Mad Women: The secretaries

Allison didn't last long, but managed to throw something at Don on the way out.

Ed. Note: This post is part of our “Mad Women” series.We also write about Joan, Peggy and Betty. Enjoy! –TC

It was a code of Don’s from the very first episode of Season One: Don’t get involved with your secretary. Your daughter’s schoolteacher, clients’ wives, clients themselves (hello, Rachel Mencken!)—these are all fine flings to have, but not the woman posted outside your office. Peggy Olson learned this right away. Jane Siegel was on every other Sterling Cooper male’s radar, yet Don baldly told Ken Cosgrove that he’d never so much as look at a new secretary until they’d managed to last a month on the job.

And then we got to Season Four.

It almost felt as though Matthew Weiner has been building to this story arc since S1E1. We had Peggy, the off-limits secretary who rose to copywriter and Draper protégé, fighting for respect at every turn. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum we had Jane, the seemingly off-limits secretary who flirted her way into the hearts of the boys, out of the good graces of Joan, and finally into the heart (well, sort of) and home of Roger Sterling.

In the characters of Allison and Megan, we see flashes of both Peggy and Jane—Secretary 2.0. Allison was shut out of the Jane path by Don—although Allison’s affection for Don was genuine and idealistic until after the Christmas party fiasco; she was never as calculatingly feminine as Jane. Following the humiliation of being treated essentially as an office prostitute by Don, Allison does her best to cope, remaining in touch with her own complicated feelings and emotions only to have them shot down by Peggy, who’s channeling her inner Draper. Realizing the damage she’s doing to herself staying in Don’s SCDP, Allison seizes control of her life and makes the move to the “women’s magazine.”

Jane seemed like she always wanted to end up here...

I’m not sure this decision got the attention it deserved. Peggy and Faye have thus far been the poster children for the women’s movement, while Allison was written as a bit of a weepy yes-sir type. For her, of all people, to break out of the mold and stand up to Don and his asshattery (hurling the most succinct condemnation ever at him in the process: “I don’t say this easily, but you’re not a good person!”) is quite something. Plus, she got to throw an ashtray and break things on her way out. Nice!

The departure of budding feminist Allison eventually (rest in peace, Miss Blankenship) brings us to Megan, the Montreal beauty with the unfortunate teeth (although truth be told, I never noticed anything awry with her teeth until a male friend of mine pointed it out). Megan, who is taking the Jane route while apparently wanting more to do with the Peggy route. Megan, who hasn’t yet seen Don at his worst (as Peggy and Allison have), and loves the man she thinks he is and could be—and yes, I do think she’s in love with him (at least, the version of him that she’s familiar with). She seemed to genuinely enjoy being part of his life on the California trip, but from that slight look of panic in her eyes when Don proposed, she also knew (unlike Don) that vacation is vacation and that once the trip ended things should have gone back to normal. After all, Megan had already flatly stated before their first tryst that she separates work and personal life.

What's the future have in store for Megan? Only season 5 will tell.

How could she say no, though? She’ll have financial security and, doubtless, job security as well–I don’t think Megan will be a stay-at-home wife. She’ll be with a man she thinks she loves, and that she’s been interested in for an eternity. If it weren’t so utterly warped (poor Faye!), this story could be a fairy tale.

And for his part, Don Draper will be with a woman who’s great with kids (she likes being around children! How strange for a Mad Men character…), fluent in French, attentive to everything (the Clio thanks her), humble (self-deprecating to a fault, actually), young, attractive…frankly, Megan might be too good for Don. The power dynamic between the two is a bit uncomfortable to watch, and I’m not sure what will happen should Megan discover Don cheating on her (as you know he will).

But then, there’s always the chance that Megan is in fact the most calculating of all the aforementioned women, playing a part to the hilt to get exactly what she wants—in which case she’d be the female Don Draper. Season Five just got a lot more interesting.

–By Ivy Ashe

Mad Women: Joan and the double-edged sword of female sexuality

Married life was her ticket out of the office... so she thought.

