My takeaway from Mad Men Season 4 came in the form of a revelation about the gender norms of today, not of the bygone days in which the series is set: A lot of men really still are pigs. I don’t like the realization. My generation grew up pretending sexism didn’t exist, and for many of us, that made it true. It was never a consideration that we’d become secretaries and marry our bosses. Girls were going to college. Period. Marriage was to be delayed until after our careers were underway. If we had children before our late twenties, we were looked down upon as being low-class and loose (cause for celebration in the offices of fertility doctors everywhere, as I have become personally and painfully aware). Consequently, Mad Men’s ironic treatment of women in the ’50s and ’60s seems even more distant to me than it probably should. We really haven’t come a long way, baby.
One of the places I read analysis of Mad Men is Slate, where several bloggers tackle the week’s episode and hundreds of commenters join in. Usually the lead reviewers are fairly accurate in their appraisals of the show, so I don’t plan to evaluate the season finale in detail. Instead, I want to touch on two things not addressed in Slate — the unhappy sexism bred by the show itself (or revealed in its watchers, at the least), and the particular (ancient!) meme borrowed for the finale episode: running off with the babysitter.
Marrying your governess never goes out of style
Charlotte Brontë did it — Jane ultimately married Mr Rochester. Disney did it with a rehash of a rehash of that old medieval tale — Belle returns for the Beast in the end. The Sound of Music immortalized the meme in song (and wasn’t the finale’s reference to Megan’s being Maria von Trapp a bit on the nose?). In fact that’s what started me thinking about how intentional the reference truly was.
Jane Eyre is probably my very favorite book — I generally tire of the romantics, but Jane has a wonderful feminist flair. And Megan definitely has a bit of Jane Eyre in her. Megan speaks French beautifully, just as Jane does. Both are well-read and educated in writing and art and so forth, but these talents are only revealed when tested, much to the surprise of Don and Rochester, respectively. Megan points out she has horrific teeth and no chance of ever being a model or actress, much like Jane maintained that she was poor and plain and unworthy, even as she announced she was Rochester’s equal in spirit.
Of course, Megan lacks many of Jane’s hardened principles, but the proposal scenes themselves are so very similar — Megan and Jane are both astonished that the older, wealthier, enigmatic, aristocratic (inasmuch as Don can be among the social glitter of mid-century New York) objects of their desire were purportedly in love with them all along. The proposals come nearly out of nowhere in both cases. And both men have a crushing secret, about which their new fiancees know nothing. In Rochester’s case, of course, it is that he is already married, keeping his literally insane wife locked in the attic to avoid her maltreatment at one of those infamous British sanitaria. Don Draper’s secret is also that he is a liar — a pathetic philanderer who stole his very identity from a dead man in a colossal act of cowardice. For both men, their new flings represent a refreshed youth, a chance to start over, a way to forget mistakes of the past.
Paul points out (and this is why I love him) that Rochester kept his secret because he truly loved Jane and felt a deep and overriding duty to the insane wife he was tricked into marrying. He could easily divorce her and carry on, but he is too noble by half. Don, on the other hand, keeps his secret out of narcissism and vanity. He’s just a monster who is unlikely to last a year with his new bride, let alone cry himself to sleep at night in despair when she finally learns the truth. In any case, the comparison of Don to Rochester leaves me a little uneasy; I dislike the implication (Weiner’s?) that in the unlikeable Don Draper is a Rochester-like Byronic hero. Rochester evokes sympathy. Don evokes disgust.
Still, it wasn’t Charlotte Bronte’s aging romance that was alluded to in the finale, but rather the whimsy of 1965’s The Sound of Music. After a stint watching Megan sing with the children on the bed, Don suggests that Megan is the image of Maria von Trapp, and he’s right. Megan’s a sprinkle of the flighty governess with a dash of unspoiled, earthy groundedness and wit, the sort of motherly woman-child who identifies with children, teaches them songs, sews them clothes from curtains, cleans up spills with no anger, and airily laughs away scraped knees. She soothes. Megan even wore a ridiculous hat in the pool scenes, a nod to Maria’s famous floppy cap. In short, Megan is everything that Betty never was.
But Betty isn’t really the comparison, is she, milkshake scene aside. As the story goes, Georg von Trapp is actually engaged to the Baroness Elsa Schraeder, a beautifully sculpted, slightly older, well-spoken woman with an impeccable wardrobe and blonde coif. In fact, Elsa’s only flaw (other than the fact that she’s not Maria) is that she’s hopeless around children. She’s a good and logical and mature match for the Captain, and consequently she’s doomed to be but a foil. I realized that in this Mad Men retelling of the von Trapp story, Faye is the Baroness.
Everyone hates Faye
Except me. I loved Faye. She’s the epitome of a self-made woman in the land of men. Somehow the beautiful and brilliant daughter of Jewish gangsters dragged herself up and got herself a PhD in psychology and a leading position with a top consulting firm, smack in the middle of the ’60s. She wields science and statistics and savvy to make the advertising business a bit more than a creative crapshoot. The boors at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce might mouth off to Peggy and even to Joan (to their own employment doom) but no one ever dares mock Faye. No one even tries to hit on her but Don (and we already know Don is uncivilized). Why is that? Maybe, for all her good looks, they see her as some strange creature they can’t begin to understand — she’s not a man, but she’s not a woman either. An academic who wears a fake wedding ring? A lady who tells Don to grow up and ask her out like a proper person? She’s not a raging feminist, and she doesn’t wield her power like Joan or Peggy, either (a fact driven home throughout several episodes). Her feminism is about wisdom, dignity, maturity — not about motherliness, sexuality, or plucky competitive edge. She represents love, not passion. She has her own little demons, her own moments of weakness (an epithet shouted at a paramour) but ultimately, Faye is a thinking woman’s woman. She’s rational; she’s accepted who she is, flaws and all, because that’s the mature and human thing to do. She just wants to begone with the fantasies and lies and gender expectations and “be a real person.”
