I have a regular Mad Men date on Wednesday evenings, which is a fantastic way to have good conversation about the show, but a poor way to blog about it since I’m three days later than everyone else. But this week’s episode was so chock-full of material on erotic capital, beauty, and power, that I’m going to jump in anyway. Do I even need to say there are spoilers here? There are spoilers here.
If Mad Men were a less nuanced show that hadn’t worked hard to win viewers’ trust over the years, this week’s episode might have seemed hamfisted. We have Peggy Olson, the show’s stand-in for feminist career gals, leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Price for greener pastures, or at least pastures with more greenbacks; in the same episode, we have Joan agreeing to sleep with a client, at his explicit request, in exchange for a partnership at SCDP. Joining the two is the winning Jaguar campaign tagline, concocted with the idea that the sleek, expensive, finicky sportscar is akin to a mistress: “At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.”
The idea behind erotic capital (at least how it was presented last year with the deliberately provocative book by Catherine Hakim), is that men suffer a sexual deficit because women have lower libidos than they do, so women can leverage their allure with men in order to raise their “value” in all sorts of market, including the workplace. So if you champion erotic capital, you’re really championing the idea that men just can’t help themselves when the right girl is around. She’s the one who’s really in control, can’t you see? And it’s this idea—that in the face of a beautiful woman, men supposedly cede all their power—that’s at the heart of the Jaguar pitch. With women, even if you control the purse strings, they’re really in control. With a Jaguar, finally, you get to own it. Truly. The ad isn’t an endorsement of erotic capital; it’s an admission that nobody comes out ahead under that system, which is why you need actual consumer goods to fill the gap it creates. But by playing it up—this idea that even though mistresses are “impractical” and “temperamental”and maybe even “lemons,” it’s only “natural” to want to to possess them—the presumed male consumer comes out feeling as though he’s won, even though in reality, any way you play it, he’s lost. It’s a beautiful illustration of capitalism and patriarchy—and screenwriting, because Mad Men gets to have it both ways here. You can see the prostituting of Joan as a tsk-tsking endorsement of erotic capital, or you can see it as a tragic critique of the ideas it embodies. You can see Joan as being the “beautiful thing” that is now owned, or you can see her as deploying her erotic capital to secure her financial future with the knowledge that she’s coming out ahead in the long run, or you can see Don’s pitch as an acknowledgment that there’s a certain kind of man who spends his whole life trying to make up for his inability to own the creatures he covets (and which men in that room aren’t that sort of man?)—enter Jaguar, stage left.
Throwing a wrench in this whole thing is Lane Pryce. My primary argument against the idea of erotic capital as just another form of capital has always been that it keeps power in the hands of people who already have it. I’ll be very curious to see if Joan is financially rewarded for following Lane’s advice to ask for a partnership instead of a good deal of cash (a very good deal—more than $355,000 in 2012 dollars). Given that we know and like Lane but also know he’s been more than a little shady, his moment with Joan is meant to be taken as being both in good faith (for Joan’s protection) and selfishly motivated (for his own protection). We’re not yet supposed to know if Joan’s deployment of erotic capital was a smart financial move, which, for the moment, keeps the focus on the other issues surrounding the choice.
And one of the primary issues about Joan’s choice—for the viewer, anyway—is what message we’re supposed to get by comparing Joan to a very expensive car that someone can “truly” own, “at last.” The comparison is blatant, but I don’t think the two are actually being equated: The point here is that nobody can be “truly” owned. That’s why it’s an effective advertising campaign; that’s why it has to be boy-wonder Ginsberg instead of Don Draper who comes up with it. In the first scene of the episode, we see Ginsberg rolling his eyes at the sleazy mistress comparison; he’s on board but thinks it’s hacky. Later we see him express contempt for not only his colleagues (who are salivating over the woman crawling on the table) but for the idea that Megan can interrupt a meeting, coming and going “as she pleases,” which inspires the winning tagline.
We don’t know enough about Ginsberg to really know his machinations. But he’s pointedly ignoring a half-naked, self-exploitative woman when his creative wheels start turning; whatever regard he has for female beauty, it’s not going to be showcased in this situation. The best writer in the room sees Megan and her friend not as beautiful women but as something else: interruptions, distractions, perhaps threats. So I don’t think his eventual pitch is an admission that we all just want to own beauty. We want to capture beauty, sure—an offshoot of our desire to replicate it—but capture is not the same as possession. The desire to own beauty is less about beauty itself and more about fear: fear that if we don’t own something, cage it, it will not only escape, but it will overpower us. That sounds like less a rapturous affair with Beauty itself and more like the kind of misogyny that masquerades as romance. Beauty here is a stand-in for women—all women, not just beautiful ones, or perhaps women who exist under capitalist structures (which today is all of us), of which advertising is the apex. Whatever Ginsberg thinks about women or erotic capital, he knows how to play it to the hilt, making him a sort of surrogate for the actual Mad Men writers here.
