Smokes and Mirrors

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, S01E01 MAD MEN
“Screen criticism following the 12-step guide.”

Being a woman in a male-dominated world industry in 1960 would be a trying and exhausting nine-to-five. Even if you’re Peggy Olson; an unmarried secretary, who even went to special secretary school, to be the best “halfway between a mother and a waitress” to Creative Director, Don Draperthe best ad man ever.

In the pilot episode of Mad Men (2007) , we’re introduced to Peggy during her first day on the job at Sterling Cooper. She is shown the ropes by her colleague, Joan, who discloses the inner workings of the big-city advertising office. The viewer is told the same thing by just the composition of the set. The women are gathered together in neat rows throughout the halls of the office floor typing away on their latest technology that men designed to be “easy enough for women to use”, whilst each man has his own private office. Her clerical duties are described to her in short, whilst her other obligations are implied through suggestion about her appearance. The inferences are made obvious to the audience by the way literally every single ‘professional’ man that comes near her looks at and addresses her; “I am really enjoying the view”, “Who’s your little friend?”, “Easy women don’t find husbands”.

In a business where everything is about sex, so is the office politics. The water-cooler-talk throughout the entire office is about what is going to happen at Pete Campbell’s bachelor party. The witty back-and-forth writing, both business and gossip, is based almost entirely on tongue-in-cheek (and actually quite blunt) sexual references; Don casually calling his boss a ‘whore’, telling Peggy to ‘go and entertain’ Pete, and ‘get a woman in a bathing suit’ to sell cigarettes. However, the most difficult scene to watch in this regard was when Peggy visits the gynecologist.

Aside from establishing that Peggy seems to have taken on board what Joan said about the probability of office affairs, it seems to make the point that it isn’t just ‘ad men’ who behave inappropriately. When the doctor, this beacon of professionalism, enters, he immediately sizes up Peggy with a flick of his eyes across her chest. With a “slide your fanny toward me, I won’t bite”, the actual examination starts. He then goes on to use terms such as “strumpet” and “town pump” whilst warning her about all the consequences of promiscuous sex and how he will take her off the contraception “if she abuses it”, for her own good of course. For a pilot episode, this awful interaction is used as a plot point, but it also iterates the power the men exerted over women in even the most intimate aspects of their lives, not just in the workplace or in the advertising industry.

Although the constant sexism and verbal abuse towards the female characters is almost impossible to swallow without spluttering, it is an important, and accurate, theme to the story thus far. It is a truthful depiction of life as a woman in 1960, particularly childless, educated, sexually independent, career-focused women. A single woman’s role in the office is more servant than secretary, in which sexual advances are to be taken with a wink, a smile and a ‘yes sir’.  It’s upsetting, but true. I’d like to think that one of the female screenwriters of this episode is responsible for the Nixon reference, the disbelief of the cigarettes causing lung-cancer and the total hilarity at the idea of a photocopier; some comfort to the women watching – don’t worry, look at what else they were wrong about!

Having been in this new world for less than a day, Peggy does a phenomenal job of assessing the landscape, learning the rules and playing the cards she’s been dealt. Despite the profound power dynamic in their workplace, there is a very fine line between who is actually manipulating or taking advantage of whom. This question is posed towards the end of the episode by how the relationship between Peggy and Pete intensifies.

Despite Pete’s rude and offensive remarks to Peggy during the day at the office, he turns up to her door, drunk and uninvited after his bachelor party. When she asks Pete what he was doing there, he steps toward her, invading her space for the first time physically. He makes an actual physical advance instead of his passing remarks and sleazy eyes.

PEGGY – Why are you here?

PETE – I wanted to see you tonight.

PEGGY – … Me?

PETE – I had to see you.

The dialogue in itself is quite sweet really, almost romantic. Partnered with the visual however, it is far less. Despite having quite a deep conversation, Peggy is eye-level with Pete’s neck and he is looking vaguely over her head. The incongruity of every aspect of this interaction is unnerving and uncomfortable to watch. The disparity between the romantic nature of the dialogue and the complete lack of sincerity which is clear in their body language suggests that neither of them believes what they are saying. They are playing the roles and saying the lines to make what they’re about to do justified; because there was a romantic gesture, sex is acceptable. The dissonance between their words and their actions, and how aware they both are of it, suggests that this is not an act of love, or even lust, it’s a business transaction.  The brief eye contact is an acknowledgement, a question and an answer.

This is the first instance in the episode where a woman actually plays an active participant in an interaction; Peggy takes the lead. She is not forced and doesn’t take much convincing. She takes Pete’s hand and leads him into her home and her bed. Perhaps Pete will stop being such a jerk, perhaps Peggy will work for him instead of Don, perhaps they’ll fall in love and Pete will leave his fiancé for her. Although we’re unaware of what will happen next, whether it be good or bad, it’s clear that there will certainly be consequences of this infidelity and both of them know it too.

Although we’ve only known her a short time,  these last few scenes seem very out of character for Peggy. Some may question why she would behave this way, is this the real her or is this an act?  It’s a constant power-play in this 1960s world, the sexual discrimination is no secret and the women do what they have to to make it work for them. It is a constant tug-of-war between being the easily persuaded, vulnerable, lesser sex, and making men thinking  that’s exactly who she is. As one of the perverts said so articulately, “You’ve got to let them know what kind of man you are so they know what kind of woman to be.” I think Peggy knows exactly what she has to do and who she has to be to succeed in this Man’s World.

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