Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, “Hands and Knees”

In last week’s episode, Faye spoke very explicitly about her decision to forgo motherhood in order to have a career. That women were (and still are) often forced to make a painful and exclusive choice between career and family is surely not news.

But among the women on Mad Men, Faye, who at least got to make an affirmative choice, is relatively privileged.  Faye decided not to be a mother (in fact we’ve seen that she’s terrible with children) but she got to be something else instead.  She’s educated and a professional.  She is reasonably well-respected in her workplace and probably well-remunerated.

By contrast, the secretaries, who make up the vast majority of SCDP’s feminine workforce, don’t really get to make an affirmative choice.  A career as a secretary at SCDP isn’t depicted as a reasonable route towards professional standing and economic independence.  Instead, for these women, the workplace seems to some extent to be an unsatisfactory stand-in for motherhood.  In the first episode of the first season, Joan advised Peggy that men in the office may claim they want a secretary, but actually “they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.”  And in fact, secretaries are depicted as basically being caretakers for an office full of petulant and tyrannical overgrown boys.  I doubt it’s a coincidence that the two best and most committed secretaries at SCDP are also the two people on the show who are specifically depicted as being good with kids:  Joan, who, way back in season one, easily and comfortably handled Roger’s sulky daughter, and badly wants children of her own; and Megan, who is the only person who managed to calm Sally down from her tantrum, and was visibly overcome with emotion upon embracing her.  (Allison was also a good secretary, but we never got to see how she was around children.)

But Joan and Megan don’t have their own kids.  Joan previously revealed that she has had two abortions, and in this episode we see that she (probably) has a third.  The children that she and Megan handle so well are other people’s — specifically, the daughters of their bosses.  These are women who seem inclined to be mothers, but for the most part, they’re denied children of their own, and are charged instead with mothering a bunch of infantile executives.

To some extent, this is surely because entry into the secretarial pool is meant to be a temporary deferral of one’s plans for marriage and maternity, rather than a means of advancing one’s professional ambitions.  Eventually, many of these women hope to leave the office to get married and start families.  But for women who never end up leaving the secretarial pool, this deferral can be pretty tragic.  Joan has a third abortion despite pretty clearly wanting to keep the baby.  In last week’s episode, Joan seemed especially saddened by Miss Blankenship’s death.  It’s not such a stretch to imagine that Joan worries she will end up like Miss Blankenship, who had no immediate family to mourn her, and who died surrounded instead “by the people she answered phones for,” i.e., her surrogate children.

And even for Faye, who seems more or less happy with her decision to have a career instead of children, it’s not like others are entirely accepting of her choice.  In the last episode, Don assumed that because Faye is a woman, she would have some rapport with children, and demanded that she take care of his daughter when Sally arrived unexpectedly at his office.  (Notably, he said he would have asked his secretary, were his secretary not dead.)  When Faye fails to get through to Sally, Don insists that he doesn’t judge her.  But the show at least hints that, his reassurances notwithstanding, he views her differently now.  In this episode, he rejects her help when he’s having a panic attack, and when she tries to assure him it’s not a heart attack, he’s totally dismissive of her advice.*  It’s like because she’s not a mother type, Don thinks she can’t take care of anyone at all.  It happens that Faye learned about heart attacks from taking care of her own family, but Don now assumes any knowledge she has must be professional expertise, and then disregards it because she’s “not a real doctor.”

I do wish that the show would give us some female characters who affirmatively don’t want children.  Faye and Peggy have chosen not to have kids, at least for now, but they both view this choice as a sacrifice.  (Although Faye, among the characters, is the one who speaks most explicitly about the decision to prioritize her career, we see the decision play out most clearly with Peggy, who conceived a child while working as a secretary, went into pathological denial about her pregnancy during her promotion to copywriter, and then gave the baby up for adoption so that it would not impede her upward professional trajectory.)  The only primary female character who is depicted as uninterested in children is Betty, but I feel like the show judges her pretty harshly for being such a terrible mother.

Other thoughts:

– This episode was primarily about secrets and humiliation, and it’s interesting that it is almost exclusively the men who have to contend with these issues.  Peggy is absent from this episode altogether; Faye and Betty make only supporting appearances; and while Joan has a big secret to be sure, she’s doesn’t suffer the shaming and begging that Roger, Lane and Don are forced to endure.  This may be simply because the writers want to set up a perfect storm to send SCDP and Don into a crisis, and the elements absolutely necessary to do so — Lane’s extended absence, the loss of Lucky Strike, and the revelation that North American Aviation could have saved SCDP, but that Don forced Pete to give up that account to protect himself — involve only the men.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that Joan is spared, for once.  Her appearances on the show are starting to look like outtakes from a Lars von Trier movie.

– Also:  HOLY GYNECOLOGICAL NEGLIGEE, BATMAN!  Trudy Campbell, what the fuck are you wearing???

*To be fair, Faye is totally wrong about chest pain being an necessary symptom of a heart attack, so Don does kind of have a point.

(Cross posted at The Weblog)

6 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, “Hands and Knees”

  1. All the posts this season so far have convinced me that a white male is exactly the wrong person to analyze this show — or at least it has made the blind spots of that subject-position more clear to me.

    To support your overall point about secretaries being substitute mothers: Allison did have a kind of encounter with Don’s kids, through reading Sally’s letter aloud.

  2. Great stuff.

    This week I also watched the new season of Dexter, which for obvious reasons began on a very melancholic note. I suspect that in this season Dexter will come under even more intense scrutiny than in the Bay Area Butcher incident and may get found out.

    I also watched the whole of This Is England 86. It was brilliant television that I commend to my US colleagues, it is easily found. The final few scenes were easily among the most moving scenes I have seen in any medium, which made up for an unevenness in the first two episodes, which can easily be put down to Shane Meadows (Nottingham born and bred like the lead female) not directing (and possibly not writing) them.

  3. Great post, though for me you make slightly too much of Faye’s relationship with children. She takes care of Sally seemingly well when trusted with her care – the only sign of failure comes the next day in the face of Sally’s panic attack, which can hardly be a reliable indicator of a child’s true feelings and in fact is more likely to be some confused attempt to boycott the object of her father’s attentions out of simple jealousy, rather than any personal hostility.

    I really, really, really do not agree that the show judges Betty harshly for her treatment of her kids. To the extent that it’s possible to determine such judgements, it seems to me that it is entirely on her side as being a properly tragic victim of her times.

    Brilliant von Trier-Joan comparison though!

  4. “All the posts this season so far have convinced me that a white male is exactly the wrong person to analyze this show”

    I hang out at the Lipps Sisters place, which is feminist but more fannish than intellectual. I read Marcotte, Feministing. But Alan Sepinwall and Luke De Smet are also very good.

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