I’m also struck by a certain word choice in his winning tagline. What he comes up with: “At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.” And at another key moment, the end of the episode, we see Peggy’s triumphant exit to the opening strains of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Really, truly: These are words used to strengthen the point, to communicate that no, for real, this time we mean it—we swear. These strengthening words need to be used because the listener has been failed so many times before. You thought you were going to own something beautiful, but you couldn’t; you thought someone had gotten you, but you were wrong. There are two levels of ownership, of “getting” and “owning”: There’s what you think you have, and what you really have, and SCPD (or Ray Davies) is here to tell you which is which. So in actuality, “really” and “truly” here, instead of being speech strengtheners, are speech weakeners. They contain an overassurance, a placation, a soothing of the soul—a technique Joan might have used with a weepy secretary onceuponatime, with just the slightest hint of honey-coated condescension. And I don’t think it’s an accident that these speech weakeners are used here in two key spots, because of what they’re both emphasizing: erotic capital, and erotic dominance. The song in particular has layered meaning: It’s an admission of someone’s power over another, but who exactly are we talking about? Has Peggy “got” Don? Has the ad world “got” Peggy? For a song that’s a paean to the ways women supposedly control men (“You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing”) it’s interesting that it’s used here, with Peggy’s exit, in an episode many would say is about anything but women controlling men. Even Megan, whose balance of control with Don has been a theme this season, is chastised as doing “whatever the hell [she] wants.”
A handful of reviewers have suggested that Peggy is the one who emerges as the only independent woman of this episode, the only who who isn’t “truly” owned by someone else. I disagree wholeheartedly: Yes, Peggy is autonomous in ways that Joan, Megan, and Betty aren’t, but the point of this episode (and in some ways, the entire show) is to show the complexities of autonomy and ownership. Megan can afford career autonomy because Don is paying the bills; Joan, who essentially told Roger to buzz off when he bugs her about helping out with their son, is painted as having made the decision to sell her time only when the price really is right.
The moment when Don kisses Peggy’s hand is a clue that the female roles in Mad Men aren’t so clear-cut as to be Joan = erotic capital, Peggy = feminism, Betty = feminine mystique, and so on. The first time we saw Don’s and Peggy’s hands meet, it was in the very first episode of the show, when Peggy awkwardly places her hand on Don’s, letting him know that she was available to him in any way he wished. Don, of course, refused her advance. As viewers, we quickly forget about Peggy’s confused, fleeting bid for Don’s sexual attention, in part because Peggy and Don themselves appear to forget about it. But it’s there from the very first episode of the show: At one point, Peggy was basically willing to prostitute herself in order to secure power. She would have been paid in sleeping-with-the-secretary currency—a city apartment, or perhaps the home in the country that Joan herself alluded to when she lays out what Peggy could have if she “really” plays her cards right.
So while Peggy is clearly representative of the enormous gender shifts about to happen historically, to pit her in opposition to Joan here is too simple. It’s not a matter of Joan’s personality or character that she agrees to the Jaguar plan. (This would be true even if sex work itself were a matter of “character,” which it isn’t.) It is a matter of age, opportunity, and, as we got reminders of this season, upbringing. Joan’s mother raised her to be admired; Peggy’s mother, as we see through her clenched-jaw protestations about Peggy moving in with Abe, raised her to be valued. It’s ironic that one response to this episode is that Joan, through being admired, winds up being quite literally valued, while Peggy, through the valuation of her work, walks away from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with our—and Don’s—admiration.
For as show as popular as Mad Men, it’s interesting that there haven’t been tons of memes and quizzes going around along the lines of “Which Mad Men character are you?” (Searching for “Which Sex and the City character are you” brought up ten times the number of Google results, for the record.) But it’s deeply textured episodes like this that show why, despite our collective eagerness to commodify Mad Men with our SCDP avatars and our Banana Republic styles, we haven’t jumped headfirst into saying which characters we identify with most: We are all Peggy. And we are all Joan.