Note: Today’s post on Mad Men absolutely contains spoilers. In order to set up the particular scene that will take focus, I had to contextualize other key developments in a character’s life at this point in the series. If you’re not there yet, perhaps you’ll get to it. Keep this post in mind when you do.
Two musical moments for women in as many weeks? Oh, Mad Men. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Last week, I wrote about a scene involving Peggy Olson. Today, I will consider a key scene for office manager Joan Holloway (note: as she married Dr. Greg Harris, she’s now Joan Harris; however, I will refer to her as “Holloway”). And both involve music! Delightful.
Last Sunday, at her husband’s urging, Holloway broke out an accordian and sang “C’est Magnifique” from Cole Porter’s Can-Can to entertain guests for a dinner party they were holding at home. This scene is in sharp juxtaposition with Holloway’s current situation which, as with everything in Mad Men, is hardly magnificent.
That this scene happens at a dinner party is crucial. Older than Olson by a few years, Holloway is in her early 30s and potentially informed by what Noel Murray might call hostess feminism, where wives define themselves as masters of the art of entertaining — cooking, entertainment, hospitality, charming conversation – in order to impress the work associates of their professional, commanding husbands. If we recall from season two, Holloway is transfixed by Jacqueline Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House. Her preoccupation with being the great and immaculately turned-out woman behind the great man may also speak to her status as the office sex symbol and why she seems the most shaken when Marilyn Monroe dies.
Hostess feminism seems the most applicable term for Holloway in last week’s episode, wherein she holds a dinner party for her husband’s boss. In our current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism), some may argue that playing hostess has been reclaimed as progressive, being fluent in Emily Post as a formidable skill-set, and women throw homefront soirées because they want to, not because society has ordained that they be relegated to the domestic. I get this logic, but don’t think it’s that simple here.
Of course, women opting out of the workforce to be wives and mothers is not inherently bad. Feminism is about choice (though, it must also be noted, opting out of the workforce is also about means). Mothers are key players in our society, in that they keep the species alive and, if they do a good job, contribute kind, well-adjusted, and productive people.
It just seems that being a wife and mother wouldn’t be fulfilling to a professional woman like Holloway. Even when conforming to traditional office gender politics, it’s always under the guise of professional decorum (witness how she handles the humiliating run-in with nemesis Jane, Don Draper’s twentysomething former assistant and the new Mrs. Roger Sterling, who Holloway counts as an ex). She clearly possesses more institutional knowledge of Sterling Cooper than almost anyone. We even got an all-too-brief sense for Joan’s knack for television advertising in a season two episode, a knack the boys unfortunately overlooked. They couldn’t get past the cheesecake to see the burgeoning mad woman.
So, Joan’s decision to throw all of her interests into the domestic – strongly implied by her “maturing” age and that may be running out of time – is a little disconcerting, as she herself seems to realize. It doesn’t seem like she wants this life so much as she’s internalized that this is what’s she’s supposed to want. It’s what’s expected — and if you ever need a dark mirror image of how unfulfilling these roles can be to the women who occupy but don’t connect with them, look no further than Mrs. Mommy’s Time Out herself, Betty Draper.
An additional layer to Joan’s domestic unrest is with whom she’s chosen to make her life. Her husband, a doctor at St. Luke’s, has proven himself to be far from the great man any woman can stand behind. Last season, we witnessed him raping his intended in Don Draper’s office — an act of violence he probably dismisses as kinky rough play. In this ugly moment, we see Joan’s eye glaze over the legs of a chair as she’s ground further and further into the floor. It doesn’t get much lower on the corporate rung for this office manager than this. In addition to his brutish behavior, he may have scarce professional resources, as indicated by a botched operation he kept from his wife mentioned in passing by one of his colleagues that may result in him getting passed over her residency. In short, this horrible guy she committed her life to might be more of an albatross than she anticipated.
Which brings us to her impromptu performance of “C’est Magnifique.” Though coming from a musical written by an American, after having read Kelley Conway’s piece on the chanteuse réaliste and Phil Powrie’s piece on the role the accordian has played in French cinema in cultivating a national identity, it’s hard for me not to look for links between Holloway’s and Fréhel’s sexualized, economically marginal position. The big difference, however, is in delivery. Where Fréhel celebrates being raunchy, Holloway’s performance is professional, efficient, and unflappable.
It’s also what might be called pointedly empty. Part of this can be attributed to Holloway’s disembodied vocal performance. While it sounds like the voice pushing through actress Christina Hendricks’s mouth is her own, she is also clearly dubbed, her vocal take recorded in some unseen studio some time ago. Thus, there’s a clear break between singer and actor, even if the speaking voice and singing voice seem to match up.
This disembodiedness has an edge to it. Holloway recognizes the cruel irony of the seemingly lovely-dovey lyrics. She may also see a bit of herself in La Môme Pistache, Can-Can‘s protagonist. Both women now just how tragic love can be when it turns out to be a lie. My hope is that the character who is working through these issues on AMC this season is proactive in trying to find a viable solution. I’d hate for her to become as hollow as her maiden name implies.