Joan and the Jaguar

30 May

This Sunday’s episode of Mad Men–entitled “The Other Woman”–concentrated on the career paths of three of its central female characters: Joan, Peggy, and Megan.  Though all 3 face significant choices and pitfalls, I want to focus on Joan’s trajectory in particular; she is the most consistently interesting character in my mind, and the majority of the critical response since Sunday has been concerned with her experience.

I do not want to summarize the episode’s content, there are plenty of TV review guides available on-line for that. Instead, I want to try to parse out how Joan’s plight and her responses to it are depicted. 

Tiny briefing: Faced with another opportunity to land the Jaguar account, SCDP is informed by a mid-level player on the Jaguar team that he will not sign on unless he is provided with Joan as a “date.” Too easily, the men of SCDP go along with this indecent proposal, and its then suggestion to Joan conveys this clearly. Weighing her options, gazing into her future as a single mother, office manager and working class woman, Joan appears to realize that it is ultimately in her best (i.e. pragmatic) interests to accept the ugly, fat, married, car dealership owner’s offer (i.e. ultimatum).

Simultaneously, the “creatives” at SCDP are producing their successful Jaguar pitch, tagline–“Jaguar: at last, something beautiful you can truly own.” This ominous-sounding propriertary declaration appeals to the Jaguar executives, and SCDP rules the day. Joan’s prostitutional sacrifice undoubtedly helped the agency’s odds, and as they celebrate Joan smiles at no one in particular and looks more sphinx-like than ever.

Dozens of critical responses have appeared after Sunday’s show, the lion’s share in agreement at “The Other Woman”‘s brilliance–or at least its functionality as entertainment: 

Emily Nussbaum decides that, although she does not believe that Joan’s decision was “realistic,” she still concludes that “as TV, it worked.”

Matt Zoller Seitz interprets the episode as just one more evocative example of women’s near-constant objectification as the Other in relation to the male, and how women are forced to both constantly negotiate with and transcend this, in symbolic, structural, physical, literal, cultural and material ways.

Samantha Zalaznick concludes that Don Draper is steadily losing all his women:   

NPR columnist Linda Holmes, who states that although “The Other Woman” may be a highpoint for some, for her it is a “serious and profound misstep.”

Why has one episode generated so much chatter? Is the indecent proposal itself so shocking? Is the fact that Joan is finally getting some serious airtime that is producing all the excitement? For me, “The Other Woman” brilliantly represented the general allure of and pleasure from Mad Men that I almost always receive. Its 60’s setting allows it to depict scenes that we–the contemporary audience–all recognize but happily believe to be in the past. But then, the images, the trauma, the emotions linger, leaving me/one/us to wonder…are things really so different?

“The Other Woman” produced these feelings in me. As I sat watching, wondering how things have changed, if things have changed, in what ways things have changed, a Stella Artois commercial appeared:                                                                                                                                                                        A 60’s French ye-ye song plays as a young, beautiful, long-haired woman showers and readies herself for a party. The segments of her tasks and her body are displayed on several interlocking screens, reminiscent of “The Brady Bunch” introduction, or “The Hollywood Square” game show set; the 2011-made advertisement is intended to signify as “retro,” 60’s cool, and is obviously intended as a kind of reflection of the television show during which it’s airing.  The woman’s all ready to go, a beer is being poured, its foam sliced off the top of its stein, and the advert’s concluding words appear on screen: “She’s a thing of beauty.”

Are Joan and her Jaguar really that distant from the ideas generated in a commercial such as this? Can the tromp l’oeil excuse–that the ad’s merely a component of the show it’s interrupting–really minimize the literal and symbolic segmentation and objectification it’s depicting? And, most uncomfortably, might this commercial’s success indicate that Mad Men might not be quite so subversive or critical or thoughtful as assumed?

Yes, obviously, female executives most likely no longer feel pressure to literally prostitute themselves for promotion; but one of the reasons Mad Men resonates so strongly is because of the power of its scenarios and their symbolism, the way in which each episode can evoke reactions to the past, pondering over the present and wonders about the future.

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own” and “She’s a thing of beauty” are both speaking to the same audience, directed to the male viewer who desires the other (woman).  Both advertisements are produced in 2011, and placing themselves hypothetically in an imagined 1966. So, are the views expressed representative of then or (nearly 50 years later) now?


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