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Mad Men and gender relations in ‘the Souvenir’

Betty meets Connie Hilton...

Last week’s episode of Mad Men, ‘The Souvenir’, was a slow burner for me. I mean, I liked it, but it’s taken me a while to mull over the themes and resonances. What’s most interesting about the episode is its exploration of relationships between men and women.(spoilers follow)

The key scene in the episode is the mother-daughter chat between Betty and Sally. Earlier in the episode, Sally watches Betty apply her lipstick in the mirror. This is something most girls will remember from their childhood – watching Mummy press a sheet of tissue between her lips, smelling the scent of her perfume as she gets ready to go out. It’s a rare moment of almost tenderness between the two as Betty stops sniping and nagging at Sally and just lets her indulge in childish adoration. Later, Sally, inspired by her mother’s uber-femininity, kisses her neighbour. After she decks Bobby for teasing her, her mother gives her the following advice: Girls don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss girls.

This is what Betty herself believes – no, craves. It’s why she basks in the adoration of the Roman men and why she enjoys the role play with Don, who goes full on ‘Don Draper: Master of pick up’ on her. It’s why she finds herself running away from Henry Francis and ultimately, in ‘The Wee Small Hours’, returning to him. She loves to be loved, wants to be wanted.

There’s a flip side to this, however. What happens when you don’t want it? Pete plays knight in shining armour to the blousy German aupair across the hall and then assumes she’ll be so grateful she’ll melt into his arms. You can almost see the thought cross his mind: This is what Don would do. This is Pete we’re talking about. He’s always thinking about what Don would do.

She turns him down. He gets drunk and forces his way into the apartment, kissing her and, we assume, making love to her. Or should that be raping her?

Co-erced sex is rape. It’s painful to see a character we like (if you like Pete, which I do, oddly) as a rapist, but there it is. I’m tempted to see the brief appearance of Joan in the store as a reminder of this theme – remember that Joan has been raped by her own husband.  Boys kiss girls and girls lie down and take it.

What I love about Mad Men is that it doesn’t present a simple conclusion for us. Pete’s actions are deplorable, but he arguably recognises them as such – and what a performance by Vincent Kartheiser! Pete is someone who struggles with forging a masculine identity in a changing world as much as Peggy does a feminine one – see his fixation with hunting, his need to dominate Peggy, his attempts to get one over on Don, his distress over the possibility of impotence – and his ‘seduction’ is a failure that I feel strikes at Pete’s very heart. Actually, mentioning Peggy just now has reminded me of Peggy’s capitulation to Duck’s flesh crawling come ons (URGH)…just another part of the problem.

Mad Men has two hearts. One is the all-encompassing theme of change – young and old, old and new, outdated and modern. The other is sex: sexual politics, gender relations, gender constructs… I love the way that this episode shows the seeds of change in Sally and yet…when she watches her mother in the mirror…somehow I realise that Betty’s lesson will continue to resonate for a good few generations to come.

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