By Courtney M.
While Mad Men largely centers around the character of Don Draper and his ad executive colleagues as they navigate the social and political upheavals of history's most pivotal decade (the 1960s), there are many, many different ways to approach an episode or even an entire season. Between the central characters and their subsequent story arcs, the pretext and historical context of major plot points, and critical issues circling identity and gender roles, there's a lot to unpack here. The duality of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, alone, is more than enough material to ruminate on for the next one hundred pages. And while each major player contains—at the very least—a magnitude of historical relevance and representation, what makes Mad Men so good is that nothing seems force-fed or heavy-handed; especially not its characters, which is difficult to pull off given this particular period piece. Everything is seamless, natural and (whether it's a good thing or not) relatable. Because once you clear the smoke and strip away the seduction and glamor, viewers quickly realize that not much has changed since the 1960s.
Especially not for women.
Ironically enough, given its title, the most significant appeal of Mad Men is the women of the show and the influence they have on the men in their personal, private, and professional lives. So even though Roger Sterling can casually (re: callously) come back with a “Who cares?” when Don directly asks him what do women want, it's made abundantly clear that this is the eternal question and the driving force of the show. And with the exception of Don, it's no coincidence that the women are by far the best written characters of the series; the triumvirate, of course, being Peggy, Joan, and Betty.
As a young woman still trying to figure her own self out, these characters are extraordinarily important to me and, throughout the years, have become major vehicles for my own understanding of what it means to be a woman and how to survive (if not thrive) in a patriarchal society. This cannot be overstated enough. Rationally, I know that these women are fictional and otherwise figments of show creator Matthew Weiner's imagination, but I care very deeply about them and need for them to succeed. And while there are many scenes in the series that deal with the degradation and disrespect of women in both the domestic and professional spheres, no other episode has tackled this particular issue as directly as Season 4's “The Summer Man.” Hot off the heels of “The Suitcase,” the show's best episode to date, it's towards the end of “The Summer Man,” especially, that the writers totally encapsulate what it's like to be a woman under the Male Gaze.
But before I delve into that particular scene and begin discussing the episode at length, I think it's important to briefly return to the earlier seasons of the show as they serve as potent reminders of who these women were, what they've gone through to get to where they are now, and how much their lives have changed in the span of only 4 years.
Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, little Peggy Olson began working at Sterling Cooper as Don Draper's newest secretary. A little mousy and somewhat shy at first, Peggy learns quickly that sex sells—a fact only exemplified within the confines of an advertising agency—and makes a failed pass at Don only to sleep with a drunk (and engaged) Pete Campbell later that night. At the beginning of the series, Peggy is unsure of herself and her role in the office as she becomes increasingly aware and disgusted by the chauvinistic displays of her male bosses and co-workers. The epitome of “The New Working Woman,” she proves herself to be a talented writer and, through Don's promotion and professional guidance, develops into a successful copywriter and critical component of the male-dominated creative team.
But for as dowdy and unsure of herself as Peggy initially appeared to be, Sterling Cooper office manager and resident Queen Bee, Joan Holloway expertly struts her stuff in a sexual, but sexually powerful way. Women want to be Joan and men want to be with Joan. And though she is the physical, breathy embodiment of sex, Joan is smart as a whip and equally confident in her prowess and power. She's able to read men like the back of her hand, explaining to Peggy with a smirk that, “most of the time, they want something between a mother and a waitress. And the rest of the time, well...” However, Joan still grew up during a time when women were heavily pressured to find a husband and a house in the country and, as a result, has a hard time understanding Peggy's career ambitions and overall lack of interest in attracting a potential spouse.
Aptly resembling a pristine porcelain doll, Betty is the bored, depressed and emotionally unfulfilled housewife who, like millions of other women at the time, fell for the notion that marrying your handsome Prince Charming, having children, and living in a large house while your husband was away at work was the key to happiness. Like Peggy, she is unsure of herself as well, but for vastly different reasons. While Peggy struggles to assert herself in the workplace, Betty struggles in identifying her own self-worth completely. Her role as a pretty trophy wife is almost exclusively defined within the context of how much Don loves and needs her. So when his endless string of affairs and lies come to a head, she realizes that cooking his dinner and doing his laundry has not amounted to anything; that, the man she devoted her entire life to has otherwise deemed her as Unnecessary. She is prone to odd tantrums and childish behavior, but for someone who was raised her whole life to be taken care of by someone else (i.e. a man), it's really no surprise that she's emotionally-stunted; an overgrown child with little agency over her own person and well-being.
So by the time Season 4 rolls around and the turbulence of the 60s starts to rear its head, it's startling to see how different these women now are—for better or for worse. Peggy is now assertive and confident in her abilities, unafraid to speak her mind if she feels as though Don or her other male co-workers have crossed her in some way. Joan, though still smart as a whip, is lonely with a deadbeat husband shipping off to to Vietnam. She's older now and with age, has lost some of that magnetic appeal. And Betty, though she's finally kicked Don to the curb, is still as erratic and childish as ever despite now being re-married to the kind and “anti-Don,” Henry Francis.
“The Summer Man” more or less opens with The Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." Lyrically, there's a reason why Matthew Weiner chose the song to illustrate the current shortcomings of Don's personal and professional lives. Musically, however, the song sounds like a breath of fresh air—a blatant, auditory signal of change that an entirely new generation of mid-sixties youth culture is coming.
