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I Am Woman, Hear Me ____

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 17, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 17, 2010 |

Twice now, in back-to-back episodes, a female on “Mad Men” has hurled an object through the air at a male employer out of rage — a beautiful, boiling rage brought on by a lifetime of inequality. Joan heaved a box of roses at Lane last week (in a misunderstanding, not to say he didn’t deserve it), and in this week’s “The Rejected,” poor Allison, Don’s used and forgotten secretary, sent a paperweight flying toward her boss’ head at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She missed, and shattered picture frames instead, but both she and Joan got their alcohol-addled superior’s attention in the first of what will be many confrontations to come regarding their rights. I can’t help but wonder, and hope, that creator Matthew Weiner took us through almost three seasons of wealthy straight white men having their way with life just for the pleasure of watching them fall spectacularly now. Maybe I shouldn’t say spectacularly; 35 years later, their demographic (and their conservative women) still holds sway in terms of power and denying rights — and acceptance — to others. (What’s up, gays! And Muslims. And immigrants. And women, too, really. … Well, shit.) The time for throwing objects at The Man’s head isn’t over; while I’m thankful for “Mad Men” in that it makes me thankful I was born in the 1980s, the series also makes painfully clear how much further our nation has to go in terms of acceptance.

It’s late February 1965, and Don and Roger are tag-teaming Lucky Strike owner Lee Garner Jr. on the phone, trying to assuage his fears concerning new regulations on tobacco advertising. The two handle other business during the old-school conference call, with Roger telling Pete he needs to drop the Clearasil account thanks to a Pond’s executive’s concern that the products’ similarities are a conflict for the firm. Pete got the account through his father-in-law, Tom (Joe O’Connor, of “Clarissa Explains It All” fame), and arranges a lunch with him to relay the bad news. Don green-lights Peggy’s pitch for Pond’s, which encourages women to “indulge” themselves with the product, and approves Faye’s (from the consumer research company) request for a Pond’s focus group using the firm’s young secretaries. Where these storylines lead, predominantly following both Pete and Peggy, forms the central conflict of the episode — old versus new.

First, the old: When Pete meets up with Tom at lunch, setting up the conversation for delivering big news, his father-in-law mistakes Pete’s meaning and thinks he’s referring to Trudy’s pregnancy. She hadn’t informed Pete yet, though, and as Tom apologizes, Pete’s shock turns to pure joy as he realizes his situation. “I’m going to be a father,” he says, wide-eyed. “I feel like my heart’s going to burst.” At home, Trudy is all apologies for not telling Pete immediately about the pregnancy, but he assures her he’s happy. “It feels much different than I expected,” he says. “How would you know what this feels like?” she asks sweetly, clueless about Peggy’s previous pregnancy with Pete’s child. Pete is still concerned with telling Tom about Clearasil, and Trudy offers to deliver the bad news for him, considering she’s the one who talked her dad into going with the agency to begin with, but Pete declines.

The next day at the office, Pete is all smiles and sharing the news of Trudy’s pregnancy with others, even using the phrase “Trudy is with child” to former rival Ken Cosgrove at lunch. Pete agreed to meet up with “the competition” when Harry told him he and Ken had been hanging out. But before Pete can say anything at lunch, Ken accuses him of backstabbing, citing petty issues it appears Harry has helped create. Pete apologizes for offending him, and the two quickly laugh it off and return to the chummy yet insincere banter that makes their worlds go round. They do talk business, though, with Ken confessing he’s worried about his Mountain Dew campaign and that it won’t convince Pepsi to move all their products to his agency, and as Pete retains this, he’s also all business later with Tom when they discuss Clearasil. He tells him he’s done auditioning and now wants all of his business, a move Tom wasn’t expecting but nonetheless doesn’t argue with. He calls his son-in-law a son of a bitch, however.

