Peggy’s Social Consciousness: Corporate Culture and Counterculture

September 22, 2010
By | 3 Comments

Peggy looking into the distanceThe last shot of “The Beautiful Girls” episode invites interpretation:  three women in an elevator, leaving the office after work.  Joan, Peggy, and Faye:  each negotiating gendered identity and life choices; each alone with her own thoughts.  Yet, the “beautiful girls” in this episode also include girl-powered Sally, free-spirited Miss Blankenship, feminine and maternal Megan, and self-assured Joyce.  All of Mad Men’s women in this episode are beautiful in spirit — desiring, adapting, confident, thoughtful –- all but icy-hearted Betty.

An intersection of civil rights and women’s rights is woven through this episode about women’s voices.  In this post, I would like to follow on from Kristen Warner’s engagement with the previous episode, about Mad Men viewing race relations through white women’s eyes.

In seasons past, Peggy was mentored by women about how to fit into the career path that was opening for her.  Joan Holloway and Bobbi Bartlett advised Peggy on how to attain mental and physical confidence.  Now a copywriter, Peggy continues to trace one woman’s movement through the social and career space of the time.  In “The Beautiful Girls” episode, Peggy is mentored about race relations in corporate culture (via Don) and counterculture (via Abe).

Don reminds Peggy that the agency’s role is to sell products not civil rights, consumer capitalism not social justice.  Abe raises Peggy’s consciousness about racial segregation but is dismissive of the need for women’s rights.  Peggy points out parallels between the exclusion of women and the exclusion of African Americans, but, despite her experiences, does not see that gender can cross barriers more easily than race.

In SCDP’s roundtable of ideas for the autoparts client, the agency struggles to find a strategy that can market to two classes at the same time, professionals and ordinary people:  “for the mechanic in every man.”  Later, Peggy suggests that Harry Belafonte sing the jingle for the ad:  “everyone likes him.”  By the early 1960s, Belafonte was a popular musician and film actor.  He had already made substantial inroads into mainstream entertainment.  Belafonte had significant exchange value.  But, the northern agency cedes without question to the client’s race segregation in its southern stores.  Recall, from an earlier season, Pete’s failed attempt to convince Sterling-Cooper to advertise television sets to an African American market.  Peggy crossed the gender lines at SCDP because brains trump gender.  Harry Belafonte cannot cross the race lines at SCDP because race trumps everything, even business sense.

In this episode’s didactic moments, Mad Men invites the audience to witness the clash of corporate culture and social consciousness.  Intelligent and candid, Peggy is our guide, our familiar – a white woman, newly aware, frustrated and uncomprehending about attitudes towards gender and towards race.  However, in Mad Men’s conceit about historical verisimilitude, the show remains poised at the edge of social progress.  I am reminded of R.W. Fassbinder’s comment about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1956):  everyone in the movie theater cried, because changing the world is so hard.  Peggy asks why the agency is doing business with a company that supports racist practices, even as Joan and Roger are mugged by a black man as they walk through a “bad neighborhood.”  Abe is patronizingly dismissive of women’s rights, even as SCDP’s female professionals demonstrate competence.

Peggy may continue to develop awareness and negotiate corporate culture, but SCDP is not likely to explore the possibilities of progressive business practices.  Yet, the television audience today is not a mute and powerless witness.  In the blogosphere, people are sharing perceptions and lived experiences of the burgeoning civil rights and women’s rights movements that sit at the margins of Mad Men’s storyline and timeline.

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3 Responses to “ Peggy’s Social Consciousness: Corporate Culture and Counterculture ”

  1. Derek Kompare on September 22, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    Excellent take on this episode, Mary Beth. This season so far seems to be inexorably moving events and perceptions towards a sort of cognitive precipice (from our POV, nestled in five decades of “The Sixties” in cultural history), and episodes like this are both inevitable and (to the series’ continued credit) ambiguous.

    The overwhelming tendency in historical drama (in every form, not just TV) is to mark historical high points with “on the nose” moments, where lightbulbs of awareness pop above our characters’ heads, and the benevolent rays of Understanding shine down upon them. Again, to MM’s credit, those rays are never all that bright or clear. While there have always been moments that seem to hone in “on the nose,” they always veer off into more compelling territory before landing. As you point out, the scenes of Peggy’s frustration (with Abe, and with her colleagues) complicate any neat narrative of social consciousness. Similarly, going back to last season, the JFK assassination was met not with sober, speechified mourning for democracy, but with confused faces absorbed by TV.

    It remains to be seen how graceful this dance will continue to be as that precipice (let’s call it “1968” for short) looms. There will certainly be moments that seem a bit more freeze-dried and hackneyed than others, but I’m optimistic that Fassbinder’s comment will continue to reign for the rest of its run.

  2. Jonah Horwitz on September 23, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    I don’t know if this wrinkle was intended or not, but it’s worth pointing out that Belafonte was not just a widely-admired African-American singer and actor, but a very vocal and prominent civil-rights activist. If Peggy was supposed to be aware of this, it would mean that her bringing up Belafonte was more of a provocation (to see how Don would respond) than a real suggestion.

    I do like that nobody in the show (except maybe a minor character like Joyce?) is allowed to be a fully conscious social actor–conscious, that is, in a way that suggests hindsight, rather than the confusions and contradictions of lived experience.

  3. Mary Beth Haralovich on September 26, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    I like to see MM reach out to the social awareness possible at the time. Verisimilitude extends beyond fashion to hairdos to living in the world. Even if characters are busy with their own lives, the world they inhabit has newsstands and headlines. They can intersect with civil rights and women’s rights, and whatever else is going on outside the office and the world.

    That’s a great point about Harry Belafonte’s politics — I wish the episode had brought more contemporary meanings into play, about Belafonte and about Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Rat Pack. But glancing nods are probably all we will get.