One of the main and interesting themes in Mad Men is the exploration of the position of women in society. The episode “The Summer Man” (Season four, episode eight), I think is an excellent exposition of gender and the possibility of solidarity.
Joey, a freelancer, clashes with the indispensable office operator Joan. Like Peggy, Don’s ‘understudy’, she aspires to go beyond the role allotted to women in 60’s patriarchal society. However Joan’s means of doing so differ with that of Peggy. Peggy seems to mirror the masculine stratagem of indirectly having, but once obtained, directly exercising power. Joan on the other hand is power i.e. directly, but is only able to exercise it indirectly through the sexual manipulation of men who have power.
Joey, belonging to the brotherhood of men, acts as if he is immune with his disrespectful ‘high jinks’ directed at Joan. What is notable is that Joey’s misogyny is particularly pointed and directed at Joan. We learn that Joan looks and acts like his mother. I posit that whilst in general his attitude is a reflection of societal misogyny, his particular intensity is a result of a displacement of his mother issues on to Joan. In this way Joey’s obscene misogamy excessive even for the dark age of the 60’s.
Peggy, acustomed to certain level of misogyny but Joey’s antics prove too much even for her. When her appeals to Joey fall flat she approaches Don to do something about it who responds “I would’t tolerate it if I was you”, Joey’s transgression being in refusing an order from Peggy not the act of misogyny against Joan. Don suggests that Peggy should fire Joey herself, and in so doing obtain individual respect. Here respect functions as a proxy of power.
Peggy tells Joey to come to her office and demands that he apologies to Joan. Peggy in so doing appears to him, like Joan before, as an incarnation of his mother. He can’t help but act to Peggy like he did with Joan. Peggy sacks him, and he tries to back peddle in vain.
At the end of the day, Joan joins Peggy in the lift to go home. Peggy shares with Joan that she had fired Joey in defence of her. Joan pours scorn on her action, suggesting that she only defended herself. In so doing she fell for a facade of wanting to obtain power like a man. If Joan wanted him fired she could of used her dark feminine arts and contrived a dinner date with Joey’s client to get him fired. Peggy’s decision did not break new ground, she simply repeated the cliche of being a humourless bitch and casting Joan in the role of a weak secretary.
So we can say that Peggy’s gesture of solidarity failed on several levels for Joan:
- She undertook the action under the suggestion of Don.
- Her intervention failed to be transgressive due to being motivated by the excessiveness of misogyny and not misogyny itself
- She erred in equating the individual act of firing Joey as a direct act of solidarity. Peggy cannot act for Joan, without undermining her due to falling short of the reigning ideal of individualism which they have both internalized.
So is it possible to act in the place of the other, in solidarity? Is there not in Peggy feeling hurt, not just a personal affront but a feeling hurt for Joan as other?