When we first meet Joan, she’s the office sexpot who seems to have it all: impeccable style, irresistible curves, and command over all of the suits and secretaries in the office. The young women admire her and listen to her wisdom. The men do her favors just to see her smile. She is in complete command of her sexuality, and she can use it to get whatever she wants.

But not anymore. In the latest season, we’ve seen Joan unable to fight her own battles. When some male goons make inappropriate comments (and illustrations) about her, she fights them the best way she knows how: She tattles. When that doesn’t work, she confronts them with a scathingly sincere tongue lashing that reminds them her husband is off at war, and one day, they could be too. Then Peggy fires one of them, for which Joan is pointedly ungrateful: Now everyone will know you took care of it for me, she tells Peggy.

Joan has lost her power. She’s just an aging secretary, as one of the goons in Creative tells Peggy: “Just like my mom. There’s a woman like her in every office.”

The first time we saw Joan powerless, though, was when her to-be husband rapes her. It happens just after they run into Roger, who makes it clear that he and Joan used to have a relationship. The scene was a power play: Roger was threatened by Joan’s young fiancée, so he hinted that Joan didn’t even like the restaurant that her fiancée was taking her to. It was completely insensitive and selfish on Roger’s part, but when have we seen him be much of anything else? Her fiancée responds by making it clear that Joan is now in his control.

Joan's hubby hopes she'll charm his work superiors into forgetting he's an unsuccessful doctor.

Later, her husband pouts about his lack of success as a doctor and snaps at Joan: “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life!” Joan’s response? To throw a vase at him. Of course she knows what it’s like to want something your whole life and not get it. She married this loser, didn’t she? Her husband has been the dependent one in the relationship since day one. Marriage back then was supposed to provide a woman with all she needed, but he hasn’t been able to provide that end of the bargain.

So I have to ask Joan the same question I asked Betty: What do you want? At the end of season four, Joan coolly tells Peggy, “I get my enjoyment from other things outside of this office.” Peggy rightly calls “Bullshit!” and they both laugh. But Joan clearly isn’t happy in the office anymore. She’s overworked and underpaid, and now she’s pregnant with Roger’s child. After meeting a mother in the abortion clinic this season, who asked Joan how old her daughter was, it was clear that Joan was getting too old for this. So she lies, says she has a 15-year-old, and walks out of the clinic, still pregnant.

Joan’s pregnancy signifies that she’s moving on to another phase in her life. After all, mothers in the sixties didn’t work. Will Joan want to live the domestic life? She seems lonely. Whenever we see her outside of work, she’s home alone in her pajamas.

But right now, Joan wants a change, and any one will do.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

Mad Women: Betty, no one likes a temper tantrum.

The Mad Men writers can develop characters in the most sparse of scenes, but with Betty, they’re beating us over the head: Betty is a child. We get it. She loves talking to a child psychologist. She gets mushy at the site of dollhouses. She pouts, needs a man to guide her, and now she’s throwing tantrums.

Betty and Sally have switched roles: Sally learned to control her anger, and replaced it with sad acceptance. Betty has replaced her sadness, noticed by preteen neighbor-boy Glen and many others throughout the seasons, with rage.

The role reversal was most apparent in a recent episode during which Sally’s psychologist decided to cut down on her visits. Sally shrugged and smiled at the decision; Betty freaked out, refused the suggestion of an adult psychologist for herself, and coolly kept her monthly appointment with the doctor, “to keep up on Sally’s progress.”

And now Betty is throwing tantrums. She decides the whole family needs to move to a new house. She fires Carla. Both of these sudden decisions are based on Glen, because Betty hates the preteen, and he won’t go away, or stop being friends with Sally.

Betty hates Glen so much because at one time, he was the only person she could talk to. Betty was sad, lonely and bored, and Glen understood with the quiet, somber wisdom of a child whose mother was often absent. He reminds her of her sadness and helplessness. And she hates that.

