Monday, September 20, 2010

It's a Woman's World


I once wrote on this blog that women were taking over my life. I suppose that I am not really qualified to make that statement and it would seem rather pathetic to say that again after watching an episode of Mad Men, but this blog has never shied away from seeming pathetic, as that comes with all the raging glory and epiphany of life anyway.  So, last night, for an hour, women did take over my life.

“The Beautiful Girls” was a truly fascinating entry into the Mad Men series.  I can’t remember any of the other seasons presenting a truly challenging episode from week to week. Obviously, I love the show and think it is TV of the highest level and has exhibited this in each season, but after every episode this year I have asked myself, “Well, how the hell am I going to make sense of this one?” And maybe its because this episode was about women - and it seems like it will be my (and many other men’s) ongoing journey in life to try to understand them – but this episode left me really puzzled on how to draw some meaning out of it.

Many of the other reviews I have read have clearly focused on the different ways that Dr. Miller, Joan and Peggy represent the women of the time.  All three have different levels of commitment to their careers and all are in danger of dying in the office like Ms. Blankenship did during the episode.  Joan is a woman who’s career is forced to take center stage because her husband has become a failure and is forced to go to Vietnam because of his career decision, a decision he didn’t consult her for.  Roger is the one person she is close to and he is her co-worker/superior.  Peggy is clearly very career driven but also feels the social pressure of finding someone to love before she becomes too old, as Trudy painfully reminded her in “The Suitcase.” She is very open-minded and accepting of the changes that are occuring in the world, whether in the business world or the larger realm of world news and civilization.  However, she encounters men like Abe who claim to be open-minded and part of the youth culture, but who still don’t take into account the rights of women and how their roles are in many ways just as segregated and looked down upon as those of minorities, especially black people at the time. So she seems to have her choice of a man like Duck who is failure of epic proportions and belongs to a different generation; she has a na├»ve boyfriend like Mark who wants her to be a feminine ideal of a virgin who loves her family; and now she has a guy like Abe who wants her to be open-minded to new ideas, but to still go and make him a drink and tell him how smart he is with his writing.  Dr. Miller is another career woman who has been even more successful than Peggy. She is as devoted to her job as Don is, which has left her without the ability to cook as we found out in her phone conversation last week, as well as without children or any skills with them as her interactions with Sally proved this week. Yet, in two different moments of crisis Don puts her on the spot to try and handle Sally, because that is what Betty would do; that is what the woman should do because she is a woman and is supposed to be good at those kind of things.

Now, these are all fine observations and they are certainly in the episode.  Each of the women get their chance to exhibit their frustrations and this is all nicely framed by the death of Mrs. Blankenship in the middle of the work day.  All the women in the office cry as they have lost one of their own (and of course because it is upsetting), but it esepcially hits home for Joan as she is somewhat of a glorified, younger Mrs. Blankenship (Roger even kids her about this before they are mugged) and her life very well could pass her by in the office.  I think all the women realize this in the episode in one way or another, as well as how much the men in their lives need them in some way, but can’t fully give them credit or the respect they deserve, which leads to that last shot of Dr. Miller, Peggy and Joan standing in the elevator looking completely worn out and desperate for some kind of answer or happiness.

What really gets us to that shot though, is a question that Peggy’s lesbian friend Joyce asks her when she’s in Peggy’s office.  That question is,“Are you angry or love sick?” to which Peggy responds, “I don’t know.”  That is the emotion that all three of these women are going through.  That are all feeling something profound.  They don’t know whether to be angry at the men in their lives or to feel that impalpable sensation, bordering on melancholy that we call love-sickness, which is truly just a feeling of “wanting.”  These women all want something but it does not fall under the category of “love-sickness.”  Each of them has a right to be mad at the men in their life. Joan can certainly be angry at Greg for the life he has given her, for raping her and taking advantage of her and for overall not treating her as a partner, which is perfectly exemplified by him making the decision to enlist in the army without even consulting her – news that surprises Roger when he and Joan have dinner.  Joan can also be upset at Roger for pushing her to comprimise her morals and vision of herself as a married woman.  She tells Roger that she doesn’t regret them having sex after they were robbed, but that she’s married. Roger prods her about still feeling something and Joan can only close the door.  Is she feeling love-sick for a possible true romance with Roger at the end of the episode?  Probably not, she is probably just frustrated that her own husband may be killed in Vietnam and that he didn’t respect her and that she can only find solace at work, where the closest person to her still holds delusional visions of romance.