Now, the new: Faye is the mastermind behind the Pond’s focus group, which Don, Freddy and Peggy watch from another room. Faye dresses down, pulls her hair back and takes off her wedding ring, which she hands to Peggy, before she enters the conference room. There, she’s self-deprecating to the group of five secretaries, which includes Allison, with a goal to create a relaxed environment that will encourage the women to open up on the topic of beauty. She’s a master manipulator. She casually discusses her own beauty regimen while eating a danish - “OK, sometimes I watch my weight,” she says cutely as she takes another bite and asks if anyone else is hungry. The women decide they are and pass the pastry plate. But as they discuss beauty regimens, the conversation steers toward why they do the regimens in the first place, i.e. to get men’s attention. “You shouldn’t do things for them; they don’t appreciate it,” one secretary says to another, Dotty. “You don’t think they appreciate you being beautiful?” Faye asks. “We broke up a year ago,” Dotty says. “Actually, I don’t know what he noticed. But it wasn’t me, I guess.” Allison pipes up: “It’s worse when they notice, sometimes,” she says, and won’t elaborate. She looks at the two-way mirror, right to wear Don is sitting on the other side, and he shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

Pretty soon, they’re all crying. “I just kept thinking, Why does he stare at other girls?” Dotty says. “Well, men do that, but does he look at me that way? And we’re not married, so who am I?” Freddy wants to know, “How the hell did this get so sad so fast?” Good question, Freddy. Isn’t this about face cream? Peggy shushes him as the conversation on the other side of the glass continues. One woman asks about using makeup, while another says you can only do so much with what God gave you. “I feel like it doesn’t matter what I see,” Dotty says. “It matters what he sees. I feel like I gave him everything, and I got nothing.” At this, the already sobbing Allison runs out of the room, and Peggy, telling Don she feels responsible for the breakdown, goes after her. “My strategy was right,” Freddy says, recalling his comments from the second episode. “They just want to get married. They will buy anything that’ll help.” When Peggy finds Allison, Allison lets on that she’s upset over past dalliances with Don, which she assumes is a situation Peggy would be familiar with. “Your problem is not my problem,” an offended Peggy says. “And honestly, you should get over it.” “Please leave me alone,” Allison answers. When Don finally returns to his office, Allison is waiting there to tell him she thinks it’s time she left the firm. “This actually happened,” Allison says to Don, begging him to acknowledge the fact that he slept with her one night and pretended everything was back to normal the next work day. He tells her that leaving isn’t necessary, but when she asks him for a recommendation letter, Don’s solution is that if she writes one for herself using his stationary, he’ll sign it. This last slight is what spurs Allison to chunk a nearby paperweight at his head, saying, “I don’t say this easily, but you’re not a good person,” before leaving. After Joan appears to ask what the problem is and says she’ll make arrangements for a new secretary, Don pours himself a drink.

Behind him, peering at the scene through the glass above the office’s wall partitions, is Peggy, with only her head visible. She quickly ducks down, as Don turns in her direction, and climbs down her desk when she learns she has a visitor. It’s Joyce, an assistant photo editor at Life magazine whom she met earlier in the building’s elevator. Joyce was then carrying nude photos submitted and rejected to the magazine by a friend of hers, photos that at first shocked and then intrigued Peggy. Joyce was equally intrigued with Peggy and invites her to a party that night thrown by her photographer friend. “It starts at 9. I’ll be there at 10,” Joyce says smoothly, which only makes Peggy more interested. The party downtown is populated by the youngin’s of 1965 - an interesting bridge generation made of those not original enough to be beatniks and not rebellious enough to be hippies. Joyce is smoking a joint, which she offers to Peggy before kissing her cheek. Peggy replies demurely, saying she has a boyfriend. “He doesn’t own your vagina,” Joyce says. “No, but he’s renting it,” Peggy answers. Peggy meets Joyce’s friend, Abe, a writer, as well as the photographer friend, Kellogg, who wears tight pants, no shirt and a jacket and speaks in a pretentious manner. Peggy tells Kellogg that SCDP is looking for photographers, to which he replies, “Art in advertising? Why would anyone do that after Warhol?” Shut. Up. A police raid breaks up the party, and Abe and Peggy end up hiding in a closet and kissing before Joyce finds Peggy and they run away.

