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Desire and its Discontents

By June 1, 2012 4 Comments

We are approaching the Season 5 finale of the AMC series Mad Men in a couple weeks, and although some fans have been dissatisfied with this season, I have continued to enjoy the show. I particularly like this well-crafted drama’s way of evoking a blend of delicious moral outrage and nostalgic fascination. Theresa Latini mentioned briefly in her last post that the show’s setting—Madison Avenue in the 1960s—provides an effective platform for examining shifting gender roles, especially male disorientation in a world where the rules keep changing and the naughty boys feel the rug of male privilege getting more and more wrinkled up under their feet.

If you’ve never watched the show, this past Sunday’s episode, “The Other Woman,” would make a pretty good introduction. It may be one of the best examinations of gender politics the show has achieved so far. The episode is neatly constructed around the agency’s efforts to win the Jaguar account, which is fabulous because, meta-dramatically, the Jaguar car serves to refract the series’ main theme: desire.

After all, this is a show about advertising, the industry that trades on desire—evoking it, creating it, exploiting it. The Jaguar is the quintessential metaphor for desired objects: it’s beautiful, fast, powerful, expensive, temperamental, impractical—and you want it so bad. Oh yes you do. It represents all the things you want but shouldn’t have, can’t have, would get away with having if you could. For most of the episode, the agency’s “creatives” are struggling to develop an advertising campaign that compares the car to a mistress without actually using the word. They know they’re selling to men, and they know what men want. They want the excitement of the Jaguar, even if the “Buick in the garage” is more reliable and sensible.

Scenes in the creative workroom are brilliantly intercut with the meanwhile story-lines of three main female characters who are trying, as usual, to negotiate some power and respect in a world where they have to cope with being objects of desire. That is, when they’re not being patronized, infantilized, used, or taken for granted. Joan, Peggy, and Megan all manage in this episode—by sharply contrasting methods—to undermine male desire, whose nature on this show is distilled in the advertising campaign the creatives finally present, successfully, to the Jaguar reps. 

The tag line:  Jaguar.  At last, something beautiful you can truly own.

That’s it, isn’t it? You can see it on the face of Don Draper when the young hotshot copywriter, Ginsberg, first comes up with the line. You can see it on the faces of the Jaguar execs when they hear it at the presentation. That’s what they want: they want to own what they desire. Because ownership means that the beautiful, desired object is in your control and at your disposal. But they all realize that when it comes to women, this never quite works. 

And we see this in the women’s story-lines. Megan, Don’s gorgeous French-Canadian second wife, auditions for a play which would take her away to Boston for three months. She did not ask permission, and when Don throws a little hissy, she narrows her eyes and informs him, more or less: Listen, Buster, this is where you deliver on that “support” you promised when you encouraged me to follow my acting dream. Don is caught off guard by the reality that marriage is not ownership, and it may possibly require inconvenience or sacrifice on his part. New concept! 

Peggy, the lone female copy-writer, after suffering another round of Don’s rudeness and fighting another day for respect around the agency, “takes a meeting” and accepts a better position with more pay at a rival agency. In the amazing scene where she gives Don her notice, all the complexities of their relationship over five seasons are excruciatingly compressed. She owes him everything professionally, which she readily acknowledges. (Then again, she saved his butt more than once, too.) Still, she is a free agent, and it’s time to move on. When she walks out of the office, down the corridor, out of the agency, and steps onto the elevator, her triumphant little smile says: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: you don’t own me. 

Finally, the magnificent, tragic Joan. Her storyline in this episode is too complex to summarize neatly, but suffice to say: she is presented with an indecent proposal, an extortion scheme thought up by a Jaguar dealer who is distressingly nonchalant because he knows he can get away with it. The proposal is passed along, with varying rationalizations, by several of the agency’s partners. Really, it’s hard to imagine a more sordid little knot of panderers and moral cowards. Joan sees right through every one of them, despite their oily machinations. She could certainly refuse. But she’s been around the block a few times, and she knows the game. She knows exactly what power and security cost a woman in this world. When Lane suggests that she play for a partnership—with a vote and ownership shares—that’s when she makes up her mind. The whole horrid business looks like an age-old misogynistic sexual power-play, and it is. This particular plot point, in fact, was especially controversial in the blogosphere. But I think the writers give us a plausible reason for her decision, and it goes back to that Jaguar tag line. Joan knows that if she makes this deal, she owns them. Admittedly, it’s only five percent. But it has real dollar signs behind it, and symbolic ownership counts.

SaraKay Smullens wrote for the Huffington Post that this episode reminds us all why we needed a women’s movement. Agreed. You bet. But thinking back to Theresa’s post, I’m not sure how much has changed, deep down, in the cultural imaginary. Women are still imagined as objects of desire—in the real world and far more in our entertainments. Look for versions of the woman-as-jaguar trope in magazines, mall display windows, movies—it’s everywhere, and assumed to be normal. Women using their sexual allure to gain power, money, and attention is seen as inevitable, normal, and more power to ‘em. As for alternative ways of imagining our shared humanity as men and women: they are out there, but they fight for preeminence against the same-old same-old.

