Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Footnotes of Mad Men: The Promethean Woman, or, Our Dog in the Parthenon

• One myth that arose from some proponents of the women's liberation movement is that a terminated pregnancy doesn't change a person. The idea that it does was reasonably considered fodder for the other side-that this view enhanced the notion that not caring for a child conceived in your body is an abandonment of biological and moral responsibilities. In reaction then, a PR move has often been adopted into an unconvincing pro-choice ideology: a woman can go through a pregnancy without some lasting change to her psyche and system. The enlightened woman, the idea was, could go through terminating a pregnancy or putting a child up for adoption without the burden of sin or shame. This idea discounts that a pregnancy can, and often does, change everything.

• Simone de Beauvoir wrote that "one is not born a woman; one becomes a woman." Even postmodern feminism and materialist feminism in some ways express the same: that there is no essentialness to womanhood, merely constructions-in the eyes of the postmodernists, totally linguistic constructions. But the act of childbirth and abortion are unique to women and there's much violence associated with both. Blood, suction, tearing, screaming, stitches; all civilization falls away when you enter and exit the birth canal. In both situations, birth or abortion, a woman is at the mercy of nature. Not only is her body surging with chemicals that tell her to bond with the creature metastasizing inside of her-even when the creature is beyond her body-but biology creates a ricochet. The female circuitry is shorted; enormous emotional triggers are switched. A darkness can fall that seems impenetrable. Woman swells, transforms and experiences carnage, she cannot grasp nature's bare blade without shedding blood. She does this alone and the knowledge derived from this confrontation will always set her apart.

• The Promethean narrative in Western Civilization is an inherently male one. There are exceptions, when women strike out and create their own lasting fires, usually in the arts, sometimes in science or industry. But in general, the protagonist is a man. (Perhaps because he is unencumbered by nature's strong arm?) The diversion-or destiny-of woman's will to power in the domestic sphere has been one of our great dilemmas, especially when that ambition for achievement and desire for hierarchical dominance pushes in her into the race with men. Domestic affairs, then, inspire the anxiety of creative annihilation. Especially for women-because not only are you fighting with men all day for glory, recognition and resources, but then having to face the threat that your life and heart could be ensnared in a domestic drama by a man? Ghastly. This is why a woman with the Promethean ambition kindles and protects her spark with the sacrifice of domestic harmony (and at great peril). Any man who does not share her Promethean spark should be regarded as a distraction (sometimes, of course, a welcomed one.).

• For the Promethean woman, most men are a race of confederates, with the frequent exception of two: one's dad and one's boss. The latter assumes the role of the former when she becomes an adult. But a boyfriend offers a predestined biological path. The ultimate consummation of that relationship will end with her becoming nature's conscript: a mother, a wife, the vessel for a lineage. Whereas, what she could achieve with an admired professional patriarch is glory, power, even empire.

Sometimes these desires misfire (Freud's "erotic transference"); a woman's desire for approval gets scrambled and mistaken for a desire to conquer. A mistaken lady may endeavor to exploit or control the power dynamic and the intensity of her admiration by bringing her boss down to the level where men most often see her: as sexual object. This undermines his authority and gives her the advantages of other women. With the right amount of backbone, a male boss could resist the storm of her advances in exchange for achievement of their shared goals. If he's smart, he could tell the difference between admiration and attraction, even when she doesn't. Acting on these emotions is behavior reserved for equally predatory and pathetic men. But a real boss is equipped to meet the psychological needs of a real, unconfused Promethean woman. He serves as a father-figure, existing as one of the few men in the world who make no biological demands of her. At best, like a father, he is there to reward her best behavior with attention, praise and advancement.

This is why the approval of your boss outweighs that of your boyfriend.

You can always find more footnotes by Natasha Vargas-Cooper right here, or, you know, you can get a whole book of 'em.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

LondonLee (#922)

Especially when the boyfriend/lover gets blind drunk and tries to take a shit in your bosses office.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

that really was the collective metaphor for the entire episode, wasn't it. totally Freudian, all defenses are crumbling.

