Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mad Men: Lost Horizon metacommentary

Why Joan Had to Fail

Is Peggy doomed? That's the fear that grips John Swansburg,
I want to believe that she’s poised to pulverize the glass ceiling there, leaving those conniving plant-bringers soaking in her spent rocket fuel. But Hanna, as you noted, the villains at the top of McCann are so cartoonish in their villainy that it’s a little hard to imagine Peggy succeeding where Joan failed. 
and Julia Turner,
Between the plant-bearing creatives gunning for her accounts and Jim Hobart’s steely dismissiveness, I think it’s unlikely that her McCann stint will help her achieve what her male mentors have achieved, and what she wants—a shop where her “name is on the damn door.” I suppose it’s possible that Peggy will find a happier outcome than Joan did. Peggy had a different style to start with, one that plays her womanliness down rather than up. (“You know I need to put men at ease,” she tells Roger when he first proffers the lascivious cephalopod.) Her post-skate aggression is badass, but again, not womanly. Maybe she’s the SC&P star who won’t get chewed up by the McCann machine. But I doubt it.
I don't know if she will succeed; only her scriptwriters know for sure. But we do know that some women facing her challenges did succeed.

And we know that Joan failed. And we should know why.

In bed with Richard, she discusses her problems. After a few clarifying questions, Richard says, "So this is a business problem, now I can help."

He suggests two ways to deal with the problem. Suggestion one is, call a lawyer and throw all sorts of legal obstacles at the person. But Joan isn't paying close enough attention. Richard may be a thug but he isn't a stupid thug, he understands that there are limitations and he tries to tell Joan about them.
Nobody wins but it loosens the earth.
The second suggestion is, "You can call a guy." Joan, like us watching at home, wonders what "a guy" does and Richard explains, "If you get the right guy, all he has to do is show up." And then this very important interaction.
Joan: "You've really done that?" 
Richard: "You seem to like it, so I'm going to say yes."
And she does like it. Joan gets an erotic thrill at the thought of this appalling brutality.

The problem, of course, is that Joan has already taken the second approach before this conversation even took place. The reason she's in trouble is that she went to Ferg with her problem precisely because he had lots of the sort of presence and power that gives Joan such a thrill. She did not do the thing that she told Don she would do: that she would figure it out herself.

Joan should also be smart enough to figure out that a guy who has an intimidating presence such that he can make people do what he wants simply by showing up is going to want something in return. What's she planning to pay him with? If one of the male characters had gone to Ferg looking for help, we all would have understood that he was putting himself under Ferg's patronage by doing so and that it would cost him something.

Okay, you say, but why sex? Well, that's where it gets interesting. The thing that defeats Joan is not sexual harassment. As awful as that is, Joan has dealt with it many times before. She didn't like it much but she dealt with it. Why does she give up this time?

I think we were given the answer to this back in the Severance episode. Joan and Peggy have just been through a meeting in which Joan was subjected to a whole lot of sexual harassment.
Peggy says, "I know, they were awful. But at least we got a "yes". Would you rather a friendly "no"?" 
Joan, coldly, "I don't expect you to understand." 
Peggy, says "Joan" very softly as if trying to mollify her and then, toughening up a bit, adds, "You've never experienced that before?" 
Joan, even chillier says, "Have you Peggy?" and we can't miss the implication that Peggy isn't attractive enough to warrant the attention that, however undesired, Joan did get. 
Peggy starts to say one thing, "I don't ... " but trails off and, feeling more assertive says, "You can't have it both ways. You can't dress the way you do and expect ..." 
Joan, cutting her off, aggressively asks "How do I dress?" 
Peggy, defensively, "Look, they didn't take me seriously either." 
Joan in a condescending tome, "So you're saying, I don't dress the way you do because I don't look like you and that's very, very true."
Now we hear, and the writers must have intended us to do so, a set of contemporary overtones that neither Joan nor Peggy would have been aware of. We hear a discussion about Slutwalk and that dressing sexually does not constitute an invitation to rape or sexual harassment. But one thing it does do, and here we have another esoteric message, is to tell the world that Joan thinks that her value lies in her sexual desirability. And this is confirmed by her nasty put down of Peggy.

Some kinds of feminism play down or deny that women are in competition with other women. This episode does not; and Joan should know because she's already been approached by two writers hoping to steal Peggy's business.  Joan has bigger breasts than Peggy and she uses them not only to get attention from men but also win status battles against other women as she does with Peggy here.

Here's a couple of moral scenarios for your consideration:

  1. A number of both men and women are competing for the same job or business and one of the women gets the job or business by having sex with the person hiring or buying.
  2. A number of both men and women are competing for the same job or business and one of the women has very beautiful breasts which she plays up in her dress and she gets the job because the gets the job or business because the person hiring or buying likes her breasts even though he doesn't hope for or get any actual sex.

Is this woman who gets the job in these two scenarios being fair to other women? Confronted with this sort of challenge, feminists have a tendency to say, "Men are pigs and that explains everything." (That is the takeaway in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.) This episode of Mad Men asks very quietly if it is fair for women to do this to other women and it tells us, esoterically, that it isn't by hiding the fact that Joan loses because she deserves to lose.

The Severance also features Ken's firing and we learn that the real reason is that Ferg is upset because Ken went around town calling him a "Black Irish thug". Ken's comeback is to turn to Roger and say that that is what Ferg is in the false hope that Roger is the real decision maker. If you tell someone they are a, Black Irish thug, whether or not it's true, you give them permission to act like one. (And I speak here as someone descended from men who were unquestionably black Irish thugs.) Joan is erotically attracted to powerful men because she likes to wield that power. Having chosen to (figuratively, not literally) live by that sort, she will (figuratively, not literally) die by it.

A final rude question: How would these scenes have played out if Ferg and Hobart had known how Joan had gotten her partnership in the first place? The answer is, even more harshly but not substantially differently.

One of The Onion's most brilliant pieces began as follows:
OBERLIN, OH—According to a study released Monday, women—once empowered primarily via the assertion of reproductive rights or workplace equality with men—are now empowered by virtually everything the typical woman does.
The whole thing is worth reading but you can get the point from that excerpt alone. You don't want to be Joan Harris or Carrie Bradshaw. They both have glamour and sexual power but the way they use their sexual power is not empowering simply because they both really want to do it. It's the opposite of empowering. Lots of bad things can happen to women in this world and some of those bad things are the fault of men and some of them are the fault of the women themselves.

A brief digression on antiheroes

One point I've hammered more than once in the past few Mad Men posts is that Richard is creep. Guys who hire actual thugs, not just brutish guys like Ferg but guys who use violence or the threat of violence to achieve things are in a special class of their own. Joan's unhappiness is not just going to be short term. She's headed for a life of it.

What I've been arguing here is that it's important to make distinctions. One distinction that needs to be made more often is that antiheroes are not all morally equivalent. Or to put it more directly, Don Draper is not the moral equivalent of Tony Soprano or Walter White. The latter two were vile men and deserve to be judged as such. You can criticize advertising all you want but if you can't see that there are important distinctions to be made between an advertising executive on the one hand and a mobster or meth dealer on the other, you don't deserve to be taken seriously.

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