Mad Men fascinates partly because we recognize that the gender dynamics we would like to relegate safely to the bad old 1960s don’t easily stay put there. The show regularly critiques sexism by exposing the frank realities of using people and by giving dignity to the women who are trapped within a sexist system. But it’s complicated. Small triumphs come for the women characters, but only within a larger game they can’t win. Everything is qualified and mitigated. The casting directors still want Megan to spin around so they can check out her derriere. Peggy, who has managed to get ahead on talent and nerve alone, still has to prove herself in a new fiefdom of the male-run advertising world. And Joan, well—the resignation in her eyes during the “transaction” scene tells the whole story. We may get a little smug moral pleasure from the thought, Thank goodness things are better these days. But none of these plot dynamics strike us as completely unfamiliar, however enlarged for the sake of dramatic arc and historical milieu.   

Ultimately, Mad Men dramatizes that in the game of clamoring desire, no one really wins. Desire is “by nature unattainable,” as Don observes during the pitch. It drives both male and female characters toward goals that continually recede from their grasp, toward narcissism, toward futility. Maybe that’s the root significance of that freefalling silhouette in the show’s title sequence.

At last, something beautiful you can truly own. The Jaguar campaign trades on human longing for that elusive possibility, the beautiful thing possessed. But as the world of Mad Men repeatedly reminds us, this is always, in the end, an illusion.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Theresa Latini says:

    This is simply a stunning and beautifully written interpretation of Mad Men! Thank you, Deb. I happened to be reading a book on desire from a Buddhist psychological perspective (Open to Desire by Mark Epstein, MD) just as your post serendipitously appeared on my iPhone. For me, your post (and this book) raise provocative questions about the spiritual dynamics of desire, which I think much of Christianity has gotten wrong. Here are a few nuggets from the book's opening chapters:

    "There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit in even the most sensual of desires"

    "…desire is our vitality, an essential component of our human experience, that which gives us our individuality and at the same time keeps prodding us out of ourselves. Desire is a longing for completion in the face of the vast unpredictability of our predicament. It is 'the natural', and if it is chased away [rather than honestly faced and worked with] it returns with a vengeance"

    "…Christianity didn't kill eros, it just made it vicious. From the Puritanism of American culture to the Eastern view that the seeds of suffering lie in the endless pursuit of passion, much of the world is deeply conflicted about a trait that virtually all people share"

    To last quote, I think I'd add Calvinism (or at least certain versions of it).

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks so much, Theresa. I agree with you that we don't quite know what to do with desire in the Christian world. We try to divide it into good desire/bad desire, but it's hard to get a neat division. How would you put together Eastern views of desire with Augustine's idea that we are desiring creatures by nature and need to train that desire on God? I'd love to hear your ponderings on that. I think Mad Men is exploring the bottomless nature of what we might call "worldly" desire. Did you see Don's pitch to the Dow execs? OMG, he's got his fire in the belly back, but it was all about "you'll never be happy enough, and you shouldn't be." Wow.

  • @Theresa: I don't think the Buddhists have anything on Christianity in this regard. (Isn't the goal of Buddhist Enlightenment to overcome desire?)

    But regarding this nugget: "There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit in even the most sensual of desires" That's pretty much the 'argument' of Evelyn Waugh's (Catholic) Brideshead Revisited, right? And Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. And almost everything Graham Greene ever wrote.

    As for Calvinism and desire, well (ahem), this Calvinist wrote a book called DESIRING the Kingdom. In it I argue that for Augustine, eros is not opposed to agape; rather, agape is rightly ordered eros. And I'm not even sure the canard about Puritanism holds: just witness the importance of desire to neoPuritans like John Piper.

    It seems to me your worries about Christianity and desire are more akin to Nygren's (Lutheran) dichotomies.

    FWIW, from "Judas."

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Hi, Jamie! Well, I'm with you and Augustine on the desire question, but I'm still curious how to receive Eastern wisdom. As you say, isn't the point of enlightenment to transcend desire? There's got to be something to that since something like it is part of the mystical strain of all the great religions. That's something I always wanted to ask you about Desiring the Kingdom. As for Mad Men, though, it seems to me that the characters keep hitting the… what shall we call it? The transcendence ceiling? They never break through to anything beyond the sensual, the material. Maybe that's why Roger is now loving the LSD thing, and why Harry kinda got into the Hare Krishna thing–for a minute or two. My guess is that they'll spin right back into the futile desire cycle. Maybe we need to reconsider the Spock-Kirk dichotomy from the old Star Trek. Hmmm…

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