Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.3: “The Collaborators”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

Tami and I, joined by Renee from Womanist Musings and Fangs for the Fantasy, watched this week’s ep in horror: yes, at Peter Campbell’s state of perpetual swaglessness and Weiner’s needless explanation of Don’s sexual hardwiring, but most importantly, the frosted lipstick on the lips of Phyllis, Peggy’s Black executive assistant. And you can read on in horror, knowing that we got lots of spoilers in this  roundtable…

Tami: Lots of collaborations in “The Collaborators”: the sexual sort, the political sort (North Korea and the Viet Kong), the business sort…

We talked about the theme of evolution, death, and aging last week. I think those things continued in this week’s episode of Mad Men. The gigolo persona that seemed so sexy and exciting in early seasons is getting old and starting to stink.

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Renee: Only if you mean running in as many ways as possible, from the lives which the characters have created. For me it was another sign that what people are told to want, or rather what will make them happy, is not, in actual fact, what they need or desire.

Tami: It occurs to me that we’re just months past the Summer of Love when this episode occurs. And the ethos of “free love” seems to have filtered down from counter-culture into the suburbs and tony Manhattan living rooms. Even good Midwestern girls and middle-aged, Catholic doctor’s wives are trying to get a piece. But “love” really isn’t free when you’re a grown up.

Andrea: What I’ve always found problematic about the name “Summer of Love” is that it was really about wanting to decouple romantic love from sexual entanglement. It seems to me that “love” was a euphemism for “sex.” That zeitgeist moment was also seven years from the introduction of the Pill–by 1967, 12.5 women worldwide used that particular method of birth control. And I’ve heard from some conservative quarters that the introduction of the Pill was the beginning of the end of US civilization, what with women having a more consistent method of preventing pregnancy. Though the Baby Boomers are credited with creating the idea of freeing sex from notions of attachments in this side of the millenium, we’re still trying to figure out with that means, especially for women. And, from what Weiner is showing us about Don, his sexual appetite has its own price, if not its own deep baggage.

Renee: It was interesting that Sylvia told Don,”I hope we don’t fall in love,” because love is the last thing their interactions are about. Realistically, for Sylvia, Don clearly represents danger and a step away from the mundane life of the doctor’s wife. Clearly, being married to Arnold is what is expected of her, but what is expected and what we desire or need can at times be two very different things. For Don, it’s about once again sabotaging his life and running from what he sees to be constraints. I found it interesting that though men are constantly talking about Megan or more specifically, Megan’s body. She is not enough to keep Don happy.

Yes, gurl, cuss Pete's swagless ass clean the fuck out. Do it for all of us.
Yes, gurl, cuss Pete’s swagless ass clean the fuck out. Do it for all of us.

Tami: Trudy is a BAMF. She told Pete how it was gonna be and dropped the mic. Pete Campbell you are no Don Draper. Don, though a little worse for wear, is still The Rooster. He brings the morning. Pete is still…Pete.

Why does an assignation with Pete Campbell feel like a visit to the dentist. “I can offer you some peanuts.” “Follow me.” Pete can’t sell “You want to feel shitty, right up until the point where I take your dress off. Because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine, but don’t pretend.” Only Don can do that..and it isn’t working out so great for him, either.

Andrea: But the way you were raving about that line–and we know Jon Hamm can bring it when it comes to line delivery–it seems it worked on quite a few of y’all. ::ducks pillows::

Anyway, you’re right, Tami: Pete Campbell has no swag, full stop. Never really has, and never will. But, like many entitled folks, he think he’s completely swagilicious.

Renee: What I find interesting is that when Pete visited a prostitute, he wanted to be called king. For Pete, sex is clearly about power, which is no surprise considering that he is, after all, a rapist. He desperately craves power but the moment it’s challenged, he backs down and acts like the weasel that he truly is. Pete has no real confidence in himself whatsoever. That scene with his neighbour reeks of desperation; two desperate people seeking answers that no one can provide.

Tami: And another thing about Pete. He’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. He’s thought, all this time, that he was getting one over on Trudy. But Trudy has always known exactly who he is. She abided his foolishness so that she could have the life she wanted. He screwed that up, royally.