Sam Han (#4,147)

Superb, though I take some exception to your casting of postmodernism as linguistic constructionism. While there is some evidence to suggest as much, one could also accuse non-postmodernists such as Wittgenstein of the same. Nevertheless, I especially appreciated the critique of old-school women's lib as being unsympathetic to the experience of childbirth. I think you are spot-on. The idea that the experience of giving birth to a child does not change someone is predicated on a "We're just like you"-ideology which precludes difference, and leaves the Promethean narrative defined through a "male" framework (though one wonders why a man knowing that he has fathered a child would somehow leave him unchanged. It certainly has affected Peter Campbell.)

mathnet (#27)

(Now that he knows about it.)

Sam Han (#4,147)


Bettytron (#575)

I loved this episode SO MUCH. The show has danced around the parallels between Don & Peggy since the beginning, so all of their letting down their defenses was so cathartic. I loved the parallels of Don's hand on Peggy's and Peggy crying in the bathroom to their first season (first episode, even??) counterparts. Definitely a high point of the season for me- maybe of the whole series.

LondonLee (#922)

Spoiled every so slightly by the appearance of Anna Draper's ghost carrying a suitcase.

sigerson (#179)

Nah, that was fine with me. The trace of puke on Don's white dress shirt, however…

Bettytron (#575)

For me, that she was carrying a suitcase made it a little less cheesy. It made it seem less like a spiritual vision and more like a drunken half-dream involving things he was anxious about (namely, bad news about Anna and the Samsonite account).

And any lingering bad taste from the cheesy transparent effect was totally erased by the heartbreaking look Don gives Peggy post-phone call, right before he bursts into tears. It gave me goosebumps.

mrschem (#1,757)

Yeah, definitely a sharp intake of breath there. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Like the man said about brilliance and failure; they are very close.

The slow fade out a-la-video game death is RISKKKYYY

sigerson (#179)

The greek diner scene could win all the awards in the world and it still wouldn't be enough praise.

"Did you ever have to shoot anyone?"
"No, saw some people die though."
"My father died right before my eyes. The television was on. It was Saturday afternoon. No one was around; my mother was out shopping. It's why I hate sports."
"Sorry to hear that. My father died when I was young."
"How did he die?"
"Kicked by a horse."
[laughing, then serious] "You're kidding."
"And your mother?"
"I never knew her."
[wistful and sympathetic, then sad, remembering her child] "Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?"
"That's a roach. Let's go someplace darker."


sigerson (#179)

And we finally learned who Dr. Lyle Evans, MD was and why Roger Sterling mentioned him to the guys from Honda.

mathnet (#27)

(He mentioned him in an outburst directed at Cooper, not in front of the guys from Honda.) BUT YES

mrschem (#1,757)

God damn! I was going crazy waiting for this!

cherrispryte (#444)

Anyone else find the first paragraph problematic? Ending a pregnancy can change everything and cause feelings of sin and shame, and it would be wrong to say that it never does. But not, you know, always.

Bettytron (#575)

I read it as: traditionally there was a huge amount of guilt and pain associated with abortion, so it was very stigmatized, so the women's movement, in attempting to counter that, went completely in the other direction, and tried to deny that there would be strong emotional effects. And in reality it's not nearly so black and white? That was my takeaway.

mathnet (#27)

'There's a way out of this room that we don't know about yet.' (Don't remember the exact words.)

And it was fun to see Mark trying to take Peggy to Rome and Don taking her to Greece.


deepomega (#1,720)


barnhouse (#1,326)

I'd been very much hoping they would show more of that fabled restaurant, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars–a weird choice, really, for Peggy's birthday dinner? Hard to believe Mark and her family would be able to sit around in this particular restaurant for so long??

Mainly loved this episode, though.

mathnet (#27)

What was the point of Joan's bitchy two-line scene?

LondonLee (#922)

We'll find out in season 6.

Mar (#2,357)

My take was that it was intended to demonstrate that Joan's sexual power no longer works on every man she encounters. As she ages, younger men like Joey see her as "that uptight lady" rather than as "that total fucking goddess." In an oblique way (this was Peggy's birthday and Anna's death), it marked the passage of time–Joan is beginning to get middle-aged.

ooOO that's a good point.

I thought it was to set up Joan's general restlessness and the boys pigishness and informality.

kat klags (#6,848)

I thought it was interesting how Joan waited to come in and ask them to clean up until after Peggy had left. In an early season I feel like this would have turned into another one of those scenes where woman may have better jobs, but they're still expected to tidy up and fetch coffee. (Actually, last week's episode, Joey asked Joan to make him a drink when she was making Don's and she said "you've got legs" — maybe she just doesn't like him?)
Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it could be an allusion to how a younger generation of men were more willing to accept women as colleagues, but that doesn't mean they were willing to change themselves to fill in the gap left by women moving up. Joey's comment that "I may get paid less but that doesn't make me the janitor" could be a sort of parallel to how working motherhood creates a greater dependance on domestic help, nannies, babysitters, daycare.

