The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Writing Like a Girl

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Hey Kathryn,

So I’m still puzzling about how I think, or whether I think this episode worked.  It was a bundle of cliches – noire-ish voiceovers, long pained stares directed at booze bottles, and even a moment of emotional vulnerability paired with a character (Don) suspended in water, weightless – oh so adrift…sigh.  But even with the cliched nature of them all, they still kinda worked.  Don’s diary writing isn’t just the declaration of feelings presumed to always be there but inaccessible.  That would be corny.  Rather, the diary writing seemed to allow him to invent thoughts he’d never had before.  Which is probably why they sounded like a really smart teenager – cool patches on the covers, stretching out like a skydiver, imagining the models in the Barbizon touching themselves, the desire to go anywhere in Africa, wanting to wake up… none of these thoughts are particularly profound outside of adolescence (while they were quite elegantly expressed, and beautifully monologued).  Spoken by an adult, they usually elicit the response, “ugh, grow up!”.  But these cliches were made less so by the fact that they were in fact new for Don.  He’d never written more than 250 words before.  His self discovery is going to be shaky.

This is also why I both loved it and balked when he came out of the gym into bright sunlight and a slo-mo moving African American couple walking by while Satisfaction played over top…again, ack – so cliched! What, there’s black people in Manhattan?  Oof, times they are a changing.  Rock and roll – wtf!  But even as it all felt so obvious, I felt it remind me that there was a time when these weren’t obvious cliches.  And sometimes it takes the obvious repetition of that cliche to remind us of its origin.

Cliches work because we encounter them with a type of genesis amnesia (to borrow a phrase from my favourite sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu) – we forget when they were born, and so we think we’ve had them forever.  But I think this week’s episode tried to show us how many of these things we think we’ve had forever weren’t actually born until the 1960s – or at least, they were reborn anew then.  Joan, Peggy and Faye brought this together perfectly – as each continues to seek out new ways to be women, they simultaneously produce correlative flip side identities no one would want (self assured secretary meets sexpot, creative insightful copywriter/team leader  becomes the ‘humourless bitch’, and the career woman who seems to have it all ends up shrieking at her boyfriend over the phone coz she can’t land a man – it’s all just so proto-sex and the city, but those images of New York women had to come from somewhere!).

Even the ex-wife harpie shrew came into play, in a way that reminded us how dysfunctional Betty and Don were together, and how he’s not the only one who will need to learn new life patterns.  Betty’s childish behaviour was painful to watch (and January Jones, who I go back and forth on for respect of her talent) played it perfectly.  Even as she realized she has everything to lose, meaning she has everything – there was a hint of that child in her face (I’m constantly amazed how much her and Sally look alike and, more so, act alike) – a child I’m not entirely sure we’ll see grow up.  But then again, with Henry joining her in immaturity (crushing Don’s boxes, for e.g.), perhaps that’s not the worst thing.

And of course, boys will be boys – and while Joey’s transition to becoming one of those boys felt a little swift to me, that’s also kind of how it works in real life.  Sometimes pure sexist ugly can come out of the sweetest person (guy or girl) in a way that is shocking mostly because it’s so sub-conscious.  At the same time, the brutal scene between Joan and Peggy reminded us that girls will be girls – and girls will fight each other when the chips are down rather than looking out for a sister.  It’s another ugly stereotype, but one that comes from somewhere – sometimes when we lack power, in our attempts to  grab what we can, we end up stepping on other powerless people.

I left this episode struck by the fact that for all the ways we are reminded how women and minorities had it rough back then, that power system that seemed to give it all to men also damaged them.  And I don’t just mean in the drinking and ‘oh, poor thing’ promiscuity – but more so in the complete lack of father’s rights.  It’s not just that Don is being kept out of his kids’ lives (and that he’s failing in that regard himself), but it’s also the case that that is normal – the exclusion is acceptable, as is – in some ways – his failure.

I’ll leave the other story elements to you – favourite lines of course included Peggy’s confident declaration, “You need 3 ingredients for a cocktail; Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency” – how true!  And Don’s description of Gene – “conceived in desperation, born into a mess” could so easily have been a description of his own – very different – entry to the world.  And finally, for all the ways she got screwed in this episode, Joan’s comment that when the boys are drafted in Vietnam they must “remember, you’re not dying for me because I never liked you” is such a devastating reminder that while their treatment of her reveals how much it sucks to be a woman, there’s a whole other set of reasons why it sucks to be a man – and they best not find any honor in that.

