Psst! Wanna know a secret. Mad Men isn’t about men at all.
But about subjectivities in the making: how men construct identities for women and how women struggle for narrative space in and through those representations. ‘Where there is power, there is resistance’, Michel Foucault once wrote. ‘[One] is always “inside” power, there is no “escaping” it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned’ (Foucault 1990: 95).
Harry Crane purports to know what women want. But Joan Holloway has done her homework. Long has she been a force with which to be reckoned. Distracting the men with her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. It is her thing, her strategy for asserting her authority inside the male dominated world of Sterling Cooper. Of course the client did not want to conduct business over the telephone. He liked what she said and the way she said it. What man could resist those womanly charms?
The mad man may take charge of a feminine desire and absorb it into the serious business of consumer capitalism. But Joan lives that desire. In pitching the perfect strategy can she dare to dream of her liberation from mundane office chores.
No sooner has the deal been brokered then Crane replaces the ‘hourglass’ with another ‘suit’. What happened? Speaking through a representational type that panders to patriarchal fantasies of a feminine ideal is always a precarious business. As the exchange of looks emphasizes, Joan never owns the gaze – probably never did. The scene heralds her return to silence, only able to speak through those verbose looks, pregnant pauses and loquacious gestures.
Which is something that Peggy Olson knows only too well. On the pretext of pastoral duties her priest pays her visit. He is desperate for a confession. She knows what he wants to hear, but she’s not playing ball. Michel Foucault tells us that speaking about sex plays directly into power, the knowledge of which is, in turn, used by authorities for the intention of exacting social control (Foucault 1990). In a Foucauldian twist Peggy defies patriarchal control through her refusal to speak. Only the relentless clickety-clack of the photocopier can be heard. No words can fully articulate what she has endured.
In this generic world there is no space, there are no words, for women to own their desires. Other than those that the mad men think they want.
At episode end both Joan and Peggy shed their feminine performance. Joan dismantles her constructed-ness while Peggy washes hers away. Both contemplate the collateral damage of narrative events.
But out of silence subjectivities are born.
Reference: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol 1, An Introduction (London, Penguin: 1990)