“MAD MEN”: The Specter of Intolerance
Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed television series, ”MAD MEN”, has addressed many issues that American society had faced in both the past and today. Issues such as class, sexism, religion and race have either reared its ugly heads or have been brushed upon by this series about an advertising agency in the 1960s.
The center of ”MAD MEN” is mainly focused upon advertising executive named Don Draper. But the series also focuses upon his co-workers at the firm he works at – Sterling Cooper – and his family in the suburb of Ossing, New York. But this article is about two of Don’s co-workers – namely a junior copywriter named Paul Kinsey and the firm’s office manager, the red-haired Joan Holloway.
In the series premiere, (1.01) ”Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Joan was engaged in the task of introducing the newly hired secretary, Peggy Olsen, around to Sterling Cooper’s other employees. One of the employees happened to be Paul Kinsey, who briefly hinted that he and Joan had a romantic history in the past. This was confirmed several episodes later in (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, when Joan and Paul had a bittersweet conversation about their past romance during an election party (Election of 1960) held at the office. Apparently, Joan had ended the romance when Paul revealed too much about their relationship.
Joan and Paul’s relationship – or should I say friendship – took an ugly turn for the worst in Season Two’s (2.01) ”Flight 1”. Although this episode mainly focused upon another Sterling Cooper employee, Pete Campbell, facing his father’s death; it began with a party held by Paul at his apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. Paul’s guests not only included co-workers from Sterling Cooper, but also some of his African-American friends (or neighbors). One of those guests included Paul’s new girlfriend, a black woman named Sheila White. Paul introduced Sheila to Joan as his girlfriend. He also added that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at her local supermarket. Then he briefly dismissed himself to see to another guest. Once Paul left, Joan turned to Sheila and said the following:
””When Paul and I were together, the last thing I would have taken him for was open-minded.”
In one sentence, Joan managed to stake her claim on Paul as a former lover and make a racist comment. Sheila merely responded with a polite compliment about Joan’s purse. She must have eventually told Paul, because within a day or two, Paul angrily confronted Joan on the matter. She merely responded by accusing Paul of using Sheila to look bohemian and ”tolerant” to his friends and co-workers. She also managed to conveniently forget that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at the Food Fair and dismissed the latter as a mere check-out clerk. Too angry to respond, Paul stalked away. Later, he got his revenge by stealing Joan’s drivers’ license, making a copy of it and posting that copy on the office bulletin board. He did this to expose her age (which was 31 years).
Paul and Joan did not share any scenes together until the episode, (2.10) “The Inheritance”. In this particular episode, Sheila paid a visit to the Sterling Cooper office to meet with Paul for lunch. She also wanted Paul to join her on a voters’ registration trip to Mississippi. Did Joan notice the brief kiss exchanged between Paul and Sheila? Yes. Nor did she look particularly happy about it. This episode exposed Paul’s blowhard attempts to make himself look good in the eyes of others . . . especially in the eyes of Sterling Cooper’s black elevator operator, Hollis and the other members of the entourage he and Sheila accompanied on their trip to Mississippi. But I feel that it also exposed Joan’s own feelings about Paul’s relationship with Sheila . . . again.
Don Draper gave Joan the opportunity to exact revenge upon Paul. In ”Inheritance”, Paul and accounts executive Pete Campbell were ordered to Southern California to recruit future clients in the region’s aerodynamics industry. At the last minute, Don decided he would replace Paul on the trip. He ordered his temporary secretary, namely Joan, to inform Paul in a memorandum that he would be taking the latter’s place on the trip. Instead of informing Paul by memo, she verbally told him in front of the other Sterling Cooper employees, during a baby shower for father-to-be Harry. And publically humiliated the copywriter, in the process. Joan got her revenge . . . for something she had set in motion, when she insulted Sheila in an earlier episode. Curious.
And yet . . . most of the fans of ”MAD MEN” seemed to sympathize with Joan and vilify Paul, in the process. Many of them seemed so intent upon pointing out Paul’s pretentious behavior or claiming that he does not really care for Sheila that they have ended up ignoring Joan’s racism. And there have been those who claim that Joan is not a racist. They insisted that she simply wanted to expose Paul’s poseur attitude. My question is . . . why? Why would Joan even bother? Both the series’ viewers and Joan received a firsthand glimpse of Paul’s pretentiousness back in the Season One episode, (1.12) ”Nixon vs. Kennedy”. In that episode, Paul had Salvatore Romano and Joan performed his one-act play that he had written, during the office party for the 1960 elections. The viewers also received an example of how dark Paul’s poseur streak can be when he expressed jealousy that Ken Cosgrove managed to get a short story published in ”The Atlantic Monthly” in (1.05) “5G”. Why did Joan wait until she met Sheila to point out Paul’s pretentiousness? Why did she not do this earlier? I have asked this question on several occasions. Most fans either ignore my questions or insist that Joan is not a racist . . . while at the same time, continue to deride or make a big deal out of Paul’s pretentiousness.
In a ”Christina Hendricks Interview”, the red-haired actress had expressed dismay over the possibility of Joan being a racist, when she read the script for ”Flight 1”. Series creator Matthew Weiner told her that Joan was not a racist. He added that Joan was simply trying to expose Paul’s pretentiousness over his relationship with Sheila. Like many of the series’ fans, Ms. Hendricks accepted Weiner’s explanation. But after viewing ”Flight 1” and ”The Inheritance”, I can conclude that the writer/producer did a piss poor job of conveying Joan’s intention . . . or he had lied to Christina Hendricks. Right now, I am inclined to believe the latter.