Signing off with the realization that next time my husband and I quarrel, I’m going to be overwhelmingly tempted to tell him to go shit in the ocean!
xoxo,
Natalie

—–

Dear Natalie,

I am sorry it took me all day to write back. I’ve been thinking about my response and just waiting for a moment to get it in prose. I loved this episode! It was not perfect, not nearly, and compared to last week (which was, perhaps, actually perfect) it felt like a strange experiment for a show that has a masterful handle on what it does best: give us hints of the repressed, conflictual inner lives of characters without pretending to plumb their depths. Don journaling? Could anything be worse? And yet, it worked for me at all because it was such a departure from the show as we know it. Heaven forbid Don’s voice overs become standard fair – I don’t think I could bear that. But as a one time experiment, I loved it.

Unlike Don, I often write more than 250 words at a time, so let me say more. This episode showed us Don in the throes of self-transformation. Or at least in the process of experimenting with a new kind of self. We know Don is the master of this and occasional flashbacks have shown us earlier incarnations – Dick Whitman the backwoods boy in Korea, pseudo-Don Draper the furrier conning his way into an ad job. But we have not seen the work that goes into making the change. The new habits, the bodily practices, the rituals of self-reflection that are both internal to the person undertaking them, and foreign at the same time. Last week we saw Don hit one level of bottom (whether or not it was his rock bottom remains to be seen). He has lost Anna, the one person who knew and loved him fully. In her passing, I think, Don realizes it is time to go back to the drawing board. To think about the man he is and the man he wants to be. We have been watching Don flounder as a new era emerges around him – an era where expression is going to be more important that decorum, where self-help and reinvention are going to be bywords of pop psychology, not the skeleton in the closet. It felt like Don was trying this new age on – a little personal fitness, moderation and temperance, and some introspection via journaling, which even he acknowledged was cliched. What the episode didn’t tell us was whether or not any of this would work. If it was a short-lived dabble or the beginning of something new. Or even whether or not Don really meant it. I did not feel like I was seeing “the real Don Draper” or even “the real Dick Whitman” as I watched him journal. I felt like I was seeing Don Draper try on the role of a man who tries to enumerate and reflect on his feelings, his experiences, and the observations of the world around him. I don’t think Don can see clearly to who the new Don Draper will be. Then again, I doubt the young furrier could see clearly the stoic, tight lipped, demanding ad man he would become when he started acting the part. Chances are the process was somewhat the same – a slow and steady change of bodily habits, manners of comporting himself, change in dress, food, drink and even in the way he thought of himself that led to the creation of Don Draper, creative genius extraordinaire. I love that the show is brave enough to let us see Don at work on a new version of himself, with all the creaking wheels and awkward transitions such a reinvention involves.

Of course, I also think watching Don in this process is supposed to help us reflect on the broader changes of the era and just how difficult it is going to be those in Don’s generation to embrace the coming sea change. I think it is a testament to the incredible veracity of the show that “Satisfaction” felt like a clarion call when it started playing. I actually set up in my seat and thought “what the what is that.” Mad Men encourages me to inhabit the early ’60s so profoundly that it felt possible, for just a minute, to hear how different, how rebellious, how fucking awesome The Stones, nay rock and roll itself, must have sounded when it arrived on the scene. Sure, it is a bit heavy-handed to choose that particular ad-man bashing Stones single, but I didn’t really mind.

Now I’ve already gone on too long and not said a word about Joan and Peggy, which was another amazing part of the episode. I am not sure the show has ever been so explicit about the trial of women in the mid-century workplace or drawn such stark lines between the old and new guards represented by Joan and Peggy respectively. (it is implicitly in our faces every episode, of course). I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Joan’s powerlessness. It was heart-wrenching to see go up against the soul-crushing misogyny of the creative assholes and have nothing in her arsenal except scolding and nagging. Is it really true that she couldn’t have taken the offensive drawing to Lane and told him that she was going to fire Joey? Would Lane and Don have told her to let it go, boys will be boys after all? I guess I too thought Joan was more powerful than that and it was kind of devastating to think that she is, after all, just a glorified secretary. If she is right to think that the only way she could get things done would involve deploying her sexuality, then I can understand her anger and resentment at Peggy. I remember the very first episode when Joan told Peggy the secretary that the only way up was to marry the boss, which rarely if ever happened. Then we saw Peggy defy this and get hired by the boss instead. We’ve known that Joan has resented this, and probably wondered if she could have done the same if she hadn’t always played the sex card. That resentment came to a head when Peggy was able to exercise the power Joan only seems to wield symbolically. It is sad to see women hurting instead of helping each other, but if anything it really drove home to me how lonely Peggy’s forward path will be, and how lonely for Joan too, as the old ways cease to be the only ones that work.

Final thoughts: are Dr. Faye and Don for real? What did you make of her confession of her own less than WASP-y background? I loved that she called Don a two-bit gangster and I have hopes that she might be the kind of woman Don could actually come clean with.

feeling a bit like Margaret Mead myself,

Kathryn

Written by themothchase

September 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

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