It could be setting Joan up as part of the "older" generation (Don makes a comment about "the kids"), but I wonder if that will be shaken up if/when her husband goes to Vietnam? Maybe they're setting her up for an ambiguity then about which generation she belongs to.

innag (#7,189)

That's harsh! (although could very well be true). One of the small things I love in the show is its commitment to remind you of the place and time. Even in that 7-second scene with Joan – it shows that they're still a struggling shop, and people just aren't making enough money to be courteous. What was his line after? "When I start getting paid more than the janitor, I'll clean up."

mathnet (#27)

And the parallel fights!

mathnet (#27)

(I love that Liston and Nixon and Don all lost to 'loudmouths.')

May I just say: DUCK! DUCK! DUCK!

mathnet (#27)

And Anna's death day is Peggy's birthday!

mathnet (#27)

Was there some message I didn't understand, about the mouse, and the elephant idea for Samsonite?

sigerson (#179)

Well, the really famous luggage TV ad was the gorilla in the cage with the suitcase. But that was 1970 and the company was American Tourister.

mathnet (#27)

Unimportant dictaphone question: Was that realistic–would you hear pre-recorded stuff if you tried to record over it?

saythatscool (#101)

mathnet, you are the queen of perversions.

mathnet (#27)


deepomega (#1,720)

I think he was checking to see if it was blank/had anything important on it before he started dictaphoning?

mathnet (#27)

He'd started recording, and then he stopped when he realized there was already something recorded there.

Hoover (#2,245)

I think he tried to start the tape and then saw that it was already at the end.

LondonLee (#922)

Don, can I use your dictaphone?

No, use your finger like everybody else.

mathnet (#27)

Oh! And! Remember Betty's line from when her dad had his (second) stroke and she was filled with dread? "I've been dreaming about a suitcase."

joeks (#5,805)

I don't hold a liberal-arts degree so I'm a little fuzzy on what "the Promethean narrative" is, exactly… but I'm pretty sure I get what you're saying.

helenread25 (#7,397)

In Greek mythology Prometheus stole fire from the gods to bring it down to earth, and for this offense he was punished. So it refers to anyone who would have the balls to pursue their own desire and face the wrath of rocking the status quo.
But it's surprising to me in this age of overpopulation that abortion should continue to be demonized.

MrTeacup (#4,677)

When the boss responds to the Promethean woman's sexual advances, he exposes the fact that he has a lack. He sees her advances as an opportunity for sexual pleasure that he feels deprived of, so this means he is just an ordinary pathetic, impotent man who wants to have her to cover up the fact of his castration. This means she cannot fantasize that he is Freud's primal father, who is uncastrated, omnipotent and capable of fully realizing his desire at all times. The primal father already possesses her sexually, and by rejecting her advances, her boss confirms to her that this is who he is.

Yes to all that you say.

Bittersweet (#765)

The last two paragraphs eerily describe the first 15 years of my professional life. Perhaps I should be watching this show.

sigerson (#179)


kat klags (#6,848)

Did anyone else keep worrying that this would finally be the episode where the show's opening credits came true, and Duck jumped out a window, or either he or Don fell out as they were drunkenly fighting?

One of my favorite parts of the episode was the very end, when Peggy asks if she should close the door, and Don says "leave it open." To me that meant that Don is back. I think maybe what I had been interpreting as post-divorce alcoholism in the last few episodes was actually Anna's-impending-death-related alcoholism… he made other mistakes before, but when you think about it he started to really get worse when get got back from that trip and went out with Lane. I feel like maybe after this 9-rounds argument/conversation with Peggy, he may have it all out of his system, and now he has her as the "person who understands him."

I think your analysis is correct and what Peggy really needs is a platonic relationship with a strong male role model (especially knowing now the trauma with the death of her own father in front of her), but Don really values and needs that platonic relationship as well.