Renee: Speaking of Trudy, can I just say that I was absolutely shocked to learn that she was aware of what a lecher she married. This adds a much greater depth to her personality than I ever dreamed existed. It also gives us a different perspective on the ‘60’s-70’s housewife. We have always known that the idyllic way the media has framed that time for women and the nuclear family in particular has been nothing more than a sham to make us crave, or look back nostalgically at way of living and existing in this world which never ever occurred. Life was never simple and women were not universally happy in their role as wives and mothers. More importantly, they knew they were living a charade but were expected to present a particular face to the outside world. Unlike Betty, who we knew from the beginning was terribly unhappy in her marriage, Trudy seemed content, ecstatic even. Trudy didn’t wait for an exit the way that Betty did and instead took her future into her own hands.

It made me think about Trudy’s relationship with Pete, and I realised that, all along the way, Trudy has achieved what she wanted from the apartment in New York when the first married, to the house in the suburbs. Pete has only had the illusion of control while she has been pulling the strings. It’s a form of passive control, and I find it fascinating.

Andrea: But is it control, really? Not that I don’t think that Trudy has ever been a milquetoast of a character; I just suspected that she truly loved Pete and the life he provided for her and believed her sweetness and living the role of the dutiful suburban wife who accommodated her husband would draw him from his vicious, conniving ways. It reminds me, in some ways, of what Holly Hunter said in Living Out Loud of how she accommodated her philandering ex-husband’s ways in exchange for the materially well-off life she enjoyed as a doctor’s wife because she thought accommodation was a part of love. Unlike Hunter, who husband dumps her as she eventually move on, this is Trudy back in the late 60s. Divorce still carried a stigma, and she wasn’t having that–divorce, in her mind, is for working women like Joan.

Tami: I’m not feeling the introduction of Dick Whitman: The Brothel Years. It feels like the show is trying to explain Don’s sexual compulsions. But, as we’ve seen again and again on Mad Men, casual cheating was the way of the patriarchy–even for men whose mothers were not sex workers and who didn’t spend time in old-timey houses of ill repute.

Renee: The brothel years did explain to me Don’s sexual aggression. When others have sex on Mad Men, they’re almost apologetic it about it, but Don never has been. He has continually had hot sex all of the years Mad Men has been on the air. Don knows that his desires are not anything to be ashamed of and are in fact commonplace. He’s not trying to sneak around like Pete, he’s just doing what comes natural. Though this is happening within the context of an affair, it all seems so much more honest to me.

Andrea: Eh, I disagree with that somewhat. Remember, Don jumped up when the blonde prostitute caught him peeping in on his mom and the house pimp. If it was natural, he would have looked up at the woman, acknowledged her, and kept on peeping or some other nonchalant behavior. So there’s an element of embarrassment in Don, at least. But I do agree that Don is the most unapologetic about his sexuality. But, considering where he learned his ideas, that lack of apology gets folded into his working-class background that he stays running away from.

And, really, what we learn about Don is that he learned how interacting women from a pimp–from how he seems to sweet-talk women into dropping their panties on the regular to (TRIGGER WARNING: Link discussing sexual violencehow he sexually assaults one of his lovers, Bobbie Barnett, in order to “regulate” her in Season 2. But, at the end of this episode, we see Don sitting on the floor before his doorway, almost at the level he was when he was peeping in on his mom and the house pimp, as if going back to the Dick Whitman he tries so desperately to run from in the persona that he’s created of Don Draper. Even pimps age and tire of the lives they lead.

Tami: If Mad Men won’t let Dawn be great, perhaps we’ll have Phyllis, Peggy’s assistant, who seems to be less of a cipher then Dawn. Black women are finally working their way into corporate offices in support positions. And I have to say, in the 90s, when I worked in agencies, that is still largely where we could be found, if we could be found at all. I spent a lot of time as black Peggy Olson, which I think is why I relate to her character most of all.

Renee: I believe that it is overly hopeful to think that Mad Men will invest in Phyllis and make her a fully realised character. Weiner has shown extreme resistance to confronting race and or race relations of that time period, except to narrate through a White-centric lens. Having Phyllis give Peggy advice on how to deal with her underlings already screams of turning her into the Wise Negress. Yeah, I don’t need more of that.

