Desire and Its Discontents

Jun 1, 2012

We are approaching the Season 5 finale of the AMC series Mad Men in a couple weeks, and although some fans have been dissatisfied with this season, I have continued to enjoy the show. I particularly like this well-crafted drama’s way of evoking a blend of delicious moral outrage and nostalgic fascination. Theresa Latini mentioned briefly in her last post that the show’s setting—Madison Avenue in the 1960s—provides an effective platform for examining shifting gender roles, especially male disorientation in a world where the rules keep changing and the naughty boys feel the rug of male privilege getting more and more wrinkled up under their feet.

If you’ve never watched the show, this past Sunday’s episode, “The Other Woman,” would make a pretty good introduction. It may be one of the best examinations of gender politics the show has achieved so far. The episode is neatly constructed around the agency’s efforts to win the Jaguar account, which is fabulous because, meta-dramatically, the Jaguar car serves to refract the series’ main theme: desire.

After all, this is a show about advertising, the industry that trades on desire—evoking it, creating it, exploiting it. The Jaguar is the quintessential metaphor for desired objects: it’s beautiful, fast, powerful, expensive, temperamental, impractical—and you want it so bad. Oh yes you do. It represents all the things you want but shouldn’t have, can’t have, would get away with having if you could. For most of the episode, the agency’s “creatives” are struggling to develop an advertising campaign that compares the car to a mistress without actually using the word. They know they’re selling to men, and they know what men want. They want the excitement of the Jaguar, even if the “Buick in the garage” is more reliable and sensible.

Scenes in the creative workroom are brilliantly intercut with the meanwhile story-lines of three main female characters who are trying, as usual, to negotiate some power and respect in a world where they have to cope with being objects of desire. That is, when they’re not being patronized, infantilized, used, or taken for granted. Joan, Peggy, and Megan all manage in this episode—by sharply contrasting methods—to undermine male desire, whose nature on this show is distilled in the advertising campaign the creatives finally present, successfully, to the Jaguar reps.

The tag line:  Jaguar.  At last, something beautiful you can truly own.

That’s it, isn’t it? You can see it on the face of Don Draper when the young hotshot copywriter, Ginsberg, first comes up with the line. You can see it on the faces of the Jaguar execs when they hear it at the presentation. That’s what they want: they want to own what they desire. Because ownership means that the beautiful, desired object is in your control and at your disposal. But they all realize that when it comes to women, this never quite works.

And we see this in the women’s story-lines. Megan, Don’s gorgeous French-Canadian second wife, auditions for a play which would take her away to Boston for three months. She did not ask permission, and when Don throws a little hissy, she narrows her eyes and informs him, more or less: Listen, Buster, this is where you deliver on that “support” you promised when you encouraged me to follow my acting dream. Don is caught off guard by the reality that marriage is not ownership, and it may possibly require inconvenience or sacrifice on his part. New concept!

Peggy, the lone female copy-writer, after suffering another round of Don’s rudeness and fighting another day for respect around the agency, “takes a meeting” and accepts a better position with more pay at a rival agency. In the amazing scene where she gives Don her notice, all the complexities of their relationship over five seasons are excruciatingly compressed. She owes him everything professionally, which she readily acknowledges. (Then again, she saved his butt more than once, too.) Still, she is a free agent, and it’s time to move on. When she walks out of the office, down the corridor, out of the agency, and steps onto the elevator, her triumphant little smile says: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: you don’t own me. 

Finally, the magnificent, tragic Joan. Her storyline in this episode is too complex to summarize neatly, but suffice to say: she is presented with an indecent proposal, an extortion scheme thought up by a Jaguar dealer who is distressingly nonchalant because he knows he can get away with it. The proposal is passed along, with varying rationalizations, by several of the agency’s partners. Really, it’s hard to imagine a more sordid little knot of panderers and moral cowards. Joan sees right through every one of them, despite their oily machinations. She could certainly refuse. But she’s been around the block a few times, and she knows the game. She knows exactly what power and security cost a woman in this world. When Lane suggests that she play for a partnership—with a vote and ownership shares—that’s when she makes up her mind. The whole horrid business looks like an age-old misogynistic sexual power-play, and it is. This particular plot point, in fact, was especially controversial in the blogosphere. But I think the writers give us a plausible reason for her decision, and it goes back to that Jaguar tag line. Joan knows that if she makes this deal, she owns them. Admittedly, it’s only five percent. But it has real dollar signs behind it, and symbolic ownership counts.

SaraKay Smullens wrote for the Huffington Post that this episode reminds us all why we needed a women’s movement. Agreed. You bet. But thinking back to Theresa’s post, I’m not sure how much has changed, deep down, in the cultural imaginary. Women are still imagined as objects of desire—in the real world and far more in our entertainments. Look for versions of the woman-as-jaguar trope in magazines, mall display windows, movies—it’s everywhere, and assumed to be normal. Women using their sexual allure to gain power, money, and attention is seen as inevitable, normal, and more power to ‘em. As for alternative ways of imagining our shared humanity as men and women: they are out there, but they fight for preeminence against the same-old same-old.

Mad Men fascinates partly because we recognize that the gender dynamics we would like to relegate safely to the bad old 1960s don’t easily stay put there. The show regularly critiques sexism by exposing the frank realities of using people and by giving dignity to the women who are trapped within a sexist system. But it’s complicated. Small triumphs come for the women characters, but only within a larger game they can’t win. Everything is qualified and mitigated. The casting directors still want Megan to spin around so they can check out her derriere. Peggy, who has managed to get ahead on talent and nerve alone, still has to prove herself in a new fiefdom of the male-run advertising world. And Joan, well—the resignation in her eyes during the “transaction” scene tells the whole story. We may get a little smug moral pleasure from the thought, Thank goodness things are better these days. But none of these plot dynamics strike us as completely unfamiliar, however enlarged for the sake of dramatic arc and historical milieu.

Ultimately, Mad Men dramatizes that in the game of clamoring desire, no one really wins. Desire is “by nature unattainable,” as Don observes during the pitch. It drives both male and female characters toward goals that continually recede from their grasp, toward narcissism, toward futility. Maybe that’s the root significance of that freefalling silhouette in the show’s title sequence.

At last, something beautiful you can truly own. The Jaguar campaign trades on human longing for that elusive possibility, the beautiful thing possessed. But as the world of Mad Men repeatedly reminds us, this is always, in the end, an illusion.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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