At the office the next day, Allison is long gone (Don tried to compose an apology letter to her the night before, but threw away his drafts), and Don has a new, elderly secretary, Mrs. Blankenship, which is just downright hilarious given all the other “girls” in the office are young and pretty. Roger, Lane and Pete, already in good spirits with the news that Pete has brought in all of Tom’s company’s business, find this amusing and tease Don about the situation. Don simply asks Mrs. Blankenship to reschedule his appointment with Faye, an order she botches by telling Faye that Don wants to meet right then. Faye says the Pond’s report is almost finished and that the original hypothesis was rejected. “I’d recommend a strategy that links Pond’s cold cream to matrimony - a veiled promise,” she says. “Hello, 1925,” Don replies. “I’m not gonna do that.” Faye argues that she can’t change the truth, but Don counters by asking how she knows the results are the truth. She asked the subjects (the secretaries) for ideas they already knew, not new ideas, he says, so of course the results were predictable. “You go in there and you stick your finger in people’s brains, and they start talking - blah blah blah, just to be heard. And you know what? Not only does it have nothing to do with what I do, but it’s nobody’s business.” It’s unclear how much of a role Allison’s breakdown is a factor here, but Faye backs down, telling Don that he’s the client, and leaves.

Meanwhile, Peggy tries talking about Kellogg and his nude photographs at work the next day to Joey, then changes topics. “Did you know Malcolm X was shot last Sunday?” Peggy asks Joey the next day at work. “Yes, Peggy.” “Well, did you know who he was?” she asks. “Ever read the stuff between the ads?” he replies. A secretary comes by to ask the two of them to sign a card for Pete and Trudy, which is Peggy’s way of learning of the pregnancy. She goes to find Pete and offer her congratulations, the two of them sharing knowing but not bitter looks. The news shocks Peggy, though, and she retreats to her office to bang her head lightly against her desk a few times. Later, lying on her office couch, she is roused by a phone call from Joyce inviting her to lunch with friends. Peggy agrees and heads toward the lobby, where Pete is welcoming Tom and his work cronies - the good old boys club, all older white men in suits greeting each other. Beyond them, past the firm’s glass doors, stand Joyce and friends, young and energetic. Peggy walks out to greet them and turns to look at Pete on the other side of the glass. He looks at her, and they share another moment, but this one even more poignant. On one side, Pete is standing with the past; on the other, Peggy is waiting to leave with the future. And so she does.

Peggy’s world is rapidly widening, with new people and experiences, and for once she’s acting her age and not older. Meeting Joyce is an interesting angle, especially given Joyce’s attraction to Peggy that Peggy doesn’t seem to mind. She can do better than hanging out with Warhol wannabes, but Peggy’s journey mirrors that of the rapidly changing society “Mad Men” is plowing through. Yes, Peggy wants to be married one day and have a family - Don caught her trying on Faye’s wedding ring during the group study - but that doesn’t mean she has to sacrifice her own wants and needs for false security. Don was right: The secretaries in the study repeated the notions of beauty that had been repeated to them, through parents, friends, media and advertising. Of course they didn’t come up with anything new; that’s not encouraged. And it’s not that they are simply looking for marriage; what they want is acceptance. So perhaps it’s time to change the message, whether it’s as big as legislation or as small as an ad for women’s cold cream. And when the message doesn’t change, get ready for rage.

In “The Rejected” we examine women’s struggles with self-worth and search for connectivity and acceptance, and any movement for equality comes down to being about human rights - humans that have universal needs. This notion apparently comes gradually to many living in 1965 - and even more gradually, unfortunately, for many today. It was fitting that during a commercial break Sunday, right after the scene in which Joyce and Peggy fled the party, a Clorox bleach commercial aired specifically for the “Mad Men” audience, one of many created specifically to tie in with the show. In this one, you see a crisp, white men’s Oxford with red lipstick on its collar. Typed onto the screen, as if by a typewriter, is the phrase, “Getting ad guys out of hot water for generations.” Infidelity jokes at the expense of women. How clever.

We’ve come just a little ways, baby.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.