|Posted by Paula Kamen|
October 20th, 2008
I’ve written before here how the Emmy-winning AMC drama, “Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s, artfully delivers layered and emotional lessons to a new generation about the Bad Old Days before feminism, like no one else.
Last Sunday’s episode, the penultimate of Season 2, was a milestone in delivering that poignancy, relating in real human terms real human pain — and the necessity for basic consciousness raising and activism. The issue here is acquaintance rape, how it was just one of those many unpleasant things accepted as “just life” (as Gloria Steinem has quipped) before feminists named it.
In the show, Sterling Cooper ad-agency office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), has symbolized the sexpot figure, being unapologetically sexual as a single woman. (A Sterling Cooper proposed campaign earlier in the season for Playtex bras opined that women want to either be Marilyn or Jackie, and featured an ad man directly pointing to hour-glass Joan as representing that first camp.)
This season is about the price that she pays for having “owned” her sexuality and had such a “past.” Now over 30, she reaches a dead end. She can’t go on indefinitely using her sex appeal as her main source of power. Now, ironically, even the real Marilyn can’t be “a Marilyn.” A previous episode started with a news report of Marilyn Monroe’s death; Joan took it the hardest, privately mourning in her ex-lover’s (giddily womanizing Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper) darkened and vacant office.
At the start of this season, Joan had gained a new level of prestige in the office becoming engaged to a rich doctor, who also happens to be a pig. As the season has gone on, we have seen her elation being deflated as she realizes the limits of this relationship.
In a previous episode, on a fluke, she got a fleeting taste of the potential of another life. A short-handed boss asked her to help read TV scripts and vet them for advertising conflicts. She seemed to surprise herself about how good she was at this more cerebral task. Her fiance dismissed the job, saying it was more fitting for her to watch TV, before reminding her to fetch his drink. At the end of the episode, her boss relieves her of these duties and assigns them to a young man on a career track in the agency.
Last Sunday’s episode saw a violent escalation in this conflict with the fiance, going right to basic sexual politics, of the “bad” versus the “good” (passive) woman, and how rape helps to police the “bad” ones. First, Joan’s fiance becomes threatened by her sexual aggressiveness (when she offers to be on top and “do the driving” in bed). The next day, he gets another hint of her “past” while touring the office. They bump into Roger Sterling, who comments in casual conversation about her food preferences (no French food), reavealing that he knows more than a mere boss should know.
Right afterward, Joan and her fiance enter her boss’ empty office, and the finance voices his suspicions. He then pins her down on the floor. Joan starts to protest (”this isn’t fun”) and then capitulates, staring blankly ahead for the rest of the scene. The next scene is chilling in its lack of recognition of the brutality and immediate return to “normalcy.” Her fiance waits for her outside as she leaves the office and fixes her dress, ready to now go out to that French dinner, as if nothing had happened.
Also heartbreaking is the ensuing conversation with her nemesis Peggy, who has moved up the corporate ladder to become a copy writer, now with her own office, having advanced from her former secretarial position. Joan keeps on a good front, talking about her upcoming wedding, in response to Peggy’s promotion. Joan is left vaguely dissatisfied and isolated, probably with no analysis for her situation, and definitely no recourse. In 1962, no one would have called it “rape.” The fact that that what happened was obviously a disturbing crime — and not just a regretted sexual escpade — reveals just how much society has changed in its perceptions of female sexuality, for the better.