Which is fitting, given the fact that the next scene cuts to the hallway of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as the younger male creative team loudly tries toppling over a stubborn vending machine that has eaten their money. Although viewers have already been informally introduced to freelance copywriter Joey at the beginning of the season, it's only now that we are made aware of just how obnoxious he really is. Throughout the season, it's important to note here that Joey and Peggy have had a generally pleasant rapport with one another. Trading inside jokes (“John and Marsha”) and working closely together on ad campaigns, it's clear that Joey is at least fond of Peggy. Most likely similar in age and background, I would even go so far as to say that Joey is probably impressed by Peggy (despite office rumors that she must've slept with Don to get her job), acknowledging that she's a successful working woman in what was then known to be a “Man's Job.”
In stark contrast to his working relationship with Peggy, though, he is utterly disrespectful and borderline disdainful of Joan. When Joan comes out of her office to find out what all of the commotion is about, Joey explicitly makes a comparison of her to his mother and immediately brands her as a nag when he says, “Sorry, mom” in response. Again, Joan is a little older now, but it's nothing short of shocking to watch a male speak to her—of all people—in such an irreverent way. When she calls him into her office afterwards, he continues with his contempt and asks her the following: “What do you do around here besides walk around like you're trying to get raped?” The astonished look in her eyes is unforgettable. Despite the fact that she was raped by her husband, even to the audience, Joey's words feel like a sledgehammer to the face. It's outrageous to watch a freelance copywriter speak to Joan, a vital member of a major New York advertising firm (and not to mention, his boss), in such an abhorrent way. That he thought he even had the right to speak to her like that is staggering and one of the uglier truths of the decade that Mad Men does not shy away from portraying. Narratively, it's sad to watch Joan look and feel totally out of her element here, as well. While she had complete control over the Old Boys' Club (the Rogers, Dons, and Lanes of the world), she has little—if any—influence over the new. And while we know her to be a smart, capable, and accomplished woman, her value takes a real hit here.
Peggy, however, continues to rise—sitting in on account meetings with the men and routinely offering up her insight, input, and ideas. And though she's sat in on a numerous amount of these meetings before, this particular meeting (in light of Joan's de-validation) is especially highlighted by the fact that she's drinking a glass of whiskey and bearing witness to Stan's crude joke, directly implying that she's “one of the guys” now. Afterwards, she approaches Joey and tries to reassure him that Joan is important to this office. Unfazed, Joey goes on to say, “She's an overblown secretary. There's a Joan in every company. My mother was a Joan—always telling everybody what to do. She even wore a pen around her neck so that people would stare at her tits.” Again, Joey is projecting his relationship with his mother onto Joan here and fails to comprehend the sexual politics of what being a woman in the workforce was like prior to this cultural shift. Joey is so hell-bent on letting Joan know he thinks next to nothing of her, that he draws a crude cartoon depicting her and Lane and posts it in her office window.
This time, Peggy sees it, rips it down and immediately goes to Don. Now, for a man as sexually promiscuous as Don is, in some weird way, it's clear that he does respect women. Admittedly, it's hard for me to type that sentence out knowing full well the level of disrespect he showed his wife, Betty, throughout their marriage, but he's also shown exemplary character in treating women with dignity and dutifully acknowledging their importance. He's entrusted Peggy's writing abilities and has rewarded her talent with solid promotions and sizable responsibility. In the elevator of an earlier episode, he turns around in disgust at two pigs going into explicit detail about their sexual escapades in front of a woman and thereby removes one of their hats from his head. He might not completely respect women, but Don Draper is certainly a gentleman.
As Peggy storms into his office, fills him in on what has happened and wonders if he's going to fire Joey, on the surface, he smartly acknowledges the gender power play going on here and says to her, “Believe me, you will not want me involved in this. People will think you're a tattle tale. You want some respect? Go out there and earn it for yourself.” On the surface, this seems like a good idea. And it's certainly not a bad one. But for as much as he understands what's going on, there's a lot more to it that Don, a man, will never get. Because when Peggy goes in and fires Joey, he flips the termination on its head and cooly insults her by saying that he thought she was “different” and that “this is why I don't like working with women. You have no sense of humor.”
The Women's Liberation Movement made ardent strides in planting seeds for the equality of women, but Rome wasn't built in a day. With these new changes and new freedoms for women, a new breed of chauvinist pigs like Joey were ushered in. By saying that he thought she was “different,” it directly implies that, to Joey, women are nothing by humorless nags. All along, he cherry-picked his acknowledgement of Peggy's femininity and, aside from her seniority in SCDP rank, forced her into a masculine light so as to stave off any kind of threat. What were once pleasant working conditions with Peggy has now proven to be a farce and completely dissipates once she stood up for Joan (and ultimately, herself). What Peggy doesn't realize, though, is that Joey has not learned any kind of lesson here at all. And when she skips merrily over to Joan in the elevator, proud of herself for exerting a futile authority, in less than 20 seconds, Joan gives Peggy the biggest reality check of her life.
This is the scene. It stings. This is a conversation that men will never have, never understand, and most importantly, never experience. Peggy is not wrong for firing Joey, but when Joan reminds her that “no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you've done is prove to them that I'm a meaningless secretary and you're another humorless bitch,” you can visibly see the gravity of the situation sinking in as Joan steps off to leave. Peggy has come a long way in her life and will continue to grow, but as it stands now, there are things about this world (and about men) that Joan will always understand better than her.
I've read a lot of criticism on this particular scene and it angers me that more than a handful of people (critics included) attribute Joan's reaction to Peggy here as her just being jealous. If people think that Joan is just jealous of Peggy, they've vastly misunderstood these women and their positions within 60s society. Joan is not jealous of Peggy. The fact that I even feel the need to address this is directly borne out of a patriarchal society that implies there's only one way to be professionally successful for a woman. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Peggy represents the trials and tribulations of the new career girl, but Joan was also able to find her way into the male-dominated workforce, as well. Both women are smart, accomplished, and capable in this workplace—but just found different ways to get there.