There are a lot of parallels to the first episode of the show, as someone else mentioned — another thing it reminded me of was him and Midge. He says something along the lines of "You have your own business, you can take care of yourself, we should get married." I think he can only really respect women who are "Promethean," like himself. Not saying he and Peggy will become romantic, but all his "successful" affairs over the show have been really headstrong, capable women. Anti-Bettys.

Ok sorry this comment got really long…

mathnet (#27)

Wow, I did not worry that(!), but I did worry for a minute that Mark was planning not just to surprise Peggy with a family dinner, but with a marriage proposal too–in front of her family.

Don totally does need that, he even said re: old coot secretary

Bunx05 (#1,625)

They have all been brunettes too…to drive home the "anti-Betty" theme.

Jamie Peck (#2,018)

Um, abortion is not nearly as intense as birth. Have you ever watched the procedure being carried out? Early term abortions are pretty quick and easy. And it's just as fallacious to say that it necessarily has to change you or affect you as it is to say the opposite.

And who says the "ultimate consummation" of boy-girl love is childbirth, or even marriage? Furthermore, who says the boss has to be a dude?? And who says women are more likely to achieve in the arts than in science or industry???

There's a lot of weird, old fashioned, sexist language here. What gives? Are you quoting Freud or something and I'm just not in on the joke?

Mar (#2,357)

You in the wrong apartment.

TrilbyLane (#1,318)

You have to live a whole life to know how a terminated or ended pregnancy has affected you. It isn't over when you leave the clinic – and I would be very surprised if 'quick and easy' or indeed 'not intense' covered it for anyone.

Bunx05 (#1,625)

Huh…Well unfortunately you would have to go through abortion and childbirth to decide which is more intense. I don't think anyone would wish an abortion on a person. And we have a tradition in this country of making women who have abortions feel less human because of it.

Speaking of tradition: our society has had a long history of defining a woman's role based on her place in the family (i.e. childbirth and marriage). When my wife went back to work six months after our daughter was born, she was assailed by female coworkers who a) didn't understand how she could leave her baby with the strangers at daycare, or b)couldn't believe that I allowed her to go back to work, when her place was raising my child. Seriously…this was earlier this year.

Also, most bosses are dudes there are plenty of data and statistics out there to support this. The point however is not the boss. It is the platonic male role model. The idea is that there is a man whom a woman can admire without having to worry about the usual non-platonic crazy between men and women. Granted, the role model could be female. Absolutely. But in that case you do not have the same conflict between the platonic male influence and the non-platonic male force.

I've done both. The early term abortion was painful, physically and emotionally. I don't think I fully recovered from it until I was able to give birth, almost 10 years later. I am thankful I had the choice.
Now I take care of other people's babies and feel sorry for the parents who,for whatever reason, are missing so much of the joy and delight and change that happens over the first 3 years.

bb (#295)

or you could look at Ayelet Waldman who says that one of her abortions was very easy and the other very difficult. I think NVC was trying to say acknowledging that they are important does not have to mean bringing shame down on the woman who has experienced them.

look even if you are gay, work for a woman, and never have kids, these archetypes exist. It does not strike me as "weird, old fashioned, sexist" to draw them out.

michael miller (#7,316)

I had to think quite a bit about whether the ghostly Anna was a distraction. Ultimately I concluded that she was really just what a drunk would see – if he had been thinking about suitcases all day trying to avoid thinking about a dying friend. That she was carrying the suitcase actually made it better in the end.

Parleyview (#7,337)

Savvy observation all.

Parleyview (#7,337)

* observations

Savvy observations all.

Farrah Bostic (#5,663)

everything about this – the post itself and especially the comments – is why i like it here. civil discourse, corrections of typos, interesting ideas… and of course HELLCAT references and dick jokes. huzzah!

barnhouse (#1,326)

I enjoyed the writing as well as the analysis here. "Nature's bare blade" allusion drove me nuts but finally hunted it down to–Camille Paglia (gah! of course lol.)

With respect to the relationship between Peggy and Draper. There's also the ambition of a young person to achieve the level of genius and ability of a mentor; that is not a gendered phenomenon, in my experience; the character of the relationship will be colored by the gender dynamics of it, but young'uns can and do hero-worship brilliant people based on their brilliance, regardless of the gender of each.

Isn't that the real basis of the bond between Peggy and Draper, that each recognizes in the other a mold-breaking spirit, uncompromising regard for the truth, rather than comfortable lies; true unconventionality, as against the conformity of the "cool" beatnik-ish types in Peggy's office.

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