Women Working (Mad Men Finale)

The calmest episode in the season, friends. No hangings. No spectacular drunken tractor injuries. No Betty in a fat suit sneaking ice cream for the audience’s titillation and revulsion.

Instead, we got a thrilling culmination of a full season’s exploration of the national trauma of women becoming people who need secretaries, rather than being the secretaries.

And if there’s one thing Mad Men has shown us, this is a TRAUMA. A social transformation apparently more overwhelming than the Civil Rights Movement, which the show has barely even glossed in favor of depicting Don and Don’s Women.

Let’s review the women who have achieved non-secretary jobs so far, as featured in this episode. How are they doing?

Here’s how Joan rocks being a partner. I want that suit, and that broach, but not those foundation garments:

 

And here’s how Megan gets Don to believe in her talent (hint: it relies on fantasy):

And here’s Peggy’s glamorous business trip to tour the tobaccy factory as a High Powered Lady Executive:

Can’t find a pic of the dogs themselves.

So the word on the Internet is that Don sees Peggy and Megan similarly: protégés whose success results in their leaving him. (Like his poor mama, Freud etc. etc.) It makes sense. His words to that effect in the movie theater were foreboding and portentous. He told Peggy, when he first got engaged to Megan, “She reminds me of you!” Sure.

So he sobers up to the sobering sobriety that if Megan succeeds in her career, she’ll leave him. Cue the lonely drink, the inevitable (why is it always inevitable?!?! Is he really that irresistible?) come-on in the bar, the coy eyebrow lift. The “will he? won’t he?” speculation that serves as the actual cliffhanger to the whole crazy season. Will Don revert to his Season 1 ways? Or won’t he? Now that his second marriage is obviously kaput.

Obviously.

But wait. What? WHAT?

Why is it OK that Don sees Megan’s success as inimical to a happy marriage? By which I mean, why does it seem both inevitable and unquestionable? Like oh, she got a commercial, now they’ll never be happy together.

This show was broadcast at roughly the same time we heard about this study, which found that men in traditional marriages are much more likely to view their women colleagues with disdain, distrust, and discomfort.

We found that employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.

So this show’s lesson is still relevant: Women cannot work without destroying the fabric of society. (And they can’t do as good a job anyway.) Apparently.

Let’s go back to Peggy. The show–and its vocal viewers–seem to believe that Peggy has achieved consummate success and happiness. Like, here’s from the professors:

When Don meets Peggy at the movies, it signals the real growth this season has entailed: the “little girl” who was once his protégé has learned Don’s lessons so well she can stand (and stand taller) without him. “That’s what happens when you help someone,” Don says ruefully, “They succeed and move on.” His words pinpoint the little tragedy behind every coming-of-age.

In many ways this is true. (That essay points out some ironic success, in her selling a commodity form of feminism (Virginia Slims) rather than the real thing.) But also, there was her naive “I’m going on an airplane!!!” which revealed more about her inadequacy than about her success. Her inability to get her underlings to take her seriously, despite her yelling at them. And what about Abe? Who needed to move in with her, robbing her of an era-appropriate expectation of marriage, because he was so threatened by her joking with the office boys? We haven’t seen him in a while. We can presume Peggy’s happy with him because she seems pretty happy, but I suspect that’s only because of her massive powers of denial.

I’m happy for her, but I spot cracks in her success that I expect the show will tease out next season. Because women at work. It’s not a happy story. And it will only doom their home lives. On this show, at least.

And powerful Joan, doing apparently 3 jobs for her 5%, while the others get to do their one regular job (or, in the case of Roger and Bert, 1/2 a job?) for presumably more than 5%. She’s doing her old job, her new partner job, and Lane’s job. Plus, blaming herself and her sense of propriety for Lane’s suicide?!?!?!??!?

She’s getting a raw deal.

And back to Megan. First of all, I want to say: it’s very, very hard to be unemployed. Megan’s got some privilege, sure. She’s better off than actors who need the work to eat, as Don points out smugly. And resentfully.

But to want a job and not get one? It’s really hard. I’d stay in bed and tell my mom that I’m sad, too. And I’d pull every string I could to get some work.

Because, surprise surprise: people work for more than the money. We need an income, of course. But we also need pride, self-worth, the sense we are contributing. And Megan wants to achieve those things by doing something she really loves.

So her success equals her marriage’s failure?

This is not how I see it.

I say instead: The marriage may fail because of Don’s tragic, infuriating failure to see women as humans fully endowed with their own rights to happiness. Don’s failure to view his marriage the way his wife views it: as a partnership of equals who support each other’s endeavors.

The marriage may fail because Don loves fantasy more than reality. Because Don falls in love with Megan’s screen test while falling out of love with the real Megan. Because he prefers the silent image of the coy woman over the talking, crying, laughing, (cooking, cleaning) woman he married.

Not because Megan got an acting job.

Despite its honesty about how tough it is for the wimmins, this show remains enigmatic about feminism because it keeps its focus on Don. It romanticizes Don, and in turn, we feel sorry for him. He’s so sad and lonely and handsome.

The show dramatizes how fiercely women must struggle to win even the scraps of authority that their companies give them. The show is clear that this is wrong.

But in framing Megan’s (and Peggy’s) success as Don’s problem—even if it’s a problem we think he shouldn’t be having—it pulls back from a truly feminist position.

I want to see a show about women struggling to achieve some basic parity at work and home. I do not want to see a show about men having difficulty over several seasons with the idea of women earning money at what had been men’s jobs.

I’m not asking for a miraculous transformation of Don into a supportive, enlightened spouse. But maybe I am. Maybe I was hoping that Megan would help push him in that direction. Instead, at the first sign of compromise, he gives up and indulges his cheatin’ heart. Compromise! Not even really a challenge! And we feel sorry for him, maybe a little excited for his dashing hijinks next season, maybe a little disappointed that he’ll revert so quickly to his old ways.

But I’d like it to be about Megan (and Joan and Peggy) at least as much as it is about Don.

Some of you may say dude, that would be a different show. This show is about Don, and it always has been.

Yeah, I guess.

But it doesn’t have to be. Ensemble shows are about the ensemble, not the dude in the center who keeps making the same damn mistakes over and over again with no compunction and just enough shame and regret to make it acceptable for us to enjoy it.

So for Season 6, Mr. Weiner, please, if Megan gets a really good job, maybe let the shot linger on her face. Instead of shrinking her down to a red blur and following Don to the bar.

Make it interesting, is what I’m saying.

And thanks for a great season!

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6 thoughts on “Women Working (Mad Men Finale)

  1. Matthew says:

    I agree with your critique as to what’s going on with gender, although for better or worse, it’s an ensemble show based around Don Draper. I actually don’t want him to wake up and fix his attitudes, though, because I find it more interesting that he has these tragic flaws. His preference for fantasy is so deeply American.

    • Elizabeth says:

      It is! Sorry it took me so long to reply to this. That’s the thing about when you care about feminism: Do we want representations of women and men to be accurate (i.e. demoralizing and also unoriginal)? Or do we want them to be original, more radical, more challenging (i.e. not necessarily realistic, or i.e. suddenly the Don focus is ceded to a lady).

      Like, Don Draper’s tragic flaws are very very common. Lots of people have a hard time accepting women in more central roles (in life and in art).

      I would edit your last sentence to say “His preference for fantasy women is so very American.” Fantasy everything else, too. But his desires to keep fantasy versions of Betty and Megan and then cheat on them when they exceed the bounds of his fantasy drive me crazy! I’d like to see a different story. I hope that maybe we’ll both be happy next season!

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