Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Peggy and Joan in Madmen: Women vs. Women vs. Men vs. Joke

Is it women's lack of humor or men's lack of taste that causes problems?

Tonight's episode of Mad Men dealt with the issue of humor, power, and sex in a way that very television programs have dared. I actually got out of my bed to write this because I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep unless I put something down in sentences, even at the risk of 1. Waking my spouse; 2. Writing bad sentences.

It seems worth it.

In an early scene Peggy is watching a bunch of art directors and copywriters shake and then actually pick up and shake a vending machine. "I feel like Margaret Mead" murmurs Peggy, as if these guys are part of an exotic and foreign tribe and she's the anthropologist.

And so they are. They are Men—or, no-no, I should correct that. To be more accurate, these are the Boys.

In fact, these are The Silly Boys and Not The Mad Men. The SIlly Boys are their own tribe. And they are at war with the women in the office.

The boys make life miserable for Joan and for Peggy. (They also steal the thick glasses from Don's secretary who just got out of eye surgery, but we won't even discuss that because it's late and I have to teach tomorrow.)

To sum up but without spoiling the whole plot for the poor souls who haven't seen this episode of Mad Men yet: one snarky young guy considers himself a wag and thinks of Joan as a version of his castrating, dominant mother, which, in turn, prompts him to refer to Joan as somebody who's "looking to get raped" and as "a whore from a Singapore brothel," or something along those charming lines.

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He also thinks he's being funny when he draws a cartoon of Joan committing an act upon a member of the senior staff's staff and posts it on her door. Joan confronts the Boys herself and tells them that when they go off to die in Vietnam, to remember that they're not fighting for her because she never liked them.

Peggy, outraged, talks to Don, who in turn, tells Peggy to deal with the situation herself. She does. She fires the cartoonist. And she expects Joan to be glad about it.

The trouble is, these guys-and their decidedly non-sexy sex jokes, and the eroticization of the workplace and the conception of all women as either mommy, schoolmarm, or whore, still manages to set the tone for the office.

But after Peggy warns the jerk to stop acting like a jerk and then fires him when he doesn't, the only response she gets is to be told that she has no sense of humor and then, in a remarkably breath-catching elevator scene with just the two lead female characters, to be chastised in icy, bitter, vehement tones by Joan herself, who feels that she's been disrespected by Peggy as well as by the boys.

Naturally, once out of bed, I sent a note out on Facebook and sent an email, and wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one up and thinking about this. Sure enough, I heard back. There are impressive insomniacs everywhere.

Elaine Showalter, for example, whose books line my office shelves both at home and at UConn, wrote "Pre-feminist program—damned if you do, damned if you don't. But this is still early 1960s, way to go."

New Yorker cartoonist and author Liza Donnelly, who teaches a course on women's humor at Vassar, said, "What I said was that feminism is creeping into Mad Men, and it is being done beautifully, I think. It was stunning to watch them use humor as a very sharp demonstration of the battle of the sexes, particularly in that time. That ‘women don't have a sense of humor' because they don't laugh at sexist cartoons just shows us how the patriarchy is built into "standards" that many of us just don't see in our culture. But the cartoon author was fired...probably very unusual for that time, and maybe tells us something about Draper. The scene with Peggy and Joan in the elevator just shows how cruel women can be to each other, and are of course still so today. And how we are not all the same. I'm not saying Joan is sexist, but it's that she chooses to combat sexism in her own way, work within the system, and maintain the status quo. Particularly since she feels competitive with Peggy. Peggy is trying to stay true to her values and buck the system, while moving up in it professionally. Who will advance eventually further is a good question. If it weren't for Draper, Peggy would not have any power.

Wendy Rawlings, from the University of Alabama and a distinguished writer as well as a Mad Men fan, wrote "It was classic: men act like jerks and women end up getting pitted against each other. Happens all the time, even now."

I need to think more about this, but I would love to hear from you about how you think women respond the "sexist" or "sex" humor. What do you think about the Joan/Peggy/"jokes" business?

 

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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