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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Commodity of Being a Woman

This will be one of many blogs and articles written about last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman.”  I’ve been thinking about it all night. It cruelly and brilliantly laid bare the burden of being a woman in 1966, something to be bought and sold and owned.

There’s a school of thought that anyone other than white men has to work twice as hard for half the recognition. I'm black and female; I’ve felt this my whole life. I’ve felt that “You’re representing the whole race” burden at my private high school, at Columbia, and in business school. I’ve felt it being the only woman in the room; I’ve felt it being the only person of color in the room. And for me, that burden has meant that I expect to have to work harder to prove myself and to be taken seriously. It’s unfair, but it’s the world I live in. In 1966, I’d have had far, far fewer choices than I have now. I wouldn’t have the luxury of being a copywriter whose work is overlooked; I’d be Don’s not-seen-in-many-episodes secretary Dawn, if I were lucky.

If I were white, like Peggy and Joan, I’d be faced with more, but tough, choices. If I were Joan, I’d have to face being literally pimped out by my colleagues – expensively pimped out, but pimped out nonetheless. I’d have to live with the burden that my colleagues see me as a whore, and then with the burden of whoring myself out, as Joan does. If I were Peggy, I’d have to deal with not getting the recognition I deserve, having my underlings recognized over me, having money literally thrown in my face by my boss, and being a pawn in my new boss’s quest to stick it to my old boss (although I’m not sure Peggy realizes the latter yet, and if she does, I’m not convinced she should care. Business is rarely altruistic, after all).

Peggy refuses to put a price on her dignity. Humiliated and overlooked by Don for the last time, when she gives notice and he tells her he’ll beat her offer if she just gives the number, she tells him there IS no number. She’s going. She tearfully tells Don not to be a stranger, holds her head high, and walks away. She liked the people at work, but … it’s work, and she has the chance to do more and better work at a new agency, so she’s going. It’s the move she has to make at this point in her career. This is common even now – to “move on to move up” and then later, to become a “win-back.”

Contrast her with Joan, who actually DOES put a price on her dignity – a 5% not-silent partnership in the agency. Her colleagues clearly don’t respect her if they’re willing to inform her that Jaguar Guy wants to sleep with her, take a meeting about whether or not they should pimp her out, and tell her that such a meeting took place. In doing this, it’s clear that they see her as a whore – if they didn’t, they’d know better than to bring it up to her. They’ve also changed her job title without telling her or adjusting her compensation and gave her the task of reviewing TV scripts, praised the way she did it, and then gave the job to a man and paid him more. Crude drawings of her have circulated the office. They’ve all said they can’t live without her, that she runs the office … but they don’t respect her. She’s a woman doing woman’s work, and she has a place.

Peggy’s new boss noted that Don still sees her as “a secretary who’s willing to help out” (that’s how she got noticed in the first place). They clearly see Joan the same way, with the added bonus of being conventionally beautiful.

I don’t think women can watch an episode like “The Other Woman” and not wonder “How far would I go?”

Would I prostitute myself to get ahead in business? (I can't say "sell myself" because we all, regardless of gender, sell ourselves in business all the time - we sell our abilities, our connections, our attitudes, particularly in advertising. The men of Sterling Cooper Draper Price are always selling.) No. Knowing how hard I already have to work to be taken seriously, I could not undermine myself like that – I couldn’t allow myself to become That Woman who slept her way to the top. It’s hard enough out here, and the person who sleeps her way to the top is rarely respected. But I’d like to think I’ve earned enough respect and carry myself in such a way that my co-workers wouldn’t even think to suggest it.

If they did (and I think how you see this episode depends on whether you can believe that the men of SCDP would go so far as to pimp Joan out – and I have no trouble believing it, especially re: Pete, who is disgusting, and Lane, who is between a rock and a hard place since he just embezzled $8K from the company and has to keep from being found out), I have options that Joan doesn’t have. I’ve been blessed with excellent educational opportunities. I have degrees. I have family I can lean on in hard times (Joan has her mother but she’s not particularly happy about it and she doesn't appear to have anyone else). LinkedIn exists. My ultimate "prize" isn't to snag a rich husband. It’s 2012, not 1966. 

We’re meant to see Joan’s situation as semi-desperate, I think – a single mother without a ton of money, raised “to be admired” but with the admiration window closing (Roger Sterling, her former lover, married a woman younger than she, as did Don, and both women are unencumbered by children). So I guess I’m paraphrasing Chris Rock: I'm not saying she should have done it, but I understand. I understand how a woman who has always traded on her sexuality and who knows that the men who employ her don’t hold her as their equal would trade on her sexuality one last time to ensure that she doesn’t have to do it again.

There’s always a line in business, a boundary you won’t cross. The staff at SCDP has fairly well erased that line. My question is how they’ll treat Joan in the aftermath – is she just that woman who whored her way into the partnership, or has she earned their respect? In the present day it would be the former.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot-on in your analysis. There were many unsettling aspects of that episode, not the least of which was how current it felt. (Women are still very much commodities to be bought, sold, and leveraged in our society.)

    I also noticed the title of this episode (and I don't typically). I'm not sure why they picked that title, but it did little in the way of according any sense of agency to Peggy, Joan, or Ultra-boring Megan. (I was surprised that they did include Nina Simone's "The Other Woman" in the soundtrack. I think that was recorded in the late Fifties.)