Mad Men: season 5, episode 10

Old names and faces and a masterclass in flirting.

We knew there was friendship there. We also knew - from an aside remark way back in Season One – that he’d never tried it with her. But my goodness, Don and Joan. What sexual tension, what a thrill! “God, you’re irresistible,” she tells him. From the jukebox sweet Doris Day sings “A Christmas Waltz” (the episode’s title), but the real dance is taking place at the bar. Take note: this is how it looks when Mad Men’s most sexual creatures try and out-flirt each other. “You want to dance?” . . . “You and me, in Midtown? You with that look on your face?” “What look, baby?” Irresistible. 

It’s a seductive quality both characters possess in abundance that we haven’t seen for so long. And we reminisce along with them: Burt Peterson and Freddy Rumsen, their standing argument that Joan was a lesbian. We remember those names and faces, those Sterling Cooper days, too. Elsewhere in the episode Paul Kinsey, absent since Season Three, reappears. As does Bobbie Barrett, that alluring old flame of Don’s, in his use of her phrase “I like being bad and going home and being good.” While the affair was “a disaster,” Joanie knows better, purring at him “You enjoyed every minute of it”. 

But it truly was a disaster – his car accident with the comedian’s wife lead, eventually, to the collapse of his marriage with Betty. At the end of the scene Don leaves the bar unsettled and a little upset; Joan has touched a raw nerve. Some men are just promiscuous, she says. Or can’t be satisfied, or recognise what they have. Driving the Jaguar at top speed, shifting gears to accelerate, Don’s inner turmoil has been stoked. Earlier he tells Joan the car does nothing for him. “It’s because you’re happy; you don’t need it,” she replies. But he is turned on by the car, isn't he?

The Jaguar E-type is of course more than a car. It’s the most beautiful car of all time, an export, glossy red – the perfect symbol of consumerism. If there’s a clear theme to the episode it’s this. Paul Kinsey returns as a Hare Krishna – he “rejects the material world” – but really what he wants is his woman and some money (maybe a farm, though even that requires of him “a little less recruiting and a little more working,” Harry notes). There are others cheating and spending: Lane forges Don’s signature (a double-fake of the Draper identity) for an advance to cover himself against the taxman; Roger offers to pay Kevin (his baby son with Joan) through college, though it’s a “short term” attempt to fix their relationship.

And there’s the play, America Hurrah: “I like to have a can of beer in my hand as I watch the beer ads,” declares the actor. But TV makes him sick - every channel on it. "It’s about the emptiness of consumerism," says Megan. But Don’s job is to encourage people to buy things. He’s selfish, she says, and smashes her plate of spaghetti with as much force as Joan, upon receiving her divorce papers, smashes the model Mohawk. 

Nostalgia and materialism – the two themes in play here – weave so cleverly. With three episodes in Season Five remaining, Don may have reached a crossroads where his work and marriage diverge (doesn't Megan seem more and more a catalyst than a character?). “This time last year,” Don tells his colleagues, the company was at crisis point. Now they must sink or “swim the English channel” to “drown in champagne”. It’s an inspiring speech, one we haven’t heard him deliver in years, and the car, and worldwide recognition, is the prize. At the beginning of the episode Don tells Pete the Jaguar pitch “sounds like a lot of work", before going to nap on his office couch. Now he’s taking off his jacket. If Draper's back, is Megan out?

Read the Mad Men series blog

Joan as Rita Hayworth, Don as Aly Khan? Photo: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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