“MAD MEN” RETROSPECT: “It’s Hard Being a Woman”

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“MAD MEN” RETROSPECT: “IT’S HARD BEING A WOMAN”

The reactions to the Season Seven “MAD MEN” episode, (7.03) “Field Trip” had left me feeling a little exhausted . . . and somewhat annoyed. After reading comments on various blogs, I began to wonder if fans of the show had really harbored an enlightened attitude when it came to the major female characters. To this day, I remain a little perturbed by the attitude toward Joan Harris, Peggy Olson and Betty Francis I have encountered in other articles.

The fan reaction to Don Draper’s return to Sterling, Cooper & Partners, after he was asked to go on “leave” in the Season Six finale, (6.13) “In Care Of”, had left me shaking my head. In another Season Six episode called (6.06) “For Immediate Release”, Don had really pissed off Joan, when he got rid of the Jaguar account that had a great impact upon her career. When I first saw the episode, I understood why Joan had been upset. Don had rendered her actions in (5.11) “The Other Woman” – namely sleeping with a Jaguar salesman in order to gain the account for the firm – a waste of her time. Don, who had failed to prevent her from sleeping with Jaguar salesman, tried to become her knight in shining armor again, when he got rid of the Jaguar account. Not only did he rendered Joan’s actions useless, his decision ruined Joan, Pete Campbell and Bert Campbell’s attempt to make the company public. And some of his other actions back in Season Six caused a good deal of upheaval for the firm, which included his emotional outburst about his lurid childhood during a meeting with Hershey’s executives. His Season Six actions, along with her anger over the Jaguar account loss, made Joan wary about his return. But I noticed that some viewers – especially many male fans and critics – seemed hostile toward her reaction to Don. Many had expressed this belief that she should have been grateful to Don for getting rid of the Jaguar account and the presence of salesman Herb Rennet. They had failed to understand Joan’s anger or did not want to understand. And after this episode aired, they expressed either hostility or confusion over her reluctance to be thrilled over Don’s return.

I also suspect that many had believed Peggy Olson should have been eternally grateful to Don for taking her out of the secretarial pool and making her a copywriter in the Season One episode, (1.13) “The Wheel”. They also wanted Peggy to be grateful for giving her emotional support after she had given birth to hers and Pete Campbell’s love child. But once Peggy became a part of Don’s creative team, he not only began to take her for granted, but also subject her to some harsh belittling – especially when she asked for a raise. These same fans wanted Peggy to forget the crap that Don had subjected upon her from Seasons Three to Five. They wanted to forget that Peggy had a good reason to finally put Don behind her, when she resigned from the firm in “The Other Woman”. They also wanted Peggy to forget Don’s actions in Season Six, regarding her relationship with another partner of the firm, Ted Chaough. I am not saying there was nothing wrong with Peggy’s affair with Ted. There was. But Don’s manner in delivering a blow to their relationship in (6.12) “The Quality of Mercy” came off as ham-fisted and manipulative . . . and angered Peggy in the process. By the time “Field Trip” aired, she was still angry at Don. And she was also angry at Ted for finally ending their affair. But due to their own reasons, fans wanted Peggy to . . . or demanded that she forget about all of the crap that Don had put her through during the past years and welcome him back with open arms. Why? Was it really that important for Don to resume his role as Peggy’s “Alpha Male”? These same fans had also demand that Peggy return to the woman she used to be during Seasons One to Four or Five.

Following his return to Sterling, Cooper & Partners, many fans were chomping at the bit over the idea of Don eventually resuming his role as the “Alpha Male” in the advertising workplace. This desire was so strong that they were willing to pay lip service to Don’s offhand dismissal of his former secretary and the firm’s new Office Manager, Dawn Chambers, after all she had done for him during his leave. Regardless of Don’s mistakes, it seemed more important to many that he resume his place back on top in the form of a “new and improved” Don. Fans were so convinced that Don would stick to his new and improved path that all of the females he had interacted with in “Field Trip” – Joan, Peggy, Dawn and second wife Megan Draper – ended up being bashed by the fans, because they had failed to swoon at his feet. In the case of Dawn, no one had seemed to care about Don’s dismal treatment of her. They were too busy celebrating the potential return of “Alpha Male” Don Draper.

But the character I really felt sorry for was Betty Francis, Don’s first wife. I felt sorry for her because as a character, she had always seemed to be in a conundrum, as far as fans were concerned. Betty had been taught and expected to be a perfect mother and wife. This is her biggest demon. Fans of the show have criticized her for trying to be perfect. Yet, at the same, they continued to demand that she be perfect mother. This certainly happened when Betty coldly reacted to her discovery that son Bobby had exchanged the lunch she made for him for a bag of candy in “Field Trip”. This was the latest incident in which fans continued to demand that Betty behave more like indulgent Mildred Pierce, instead of a real parent. The only time Don has ever been seriously criticized as a parent, was when daughter Sally caught him with his neighbor Sylvia Rosen and he made an attempt to brush aside what she saw with a lie in Season Six’s (6.11) “Favors”. As far as many fans were concerned, Betty had to be a mother willing to coddle her children, despite their transgressions – in order to be consistently loved by the fans. I have been on the receiving end of a cold reaction like Bobby from my parents when I had made a mistake. It did not damage my psyche. And I have reacted to others, like Betty did. I am a human being and I am capable of mistakes. But, due to her mistakes, Betty was the only character – other than Pete – who was consistently labeled as a “child”, when she made a mistake. But when she had to discipline her children, she was accused of being cold. On the other hand, other characters in the series had also been consistently childish since the first season. But I sometimes wonder if fans were unable to make up their minds on what Betty should have been. They criticized both her lack of maternal perfection (which does not exist in real life, by the way) . . . and at the same time, criticized her attempts at perfection. To this day, I still feel sorry for her, because due to the rules of our still patriarchal society – both in the series and in real life – Betty was never been able to win. Even when she had expressed doubt about her skills as a mother, which she certainly did by the end of “Field Trip”.

Poor Betty will never be accepted as the complex person that she was, because of this demand that she had to be the perfect mother. Many had seemed incapable of understanding Joan’s wariness at Don’s return to the firm. And many wanted Peggy to disregard her past anger at Don and his past behavior in order for her to be eternally grateful to him . . . again. Meanwhile, many fans literally anticipated for Don to be his old self again – the creative “Alpha Male” from past seasons. Like I said – we truly live in a paternalistic society.

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