(What a pity — Henry Francis and Faye would get on splendidly and have lovely, well-adjusted, adoring children. In a much more boring show. Perhaps not coincidentally, many people hate Henry Francis too, calling him a “high-handed, contemptuous” “home-wrecker.” I think he’s one of the few marriage-worthy men in the entire series. I’d probably be a bit angry if I married Betty and found out Don had turned her into a spoiled, petulant, childish nutcase, too.)
In fact, Faye’s one flaw (other than her misplaced conviction that Don could ever bloom into a compatible adult partner) is that she believes she’s bad with children. It’s pretty clear that was merely from lack of practice; the effortless empathy she displayed in the Ponds research panel with all the girls, not to mention her sympathy, support and nonjudgmental acceptance when it came to Don’s secret identity, proves she would make a fine and nurturing mother. But she didn’t pass Don’s impromptu childrearing test in the office when Sally was acting out, and that was enough to marr Faye forever — and not just to Don, but to the watchers.
What fascinated and disappointed me in all of this was how much other people (mostly men, but not all) hated Faye and cheered Don’s hasty proposal to his ingenue secretary Megan. To quote from Slate’s comment threads, Faye is “brassy,” “needy,” “scheming,” “one-dimensional and boring,” a “dated feminist-type,” not the “the touchy-feely type,” an “emotionally distant mother figure” who “dresses like Hillary Clinton.” She’s also full of “social ineptitude” and “compromised her professional integrity” and “doesn’t like kids.” Indeed, she has a “tendency toward hysteria” and simultaneously “gave in too easily” while “playing hard to get” with Don, “reeling him in” and “manipulat(ing) him into the relationship . . . pressuring him from the first opening.” She “nagged (Don) . . . to take her out to dinner, and she ran from the chance to get to know his kids” and “was constantly freaking out.” One person — with a female name — said of Faye: “Yuck! She ‘handles’ Don as if he’s a child who just needs some corrective guidance. I find her cloying, coy, and outright condescending at times.” One of the lead bloggers said she gave off a “crazy vibe,” and still another reader announced that he “would not be at all surprised to see the good doctor threaten Don next season with some sort of animal sacrifice.”
By contrast, “card-carrying member(s) of Team Megan” consider the secretary to be “beautiful, sweet and undemanding.”
It’s impossible not to read anything other than a misogynist subconsciousness on the pages of Slate — these quotes are a laundry list of subtle and not-so-subtle sexist language (and just the tip of the iceberg in a 7000-post thread). Some of the complaints about Faye’s nature aren’t even true, but the fact that the watchers remember or color the events this way suggests something sadly sinister. Much like Don, Mad Men’s most avid watchers seem to agree with him that motherhood and youth and tranquility — and no expectations of the husband — are the defining qualities of a wife. Education, intelligence, gravity, career, powersuits, science… these things are frightening and undesirable. They’re unfeminine, unwomanly, and they apparently go hand in hand with negative and explicitly female-only words like brassy and nagging and hysterical. Hillary Clinton? Really? Expecting a mature relationship makes Faye “needy”? A harsh word at a rotten ex-lover makes her “hysterical”? Refusing to submit to Don’s charms until she was convinced his intentions were serious makes her manipulative and scheming and pressuring? Being inexperienced with children means she could never be a great mom? Don made the right choice in Megan because she’d make a better stay-at-home mum than a “workaholic” like Faye? What about the writers who can’t seem to determine whether she’s too pushy or not pushy enough, too emotional or emotionless? Do these guys listen to themselves?
I felt like I was reading a textbook case study about sexism. Except that it’s 2010. These are things men would very rarely say today in polite society, but this is what they actually believe. They project themselves onto Don and see in Faye whatever things they secretly fear in women — power, career, maturity, respect, obligation. The truth is she is his equal, and Don recoils from that — just as do the many men in the comments. True, it’s certainly possible to read far too much into a TV show than is meant. But isn’t it what you say when no one’s really listening — when you aren’t thinking about being politically correct — that is most telling? Unconscious sentiment has a way of floating to the top when we’re talking about fantasy and hypotheticals. Waifish, doe-eyed, sexually free Megan with her lack of baggage and subordinate work role is an easy pick for a mostly male audience who secretly and/or unknowingly long for the chauvenism of the very days Mad Men mocks. (Strangely, I’ve always taken Mad Men to be a show written chiefly for women. The men tend to be broadly drawn, caricatures, villains, and the women are the true protagonists. Even the most hated women, like Betty. And yet the audience seem to lean male.)
Past Mad Men episodes have asked women to reflect — are you a Marilyn or a Jackie? Are you a “meaningless secretary” or a “humorless bitch”? It’s Faye who tells Don everyone is just a type, and so is she, just like Megan. In this finale, we realize that Don is choosing between types — an honest and equal life partner and a way forward to adulthood versus a Maria von Trapp will-o-the-wisp who sates his fleeting lust for the adoring wife/mother/child he never had. As the characters were designed, Faye was the correct choice, but Don could never make that responsible and self-reflective and correct decision. I understand that — story first. What startles and discourages me is the audience’s insistence that making the wrong choice was a good thing, not just for Don but for any man in his shoes.
Some songs never change.