Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The girls are back in town

Again, this is a post-dated, er, post. This was printed on September 8 as the fourth series of Mad Men began on BBC4. Looking forward to it coming to RTE in the new year.

By Susan Daly
Wednesday Sep 8 2010

Rolling Stone magazine likes its sexy covers and the current issue is very hot off the presses. It features the three lead female actors from TV series Mad Men -- January Jones (Betty), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) -- sitting pretty in the back seat of a car with co-star Jon Hamm, who plays the enigmatic Don Draper.

As one paper put it when the mag hit the newsstands, that's quite a Hamm sandwich. Then again, no one's really looking at the filling. While the male of the species think they call the shots in Mad Men's early 1960s world of casual sexism, the female characters are the fascination.

The first few series revolved around the question: 'Who is Don Draper?' The fourth series, which begins tonight on BBC4 and will be aired on RTE2 early next year, is more likely to ask 'What would Joan do?'

It opens in 1964, against the still male-dominated backdrop of Madison Avenue's advertising agencies. Real men keep mistresses in the city and a wife in the suburbs, close deals over lunchtime martinis and flirt with their secretaries when they swagger back to the office.

Even so, the times, they are a-changin'. The year 1963 saw the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the book that ignited the women's movement and criticised the notion that the perfect woman was a Stepford housewife. (A fate that Don's wife Betty has clearly become discontented with.)

For another thing, Don and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are starting to have to consider the desires of women on at least a business level because at that point in America's history, women were becoming the ones to make most of the buying decisions in households.

It's a neat reversal of the first series when Don poses the question: "What do women want?" and to which his then boss Roger replies: "Who the hell cares?"

Well, you'd better get to caring, mister, and fast. The women of Mad Men are beginning to make their desires very clear indeed.

Peggy, formerly Don's secretary, has always worn her career ambitions on her sleeve. It didn't take her long to go from fear of operating a typewriter -- "It looks complicated"; Joan, then head of the secretarial pool, reassured, "But the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use" -- to nabbing a job as a copywriter, a job no woman had had in the office since World War II and there was a shortage of men.

Peggy has had a remarkable evolution from innocent ingénue to getting her own office with her name on the door. She's earned some respect from her male colleagues, a hard-won battle after her first clever piece of copywriting had one remark bemusedly: "It's like watching a dog play the piano."

But nothing ever comes easy in Mad Men and Peggy operates in a sort of no-woman's land.

She has had to give up her baby by office smarmpot Pete. She struggles with a social life in Manhattan, pretending to be an air-headed party girl so as not to scare off potential flatmates and telling a one-night stand that she is a secretary so that he won't be intimidated by her job.

When we last saw her, she was having a queasy sexual fling with a former colleague called Duck. In a way, she's the female Don Draper, reinventing herself but not quite able to escape her past but we still hold out hope that she's going to be the one to Have It All.

Cool-eyed WASP princess Betty was also on her way to escaping her gilded cage when we last saw her.

Bred to be the perfect social hostess, with her perfect children in her perfect split-level house in Winchester, Betty was the poster girl for what women were supposed to want in the 1950s.

Her decision to divorce Don at the end of series three reflects the general social upheaval of the 1960s (although not entirely understanding what shape her freedom should come in, she already has husband No 2 lined up).

She's not an easy character to like. She's spiteful, she's childish and she's a pretty terrible mother whose idea of discipline is to tell her kids to go watch television or lock them in the cupboard. And that's what's so delicious about Betty's character to the modern viewer: she blows the myth of perfect womanhood out of the water.

Of course, you can't mention the word perfect without mentioning Joan Holloway. Her Amazonian curves, or rather those of the actress Christina Hendricks, have made her part of the Mad Men iconography. Joan knows she has a body to die for, and she's not afraid to use it, gliding around the Sterling Cooper offices like a battleship with a particularly magnificent prow.

Yet she too has proven to be more than the sum of her considerable parts.

She might conform to what men want but she's fiercely independent, razor-sharp and worldly-wise which is why her submission to her horrible new husband has been so heart-breaking. In her soul, Joan is a warrior but in society, she's a woman past the age of 30 who must be married or be damned.

With her return to work at the new ad agency at the end of the last series -- and hubby's possible shipping off to Vietnam now that he's joined the army as a medic -- Joan is thankfully showing signs of rising from the ashes of her bad marriage.

It's all so intriguing because in season two of Mad Men, the creatives at Sterling Cooper decided during a campaign for Playtex bras that all women could be divided into two camps, sexpot or wife, Marilyn or Jackie.

Clearly, the Peggys, the Bettys and the Joans are too busy making their own moulds to fit into either.

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