Spoiler alert: This piece has spoilers about the most recent episode of “Mad Men.” If that’s not okay with you, don’t read it.
What made this last “Mad Men” episode so upsetting?
Ingrid won’t watch “Mad Men.” She watched the first bunch of episodes with me, but then she dropped out: she found it too harrowing, the lives too miserable and trapped. Normally I don’t agree. I mean: yes, it’s harrowing, yes, the lives are miserable and trapped. But I find it encouraging to think about how much has changed since then — and as trapped as they are, at least some of the characters are beginning to make that change happen, for themselves and the rest of the world.
This last episode, though? “The Other Woman”? Even I was cringing at. Even I felt bludgeoned at the end of it. (Peggy’s escape notwithstanding. Which was totally awesome.)
And then I read Amanda Marcotte’s analysis of the episode on Pandagon, and I started wondering: Why was I reacting this way? Why is this episode different from all other episodes? Had I internalized the idea that prostitution is inherently degrading and shameful, and that it would be a dreadful tragedy for a “good” woman to engage in it?
Quick precis of the episode, for those who don’t watch the show: The ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, is trying to get an account with Jaguar — an account that would be both hugely lucrative and hugely prestigious. The head of the Jaguar dealer’s association, Herb Rennet, makes it clear that he’ll vote for SCDP to get the account — if he gets to have sex with Joan Harris, the extraordinarily able SCDP office manager and an extremely beautiful and curvaceous bombshell. This offer is presented to Joan, and initially she’s intensely offended and rejects it out of hand. But when it’s suggested to her that this account means a huge amount to the company, and she could ask for a five percent partnership in the company in exchange for securing it, she reconsiders. In essence — no, more than just in essence — she lets herself be a very high-end prostitute.
So Amanda’s question is valid. If you don’t think prostitution is inherently degrading and shameful, then why would this extremely profitable example of it — one night with an unpleasant and sleazy guy in exchange for a partnership in the company you’ve devoted your life to, with a probable lifetime of financial security and some serious prestige to boot — be so deeply upsetting?
I’ll admit that Amanda is partly right. Sure, I’ve at least partly internalized the idea that prostitution is bad and sad, and that it’s bad and sad for women who have a choice to engage in it anyway. It’s in the water of my culture, and I’ve absorbed some of it. I’m not proud of that, I wish that it weren’t the case, but I’m not going to lie about it. And Amanda is right that far too much of the commentary about this “Mad Men” episode has reflexively assumed that prostitution is shameful, and that engaging in it by definition brought dishonor to the company. Amanda is totally right to point that out, and to call it out.
But I don’t think that’s the only upsetting thing here. Or even the most upsetting thing. There’s more going on in this episode than just “Joan decides that having sex for one night with a sleazy unpleasant person is worth a five percent partnership in the agency.”
For starters: A lot of why this was upsetting has to do with how the partners — Don excepted — were treating Joan. They weren’t treating her like a prostitute. They were treating her like property.
A prostitute is not owned. A prostitute does not sell their body; they charge for their time, and for services rendered. But the partners of SCDP — Don excepted — were treating Joan like something they owned. In the horrific “partners’ meeting” scene where this matter is being discussed, Joan’s consent was barely discussed. Sure, Pete told them she was on board… but they all know Pete is a lying scumbag. Who the hell believes Pete? Unless he’s telling them something they want to believe — something that was convenient for them to believe. So they accepted Pete’s lie about Joan being on board. And for the rest of the conversation, they talked about Joan like she was a piece in a chess game. Or a company they were considering acquiring but couldn’t agree on a price. Only at the very end of the conversation does Bert Cooper say, “Let her know she can still say ‘No.’”
Now if, instead of making the offer by manipulative insinuation, Pete Campbell had gone to Joan directly and said, “Look, this offer is on the table, is this something you would consider? I will completely understand and accept it and drop it forever if you say No, but it’s on the table, and it involves you, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t find out how you felt about it”… I don’t think I’d find his behavior so appalling. But he didn’t. Of course not. He’s Pete Campbell. He treated her like an obstacle in his path to getting something he wanted… something that could be moved with the right kind of manipulation and pressure. Pretty much like he treats everyone else in the universe. And the other partners — again, Don excepted — went right along with it. The theme of this episode is that men are frustrated because they want to own women and can’t. The hook of the story, the pitch the agency makes to Jaguar, is that the car is “At last. Something beautiful you can truly own.” But in this scene, they act as if Joan is something beautiful they truly can own. For the right price, anyway.
So there’s that. There’s also the fact that, no matter how hard Joan works at her job, no matter how exceptionally skilled she is at it, she will now always be seen by the partners as someone who slept her way to the top. Joan deserves to be a partner on her merits alone. But now she — and they — will never see her that way. Yes, she has a partnership… but she will probably never get the respect that this partnership should have earned her. And that is sad beyond measure.
But the main thing I found so upsetting about this incident was the fact that Joan, herself, did not want to do it.
It doesn’t much matter what I think of prostitution. What matters is what Joan thinks of prostitution. And clearly, Joan doesn’t think very highly of it. She is deeply offended when the proposition is made to her. She thinks less of herself for having engaged in it. You can argue about whether she’s right to feel this way — but the fact is that she does.
And the fact that she feels this way about prostitution, and engages in it anyway, is what I found upsetting.
You can be totally accepting and supportive of prostitution, and still not want people to engage in it who don’t really want to. In fact, I would argue that being accepting and supportive of prostitution means caring about whether the people who engage in it really want to. Of course there are costs and benefits to prostitution, upsides and downsides, good customers and bad customers… just like there are with any job. Of course someone can freely choose to be a prostitute, and basically be fine with it, and still not love every minute of it. But when someone is as sickened and offended by this prospect as Joan clearly is, and they go ahead and do it anyway, then it’s a fucking tragedy.