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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 An ünd fur sich)


September 30, 2010 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays, television


  1. […] posted at The Weblog) Posted in Mad Men, Spoiler Alert Thursday, television. Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, “Hands and Knees” « An und für sich | September 30, 2010

  2. I don’t watch Mad Men, so I use these posts to comment about other TV shows (and most of the Mad Men comments will probably be posted at AUFS anyway, right?).

    I’m torn with Fringe. On the one hand, I want Olivia to get back to “our side” because the “I’m not crazy and I’m not who you think I am, dammit” storyline is a little boring. On the other hand, I’m not crazy about the decision to have her and Peter admit their feelings for one another either. We’ll see, I guess. Maybe their decision to have her memory altered on the other side was a good one as it allows them to sort of put that story on the back burner and let the other Olivia do her infiltration thing.

    I can see this being a pivotal season in determining whether this show stays interesting.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | September 30, 2010

  3. I have other shows to discuss as well.

    House: Oh my fucking God, why did they totally ruin this show?! You have a good premise (misanthropic genius doctor uses unconventional methods), good character conflicts, a good formula — and so naturally you ruin it by nicing him up and resolving one of the main conflicts. They had better break up!

    30 Rock: Last season was disappointing, so the premier was kind of a relief. I don’t have much more to say.

    Community: The first half of the premier was great, but then they went all sentimental. Then I realized that by wanting no sentiment, I was asking for every show to be humanity-damaging on the model of Always Sunny or Archer.

    Always Sunny: I think the season is off to a great start, but there’s not much to really analyze.

    Boardwalk Empire: For me, it’s starting slow, but it got my attention.

    Dexter: This season could either be really interesting or a total clusterfuck. More likely the latter.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 30, 2010

  4. The only other show I watched this week is Glee which I’m sorry to say has been terrible this season.

    Last season they did a fairly good job of finding on-point pop songs to emphasize the emotional highs of the storylines, but now it seems like the writers begin with the songs they want to use, and then use the song lyrics as the starting point for sketching out a bunch of underdeveloped storylines to connect the songs together.

    The resultant plots are so nonsensical that this week I literally had trouble understanding what was going on. As far as I can tell, Emma’s new boyfriend sets up a dentistry office at the school, and Will agrees to let him do dental repairs on the glee kids, and the anesthesia makes the kids obsessed with the desire to sing Britney Spears songs at the homecoming assembly, which Will adamantly opposes for some unstated reason, but then later he changes his mind because seeing the dentist drive to school in a Corvette makes him (falsely) believe that Emma will like him more if he dances to “Toxic” in a translucent shirt in the school gym. Oh and also Artie is joining the football team because they checked the “rulebook” and there is no rule against pushing a kid in a wheelchair across the football field in order to act as a “human battering ram.” WTF.

    I chose to watch this, I know I have no one to blame but myself.

    Comment by jms | September 30, 2010

  5. “Fringe” was alright, but nothing special. All of the Rita in “Dexter” was tiresome, but Dexter losing control and killing the guy at the boat gas station was good. “Raising Hope,” while a shitty show, is the best sitcom currently on TV. The guy who played Cromartie in “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is hilarious. The Will Arnett sitcom isn’t that great. Do people actually like David Cross? Really? “Human Target” starts tomorrow night, which is good. “Supernatural” last week was acceptable, but I don’t trust Director Skinner–even in the “X Files.” “Nikita” is basically a Joss Whedon show, but with even less humour. Did they even try to get Helo play that role, or did they just say, “Hey, let’s go with that guy who loses his legs in ER”? I always surprised that “House” is still on. I thought the basic idea was played out after about three episodes in the first season.

    Comment by Craig | September 30, 2010

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