Betty was always good at pouting, but the trouble is, no one sees what she’s pouting for anymore. She divorced her philandering drunk of a spouse and is now married to Henry, a doting father and husband. She’s beautiful, has a beautiful home, and has plenty of money. So what’s the fuss? Her constant vitriol towards life bothers even Henry, who used to be patient and soothing. “For once, can’t you be on my side!” Betty yells in the last episode, defending herself for firing Carla. “Betty, no one’s ever on your side,” he retorts as he walks away, showing how Betty pities herself for being so alone in the world, and how in many ways she is.

We know precious little about Betty. We know that she was once a model, she speaks fluent Italian, and she rode horses as a girl. The only thing that would seem to make her happy is looking perfect and having the perfect home and family. But there’s no such thing as perfection. Betty refuses to let go of her unrealistic, childhood fantasy of the perfect domestic life.

Or can she? She waited up for happened upon Don as she moved the last box out of the house in the season finale. She tried to get his sympathy: “Things are hard,” she said, with a stiff upper lip. Don responded with the news of his engagement. The fact that she powdered her nose and freshened up before seeing Don suggested that she was trying for a reconciliation, and one last chance at the fantasy of the perfect life. Or perhaps she was just trying to bid a proper goodbye to that dream. Either way, she gave Don the key and walked out of the house.

I hope that in the next season Betty learns to want something other than that failed dream, that she develops as a character, and that we’ll stop hating her. A friend of mine hopes that Betty joins the women’s movement. I bet Betty would balk at such activities at first, but then she’d be won over. The dream of domesticity failed her. The movement in the sixties was made for women like her.

This is, after all, the woman who shot her neighbor’s pet birds in the middle of the afternoon, her hair unkempt, wearing her nightgown.  The guy threatened her kids, and she got mad. And Betty, we learned, is a pretty good shot.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

Mad Women: Peggy Olson, Office Badass

This is the first post of our series on the women in Mad Men. Enjoy!

In the first three seasons, Peggy used her naiveté, rather unwittingly, as a blunt instrument for success in the offices of Sterling Cooper. In the first episode, she arrives from Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School as a fish out of water: she’s from Brooklyn, she didn’t go to college, her lack of sophistication shows from the top of her pony-tailed head to the tips of her sensible pumps.

As Peggy’s soon-to-be lover Pete Campbell asked on her first day: “Are you Amish, or something? If you pulled in your waist a bit you might look like a woman.” Of course, Pete knocked her up that night. Peggy isn’t really known for her stellar sexual decisions.

Peggy gave the child away, because she “wanted other things.”

Peggy didn’t understand that being a woman meant she wouldn’t get respect. By season two, it’s obvious that she’s the most talented copywriter at Sterling Cooper. Even though her accounts are mostly assigned to her because she’s a woman, she soon becomes the one to beat in Creative. She’s not beautiful (who could be, when Joan’s got the monopoly on sexpot for about 10 city blocks?): she’s smart and just not savvy enough to make the mistake of using feminine wiles to get what she wants. She wants to be one of the guys, and more than the other women on the show, she succeeds.

Her symbiotic relationship with Don Draper is the cornerstone of the office, especially moving into the fourth season and the new agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Don made her a copywriter in season one, and kept her Campbell love child a secret. When Peggy asks Don for a raise based on the Equal Pay Act of 1963, he shoots her down, but then makes her the only copywriter he asks to move to the new agency. Don and Peggy are both self-made, talented, and pathologically devoted to their work; and they keep each other’s secrets.

The latest season had Peggy really becoming the badass we all knew she could be. She practically defines the Woman’s Movement in a bar on a date, she dumps her loser boyfriend who doesn’t bother to get to know her, she straight-up fires an underling for sexually harassing Joan, she calls her chauvinist Art Director’s bluff and gets naked when he tells her he works better that way (He calls her the “Smuggest Bitch in the World”), she walks Don through the hardest night of his life and in the last episode, she saves the company by signing a quarter-million dollar account.

Peggy calls a chauvinist's coworker's bluff-- and gets her work done.

She may have started as “fresh as the driven snow” but she picked secretarial work at an advertising agency for a reason. Peggy Olson has every right to call herself the Smuggest Bitch in the World. She’s good, and she knows it.

–By Erin K. O’Neill