shared office with dudes who make fun of her. Dudes who are her junior. She’s still a “boob-carrying consumer” whose opinions about how one should be able to carry one’s boobs are not as important as those of the dudes in the room.

She appears to believe herself more successful at work than she actually is.

She has never been the most self-aware fish in the tank. Remember how she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was delivering the baby? Remember how she didn’t even look at it afterwards? She has stunning powers of denial.

On the other hand, she knows that she should be jealous of Megan and Ginzo, and she refuses to be. Perhaps Abe’s professional work in radical politics is helping her come to terms with the complexity of being a “first” in her firm. And she certainly knew the depth of her failures with Heinz in the last episode. Though, as I noted last week, her conversation with Abe was about the Holocaust, not about her professional flop. Was she just taking it in stride? Is she placid because of denial or maturity?

Either way, girlfriend is stuck. All this progress all around her, and Peggy can’t move forward.

As my old favorite academic/blogger wrote, women’s navigation of home and work is just like Heinz beans: some things never change.

And, as we see in the dumbydumbdumb fakery that passes for discourse about women, Megan’s “having it all”–professional, marital, and (step)motherly success–doesn’t make her happy either. But I’m not willing to buy that it’s just because her daddy doesn’t approve.

However, his reference to her dreams deferred reminded me that for many people, acting is about artistry. It’s not about Hollywood. I had assumed that, because a stray comment about her teeth caused her to give up her acting dreams, she had wanted to be a starlet. But perhaps her parents influenced her to be the off-off-off-Broadway type of actress. Which certainly changes our sense of her ambition.

So Peggy sold out her heart and Megan sold out her brain, both to get along in a man’s world. And both realize, at some level, that this game is impossible to win.

They gave away their milk for free, my friends. And we all know what happens to those cows.

But there are hints of escape: Don’s calmly devastating conversation with Ken’s father-in-law, about how he’ll never get a major client to trust him again. Why doesn’t he just quit? This season has made clear that his head isn’t in the game anymore. And Megan may be contemplating anew whatever dreams her dad is mad at her for giving up.

Why not just escape? Bust out of the ties and foundation garments? Barefoot in the meadow and all that? Abandon the straight, clean lines of grey or pink flannel and go paisley?

When the old rules are so obviously not working for these characters anymore, why do they still try to play by them?

Or we can go by Megan’s dad’s beliefs: Giving away their milk is bad for their soul.  But, um, owning the cow themselves? This is really a clumsy metaphor. No wonder it’s lasted so long. Rhetorically, you can’t give that cow any dignity at all.

Megan, Peggy, Megan’s mom, Sally: the old rules make them all miserable, but none of them seem to see any alternatives. Critics have been predicting that Sally will be the future flower-child of the show: a symbol of the ways that the 60s truly permeate culture after the transitional time dramatized by the show’s early seasons. But her dark “dirty” that closes the episode suggests that her experience of adult sex is too horrifying to allow her much Haight Street liberation, either.

This episode is another step in Mad Men’s larger project of illustrating for us just how hard it is to go along with social change. To let go of ancient rules and try to accept radical new ones. To get free.

Because in many ways, as I keep writing, Mad Men is about us. We may be more comfortable with shacking up, but working women aren’t much better off than Megan and Peggy.

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