Sunday, September 19, 2010

"More Beautiful Than Answers"

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Nine, "The Beautiful Girls"

During a commercial break, the AMC tagline jumped out at me: "Stories Matter Here." I've seen this hundreds of times before, but for some reason, it set my mind wandering tonight and I landed on a line from Mary Oliver's poem "Snake"--"so many stories/more beautiful than answers." "The Beautiful Girls" didn't make for a beautiful story, but it certainly did leave me with more questions than answers, the strangest one having to be, 'So a mugging is now an aphrodisiac for Joan? WTF?'

The episode seemed largely to be about how to sell--how to frame something people don't really want in such a way that they will be compelled to buy it. The literal business example involves Filmore Auto Parts wanting to persuade middle-class, white-collar men that they want to be like their mechanics and shop for auto parts too. Or, at least the Filmore brothers want the middle-class men's business; they're ambivalent--or divided--about actually wanting non-macho mechanics attracted to their store. Don, Ken, and Faye have to sell them on the idea. Since neither Don nor Ken work with their hands, the Filmores seem to put them in the same category as Faye--they might as well be women. It's Faye who comes up with the good line: "Filmore Auto Parts--for the mechanic in every man." Sale a success.

Not so much for the other attempted sales of the evening--the more complicated political and personal attempts to persuade: 1) Abe tries to sell Peggy on the idea that corporations, the advertising industry, and SCDP in particular, are unethical entities involved in the repression of people's freedoms--case in point, she's working on a campaign for Filmore Auto Parts, which refuses to hire "Negroes" in the South; 2) Peggy tries to sell Abe on the idea that "In advertising, we don't really judge people." Instead, ad agencies try to "help" their clients out of these situations; after all, this restrictive hiring is bad for their business; 3) Peggy further tries to sell Abe on the idea that white women like her are actually as discriminated against as "Negroes"; 4) Roger tries, in the most pathetic attempt on view tonight, to sell Joan on the idea of getting back together with him--or at least having dinner with him: "I'm going to go to my favorite restaurant and order a glass of cyanide...or you could come with me." Roger can be so urbane and witty, yet this snivelling come-on is the idea sales pitch that wins, revealing how low Joan is about Dr. Greg getting called up to Vietnam; 5) In the saddest of all the attempted sales exchanges, Sally repeatedly tries to persuade Don to let her come live with him and Don works to sell her on the idea of going "home"; 6) Finally, the closing shot, framing Joan, Peggy, and Faye in the elevator door is so intentionally and artistically done--the storytellers are trying to sell us on something about these "beautiful girls." What is it?

The exchanges between Peggy and Abe were great at concisely representing so much about the racial and gendered politics of the period. She feels the pain of her struggles to make it in a man's world--and with last week's episode fresh in mind, it's impossible to blame her for her resentments--but they lead her to a lack of understanding/empathy for the struggles of Black people fighting for their rights. Abe is right that "they're not shooting women to keep them from voting," but his condescension is too much. "Alright, Peggy, we'll have a civil rights march for women." Yep, sweetie, in a year that's what you'll be seeing. She puts defensive walls around herself and the job she's worked so hard to get and keep when he tries to sell her on the unethical nature of what her company is doing in working for the Filmores. When Peggy attempts to defend what they do, Abe is right that "civil rights is not a situation to be fixed by some PR campaign." While the paper he's written for her is hyperbolic in its title--"Nuremburg on Madison Avenue"--the implication that ad people are only following orders probably hits too close to home. Peggy does spend much of her time doing just that. While she's proud to have made it as far as she has, she's there following Don's orders, creating ad campaigns that get Don's stamp of approval--or are tossed out. When she finally does raise the question of why they're doing business with a company like Filmore Auto Parts that won't hire Negroes, Don retorts, "Our job is to make men like Filmore Auto Parts, not make Filmore Auto Parts like Negroes." And so that's what she participates in.

While the political focus in the business part of the episode highlighted the complications in everyone's positions, the personal focus in the Sally and Don scenes was just sad. I know that this is 1965; Don's place is in the world of business, at his office; Betty's place is in her home, caring for her children. So, it's not surprising that Don should be so upset at Sally transgressing that boundary and showing up at his workplace. Since it's 1965, it was also unheard of for a divorced father to take custody of his child/ren. And, in 1965, most people still held to the creed of not talking about unpleasantries and not airing dirty laundry. Even so....isn't anyone ever going to ask this child why she so hates it at her house? Is it only that Betty's cold, harsh, and doesn't understand her? (Not that those are small problems). Or is something more going on in that house to hurt her? It was nice to see her and Don on the couch together waiting for the pizza. I love that he took a morning off to take her to the zoo. They looked so cute, walking down the hall of his office, almost smirking, as he came in to work late that day. It was heart-wrenching, though, to hear her attempts to persuade him to let her live with him: "I'll be good!" I'll take care of my brothers. Her comic attempt to be the responsible breakfast maker with the rum bottle that looks like Mrs. Butterworth's. "Is it bad?" "Not really." All Don can do in response is to insist on the sales pitch that she has to go home. He has no good reasons to back up his argument. So, resentment radiating out of every pore, she's deposited with Betty, who's also not too happy, though she pretends to be concerned.