Andrea: Word. At the same time, even white secretaries have played the role of giving sage, almost Mom-like, words to the main characters, who are usually their colleagues or higher-ups. When white women play those parts, they’re mommies. When Black women do the same, they’re mammies.

Tami: On a more shallow note: Let’s hope the whole white, frosted lipstick thing never comes back into style. And if it does, that women of color stay far away from it.

Renee: That frosted lipstick absolutely horrified me, and I want to know how any Black woman ever put that on and walked out the door thinking she was all that and then some.

Andrea: Weiner and nem needed the Jesus contained in make-up genius Pat McGrath’s cosmetic brushes on that sistah’s face. Or some simple research. I mean, I know Black women of several hues didn’t have as many cosmetics or shades to choose from back in the day, but we could look decent with some frosted lipstick, when done right, even back then.

This, Matt Weiner and all y'all, is how you do frosted lipstick on a Black woman's face. You're welcome.
This, Matt Weiner, is how you do frosted lipstick on a Black woman’s face. You’re welcome.

Tami: But over at chez Draper, it’s really hard to have to fire your maid, y’all! The pain will bring you to tears, and you’ll have to hide in the basement while she gathers her things. Why can’t the help just read minds to totally know how you want things done? You could tell by the woman’s response, that Megan did not have the backbone to actually, y’know, mention these mistakes when they happened. Betty 2.0, indeed.

Renee: That had me rolling my eyes and saying, “rich White lady problems indeed.” This scene did, however, help to show (once again) how sheltered and privileged Meagan is. Meagan fired her maid, and yet she was the one crying.

Andrea: “Rich white lady problems” with “white lady tears”: a lethal combination that never led to a good end for women of color. Damn, I felt for the domestic worker.

Tami: I think this episode, more than some of Mad Men’s other episodes that touched on abortion, made plain how little power women had over their reproduction–even with the growing popularity of the pill. And it isn’t just that abortion isn’t legal yet. But also that there was little room for a young, married, affluent woman to say that she didn’t want children or simply didn’t want them at a particular time. Megan felt she had no right to opt for pursuing her career, rather than having a child.

In truth, childless-by-choice women still get denigrated, but I have to think that this was even more the case in 1968.

Renee: I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Megan felt that she had no right to opt out because from that conversation, she was clearly thinking about her options and was actually thankful that she didn’t have to think about abortion because of the miscarriage. I also think that it’s important to put the entire conversation into context. Megan is a French Canadian, which most likely means that she was raised French Catholic. This is about more than her gender–and absolutely includes the religion she was raised to use as a moral barometer.

Tami: Again, I say that Sheryl Sandberg should be somewhere writing recaps of Mad Men. (Y’know in between helping run Facebook and promoting her book.) Our Pegs is learning that, title aside, power is viewed differently when she wears it. Peggy may expect excellence, but we’ve never seen her be mean or hypercritical, yet her (male) staff seem to loathe her in a way I think they wouldn’t if she were Don or even Ken Cosgrove. Notice how, when they mock her, they go straight for the lady parts jokes. Their problems with her are about her being a woman in charge of them, rather than her management style. Even Phyllis was encouraging Peggy to be gentle with the creatives. When have we ever seen anyone in this world be gentle with creatives?

Renee: For me, what Phyllis said was about bridge-building. Phyllis has to be cognizant that, even working where she is, is groundbreaking. Phyllis is giving Peggy the advice that all marginalized people have received in terms integration: don’t be angry, be kind, and win them over by virtue of your goodness. Phyllis sees the link between race and gender and knows that, to succeed to some degree, marginalized people have to use the stereotypes placed upon us to our advantage.

What I find interesting is that Ted Chaough expects from Peggy and what the creatives expect from Peggy are two very different things. Ted wants Peggy to display a killer instinct and have no loyalty to anyone she perceives as a friend; whereas, the creatives want Peggy to give the permission to slack off. Ted expects Peggy to cast aside the gender-based attacks as a joke, even though they clearly impact on how she does her job. It will be interesting to see how she deals with this because I cannot for one moment see Weiner allowing Joan to be passive in this situation, based in her response to the Jaguar man’s pursuit and expectations.

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