Tag Archives: Don Draper

A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.

Eye of the beholder

Now that I have your attention...

My good friend George alerted me yesterday to a recent news item from The Hamilton Spectator.  Recently a young student, Paul Gomille, was suspended for two days from a Catholic high school in Ajax for distributing a speech he’d written, which was ironically not about creationism versus evolution, gay rights, racism, terrorism, the existence of God or any of the other subjects that usually raise red flags.  Instead, the piece was a thought-provoking essay on the nature of beauty.  The gist of the suspension was that he had asked his principal for permission beforehand but was refused because of some language in the piece that was considered “judgmental,” and he went ahead and did it anyway.  He was suspended, the school argues, because he had disobeyed staff.  What is remarkable to me is that this is obviously a message Paul felt very strongly about sending out.  His essay, which you can read for yourself at the link above, speaks directly to those who feel marginalized because they do not fit the ideal of the glossy magazine cover, because even though their hearts need love as much as anyone else, they are passed over for failing to live up to an unrealistic expectation set by corporations.  That someone so young should choose to tackle the subject of the beauty of all women, in this climate, when women’s rights are under attack in the United States by impotent old men, when the level of debate among his classmates is pronouncing one girl or another “f—in’ hot” based on the shortness of her skirt, is a cause, in my opinion, for celebration, not suspension.  I get that he disobeyed an order.  Couldn’t he have been asked to write lines a la Bart Simpson instead?

Beauty is a difficult concept, and its paradoxical nature is one of the many examples of the human contradiction.  We are hard-wired to respond positively to physical characteristics we find appealing – it’s the primate in us, the genetic drive to find the most suitable mate capable of creating the strongest offspring.  Instinctively, I am more attracted to dark-haired women, always have been, can’t help it – it’s my nature.  (No offense to blondes and redheads.)  When a woman catches a man leering at her and accuses him of being an animal, well, unfortunate as it is to society’s mores and the concept of proper behaviour, that is sort of how it’s supposed to work.  There is certainly nothing wrong with physical attraction, indeed, that’s how 99% of relationships start out anyway.  However, it used to be, in the days before mass media saturation, that our ideals of physical beauty were limited to the people we interacted with.  Some historical Don Draper then figured out how to use beauty to sell you his wares – by making you feel ugly and inadequate in a way that only a specific product could cure.  Nowadays, go to Google Images, search for “beauty” and all the pictures that come up will be variations of the same perfected female face, Photoshopped within an inch of her life, staring blankly back at you in an expression meant to be smoldering, inviting, and at the same time, berating.  You don’t look nearly as good as me, but if you buy this lipstick you just might come within a thousand miles.  These non-people are everywhere now, like gods casting wary eyes down from skyscraper billboards at the homely mortals ambling through meaningless lives.  And despite ourselves, we look up to them as impossible ideals.  My better half and I kid each other about our celebrity crushes – I have Kate Beckinsale, she has Alexander Skarsgard.  But there’s every chance that if we were ever to meet either of them we would find them off-putting.  (Particularly Beckinsale – she smokes like a chimney.)  In fact, one can obsess over, but cannot love, a fantasy.  And one should not be intimidated by fantasy either.  What makes us fortunate is that as human beings, we don’t have to be.

Where we differ from our animal cousins is that our intellect makes us capable of responding to the radiance that lies beyond the physical.  Our desire for love can only be satisfied when our soul connects with another, beyond biochemistry, beyond pheromones.  When we reach beneath the hardened shell to touch dreams, fears, insecurities and longings, and embrace them with our own.  The capability to love and truly devote oneself to another comes when we attain the maturity to see the complete person inside.  Paul Gomille seems to have reached this understanding far sooner than other boys his age, and for that, at least, he should be admired.  The other guys will make the cracks about Mary’s legs and Cindy’s chest, and recycle the cruel joke about the girl who fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but someday, they’ll get it.  At least you hope they will, otherwise they are fated to live very lonely lives.  The beauty of the soul is where it’s at; where lasting and fulfilling relationships are forged.  And where “what’s hot” may be framed by Vogue and Vanity Fair, what’s beautiful is everywhere around us.  Like the movie American Beauty says, look closer.  Look past the physical.  Look into the heart.  Paul sums it up very nicely.  All women are capable of being beautiful.  All women are beautiful.