There’s a great scene in the final episode of Season 2 of Mad Men. Joan Holloway, the office manager who’s hit the glass ceiling within the secretarial ranks, sees Peggy Olson, who has, remarkably, become a copywriter, as Peggy is about to enter her new office. Joan, crushed when her foray into script reading was snatched away, nonetheless exchanges a warm moment with Peggy, noting her name on the door and congratulating her. Sisterhood trumps envy.
As I said in my previous post about this show, the women on the show are more interesting than the men: They bob and weave for advantage in a male-dominated domestic and business world. Peggy and Joan advance in quite different ways, though. Joan is almost a caricature of the voluptuous sex object, while Peggy tacks back and forth, uncertainly, between being “one of the boys” and creating a female identity for herself. Joan advises her to take the latter course.
Joan’s the more self-assured and confident of the two, but the writers provide constant reminders of the compromises, large and small, that she must make. In one poignant glimpse, we see her taking down the bra strap that holds so much weight, and wincing at the painful mark left on her skin. In another, much more troubling scene, she is raped — there’s no other word to describe it — by her fiance in one of offices. She protests, but has neither physical nor, as a practical matter, legal, recourse. Worse, she stays with the guy — a successful MD who’s lauded by another cast member for his charity work with “Negro children.”
In the early 1960’s, marital rape was not a crime. It took the feminist movement to change that archaic rule, and even today, rape is treated less harshly by the criminal law when it occurs within a marriage. This law was a holdover from the much earlier rule, abolished in nineteenth century, that permitted men to “chastise” — beat — their wives for insubordination. That marital rape was protected for an additional century speaks to the lingering idea that rape within marriage was an oxymoron — marriage bestowed consent to sex, all the time.
Of course, Joan was not yet married, so she could have reported a crime. But at that time, even more than today, Joan’s very sexuality, coupled with lingering ideas of male prerogative would have made prosecution unlikely, conviction less so. And Joan, as a wily maneuverer within the constraints of her era, would perhaps not have seen reporting the crime as in her best interest. (At least not immediately — I have some hope that the show will return to this issue, and show the psychological damage that must have been inflicted.)
Even today, many women put up with all sorts of crap in defense of the male prerogative that is so slow to die. That’s why I was heartened at the recent comments, and reaction, to Gov. Mark Sanford’s infidelity by his wife, Jenny. This former Wall Street big shot was not going to stand for it, nor stand by his side before the media when he “confessed.” She told him to stop, and forbade him to see his Argentine lover again. (I can’t believe he even had the [fill-in-the-blank] to ask). And now she’s moved out of the Governor’s Mansion with the couple’s four sons.
Of course, not every woman is Jenny Sanford. Many are still in the powerless position of Joan, or the impossible one of Peggy, who hides her pregnancy and gives her child up for adoption (in a world where abortion was illegal) so that she can continue her career, which is the most important thing to her. Only in the last few episodes does she begin to realize the toll that her decisions have taken.
Season 3 starts tonight. I can’t wait.