Dr. Miller can certainly be upset at Don for putting her on the spot, even if he didn’t mean to test her skills with children.  Don’s behavior with Faye and in this episode throughout shows how much men at the time and even now will always need women. When Mrs. Blankenship dies, Don doesn’t know what to do, he just wants to go back into the meeting.  However, Joan needs the strength of a man to life Mrs. Blankenship’s body.  When Sally needs to be taken home, Don has to have Faye do it.  When Sally throws a tantrum, Don expects Faye to know how to handle it, but she doesn’t.  That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with Faye, that is just a skill she didn’t develop – she made her decisions in life and shouldn’t be blamed for them.  Now, it will always be alright for men to rely on women, just as it should always be alright for women to rely on men, what it comes down to is what we expect out of each other.  We should not expect things out of one or the other based merely on gender (although biology does factor in in some part), but on who we are as humans and what we have experienced.  Now whether or not Don could have stumbled across that thought after Dr. Miller leaves his office and he sips her drink, is up in the air – but that would certainly be a step forward in the formation of their relationship.

Peggy of course is constantly wanting.  She wants success; she wants to be married; she wants her baby back in some way. She is the one who expresses that she doesn’t know how she feels so naturally her story truly exemplifies that sentiment.  She is frustrated that her drive leaves her from just being able to accept being a woman and caretaker, but she is also angry that the men in her life can never seem to appreciate her for who she really is – the only person that seemed to be able to in his own strange way was Pete, but she could never be with him if she wanted to be the person she wanted to be.  So, Peggy is left love-sick for a romance or relationship that will have to force her to question her ambition or to continue to forge ahead to find that person who can fit into her life, can appreciate her drive and ambition.

And of course, there is the daughter of another generation in Sally. Sally who is desperately in love with Don, but already knows how to speak her own mind.  She has seen her mother get what she wants in the past and knows how to work Don into giving her pizza and bring her to the zoo for a  morning trip that lasts well into the afternoon.  Sally takes on so many different postures of a woman in this episode that it is truly fascinating.  She wakes up and makes Don breakfast with her hair tangled like a lover or a wife; she tells him she needs to see him like a mistress; she tells him how much she loves him like an adoring daughter;  she mutters “oh” like a jilted admirer when he tells her she will be seeing Faye again; and she throws a tantrum like the child she actually is when she realizes that she can take on so many postures, but she can’t control her own situation – it is up to the adults, it is up to the man in her life, which will never be Henry, but always Don. 

There is a lot to be said of how Sally loves Don and how Don tries to convey his love for her but never truly can.  He strokes her hair aside and kisses her on the forehead, but when she starts expressing her deep desire to leave home he can only tell her to go to sleep.  This all leads to Sally falling in the hallway and Meghan picking her up and hugging her. The posture and embrace come so naturally for Meghan that it is almost jarring.  This is not to suggest that she is the woman Sally needs or that Don needs, but she just throws into relief how much Sally is missing that pure connection and love in her life.  In the past Don has shown her a great deal of affection, but we never get that moving moment like Don and Bobby had in “Gypsy and the Hobo” when Don wakes Bobby up in the middle of the night to hug him and tell him that he’ll “never lie” to him.  We are far removed from that era of the Drapers and Sally is missing that kind of attention and love, certainly from Betty, but especially from Don who she loves to a degree that is so great that it could be some form of  love-sickness, which leads to her anger.  Sally tells Meghan at the end that its not going to be alright.  And perhaps as all these women ride down the elevator at the end of the episode, struggling with the heat of anger or love-sickness, containing intelligence and strength in each of their own ways, that is the question we have to ask each of them and ourselves for the women in our lives: Is it going to be alright?

Four more episodes left.

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