All through the episode, I kept wondering who "the beautiful girls" were supposed to be. The closing shot answered that--or so it seemed: Peggy's make-up-less, unglamorous lesbian friend, Joyce, gets on an elevator on the right; Joan, Faye, and Peggy get on one on the other side. They're all pretty, made up, dressed-up in their own ways. Each represents a woman who's struggled to make it in a man's world, though are in different places: Joan has always used her sex-appeal to push herself ahead of the flock, though she's at least as smart as the other two; Faye has made, with no regrets, the choice to be a career woman and not have children. "I don't view it as a failure," she tells Don. She couldn't be more different than Betty in this regard. Between Joan and Faye stands Peggy. Peggy, who has worked to use her brains and talent to get herself where she is, foregoing Joan's sexual option, but, unlike Faye, she isn't so certain about giving up on the husband and children route. They're three similar, yet different, women. Framing them in the final picture of an episode entitled "Beautiful Girls" seems to define them--the struggling-with-their roles-white-women of the 1960s--as the beautiful ones. But, I have to wonder about what the frame leaves out. There are all those Black women who are marginalized in Peggy's story of getting ahead. Carla is mentioned several times tonight, but never seen. She was supposed to pick Sally up; she taught Sally to make French toast. She's invisible, however. Joyce is consigned to an elevator on the other side--not a beautiful girl. Finally, and I know the arguments over calling grown women "girls" hadn't really started yet, but...What about the only person on the show who really is a girl--Sally? What's going to happen to that beautiful girl?

So, what is Weiner trying to say with the title and the closing frame of the three women in the elevator? Who gets to decide who's deemed beautiful? What does it mean that Joan, Peggy, and Faye are beautiful when they're trying to struggle to make it as professionals? What about those left out of the picture? This episode doesn't hand out easy answers, just "girls"/more "beautiful" than answers.


  1. What stood out to me in this episode was the overt attempts to make statements about women's positions at the time, more overt than it seems they usually are. I was most troubled by the Faye story. When she attacks Don at the end for having her take Sally home and later talk her down, I thought, thank god. She was right, what the hell was that about?--only a woman can do such things, even a woman who doesn't have an iota of a relationship with the girl? Please! How presumptive and sexist of Don! But then it turns out Faye is really just dealing with her own insecurity about his attitude toward her own choices. "Is it OK that I don't have kids? And didn't want them? Please say OK." Blech. It's all quite realistic, and Cathy, thanks for the reminder that they're still "girls," not "women." It's just so disappointing. Like, they're so close to feminist insight and then they miss it completely.

    So actually I thought Joanie's fall for Roger was more palatable. I hadn't thought of the mugging as aphrodisiac angle, and you're right, that's creepy. But she really does love Roger, even better than Greg (does she love Greg? or what she thought it would mean to have a doctor husband?). And once that ring is gone, she gives her self a momentary respite from all it stands for. Poor Joanie.

  2. That's interesting, Julie, about the stolen ring offering Joan a respite from her marriage. I thought her and Roger together again was believable; it was the immediacy of it after the mugging and that they did it in the alley just a few yards from where they were robbed that struck me as so strange. But, I'd agree that she likely does really love Roger; they've had--and still have--more together than she and Greg.

    Maybe the fact that Joan, Faye, and Peggy are still "girls" means they will be maturing in their awareness of gender issues and how they affect them. I felt disappointed too--but they can still change. That's part of the beauty of this show.

  3. I'd have to watch the mugging scene again, but could it also be that Roger made Joan feel somewhat protected in the moment? He seemed to handle it well, not like an alpha male certainly, but sensibly. And he reassures her that everything's okay. There's a genuine tenderness (complex I know) that Roger feels toward Joan that I think Greg doesn't often (doesn't at all?) demonstrate.

    But anyway, what I really wanted to say is that I love the way you feature the "beautiful girls" in the elevator as a kind of artwork whose meanings can be unpacked with reference to the contents of the episode. That still of the three of them would make a great framed print!

    Oh and poor Sally: that thudding forward fall practically onto her face was a real emblem of her humiliation. That's got to come out later as a trauma that drives some sort of dysfunctional reactive behavior.

  4. Yes, I do think now that the post-mugging sexual encounter between Roger and Joan makes some sense. I've talked with people who've brought up a post-danger desire for something like sex to affirm being alive after all; your and Julie's comments here, Debbie, also give good reasons for why they did what they did. Joan and Roger really are a better match than Joan and Greg--and Roger and Jane. Since he was going to end up divorcing Mona and marrying a younger woman from the office, it would have made more sense for it to be Joan rather than Jane.

    Re Sally and her ongoing humiliation leading to dysfunctional behavior at some point: Weiner has talked about how he has sees her as a future example of the sixties generation of young people who needed to rebel against the kind of parenting and role models they were receiving from their fifties parents. She won't go off to college until 1973 as the war and some elements of the counter-culture are starting to wind down, but it will be interesting to see what problems she has to deal with and how she takes all of this mess she's forced to live with and makes meaning out of it. She's clearly very bright and already is able to assert herself. It was sad, because so futile, but I felt proud of her when she sat there on the chair in Don's office and kept emphatically repeating, "I won't go back there." She's got it in her to turn into a powerful woman--or a messed-up one. Or, she'll likely need to go through a messed-up phase before/while being able to figure it all out.