With Mad Men returning for a third season on Sunday night, former assistant Emma Pearse reflects on how the swankiest show on television taught her that fetching coffee and making her boss look good is all part of being a femme fatale.
The day I spent $100 on a shirt dress made from simple, white cotton was the day I knew that my obsession with the women of Mad Men had gone too far.
The next day, I showered, exfoliated, applied rouge, and, standing in front of the mirror in my bra and camisole as if I was Mad Men’s Peggy Olson on her first day as a prized copywriter, pinned my frizzy locks. Then I slipped into my dress, strapped on a pair of summer flats (not very Mad Men), and went my usual 45-minute route from Brooklyn to my midtown office.
It’s twisted, but watching the heckled, thwarted women of Mad Men made me want to be a better assistant, and not (only) because I wanted to dress like them. I wanted to be them.
It’s twisted, but watching the heckled, thwarted women of Mad Men made me want to be a better assistant, and not (only) because I wanted to dress like them. I wanted to be them. On the surface at least—and surface was powerful in those days—these women (even the secretaries) are femme fatales.
The Mad Men women embodied the best of sixties womanhood but were also setting the groundwork for third wave feminism: They could smoke and drink without tarnishing their lipstick; they (at least, Joan) could bed a handsome man without losing face; they could look a man they reviled in the eye and let not an inch of it ooze out. Poise and control was a woman’s prerogative then, and as Bobbie Barrett pointed out to Peggy early in season two: “Be a woman; it’s a powerful business if it’s done right.”
To be clear, I was a terrible assistant, so really the only way to go was up. When I was hired as the assistant to the editor in chief of a weekly magazine, both he and I knew that I took the job with one goal in mind: The end of my assistantship. It’s not that there weren’t parts of me pumped for the chance to work for a celebrated and preposterously talented man. And however perverse it is, I’d always carried a secret fantasy of spending my days as a preened, proper and preposterously competent secretary, a dream that was so nicely and (appropriately) controversially realized by the 2002 movie Secretary, in which Maggie Gyllenhaal dresses in darling vintage and performs her menial tasks with fetishistic ritual.
But in the end, I didn’t have the stomach for what I felt was basic submission. Some days, it took all my might to smile and say, “Of course,” rather than scowl and quietly curse when my boss–or, for that matter, any of my male superiors—asked me for anything, from a meeting time with the boss man to photocopies of semi-confidential documents. I couldn’t much see the necessity of asking me to do certain tasks so much as I had a pinching sense that they were asking me to do things simply because they could. One could call it a persecution complex. Or call me a spoiled brat. But try as I might, I couldn’t breathe away the feeling that with every warm photocopy came proof that I was not where I wanted to be. And I didn’t stop there: Every cup of coffee, every lunch reservation, was proof to me that women and gender politics were not where they should be.
Watching Peggy and Joan was a reality check—and a needed injection of “can do” enthusiasm. On the one hand, these characters made me grateful that I was not surrounded by men who considered the world “one big bra strap just waiting for you to snap it open,” as Draper described Pete Campbell’s outlook. But also, the Mad women’s attitudes inspired me to face my reality and do my best—just as women and men have been doing their best with their realities for centuries. It was Joan’s brassy resolve, Peggy’s eagerness, Betty’s frosty competence.
Even if they were relegated to the kitchen and the typewriter, the women in Mad Men owned their place. There is a scene in which Don takes Betty to a hotel for Valentine’s Day and, after failing to perform, calls for room service and bungles the ordering job, Betty takes the phone and sucks on her cigarette. She says: “Do you have anything special? How about this, I’ll take the half avocado with crab meat salad and a rare petit filet. Two place settings.” This woman has class and knows what any moment calls for.
So, instead of bemoaning tasks like acquiring a new iPhone for my boss with barely a day to do it, I started relishing the Devil Wears Prada theatricality of it all, wielding my boss’s name like it was an American Express card. I reorganized paper files, refilled staples and pens and straightened out the magazine piles. I pulled my shoulders back and flounced around the office ushering editors to and from meetings—taking breathless pride in running the place, as my boss desired, like a train station. And I forked over too much money for a polka dot shirt dress that was met with admiration from my coworkers. One editor went so far as to say, “It’s like a whole new Emma Pearse.” (A flattering yet worrisome comment: What did that suggest about the old Emma?)
Ultimately, I didn’t have the stomach for what I felt was basic submission. One could call it a persecution complex. Or call me a spoiled brat.
But herein—so according to one rose-colored surmise from Mad Men—lies the problem with my fantasy—it was just a fantasy. In 2009, the salad days of gimlet lunches are over, and it’s horrendously inappropriate to ask a woman to pick up the dry cleaning, let alone guard the door when there’s a female visitor. All of the scandalous tasks that might actually make such subordinate positions fun—or, at least, juicy—have disappeared.
“Don't overdo it with the perfume, keep a fifth of something in your desk, and a girl like you, with those darling little ankles, I’d find a way to make them sing,” was the advice the busty Joan gave to the dowdy Peggy in the show’s premiere episode. What I would have given for the chance to oblige my boss on harried closing days with the fifth of rye I kept in my desk drawer! Recognizing how far my life really was from Joan’s burst my Mad Men bubble.
What I didn’t understand, though, was that I didn’t need liquor to bond with my boss; I needed to be good at the secretarial tasks that, performed with efficiency and aplomb, actually helped him to do his job. What I should have learned from Mad Men is that if I could really be this man’s right-hand woman, I stood to gain his respect. “She’s in charge,” as Draper fondly says of his sneaky new assistant, Jane Siegel.
With the advent of Mad Men I began to suspect that in belittling the photocopying and the scheduling perhaps it was me undermining these women, even more than the men who actually recognized the difference between doing this job and doing it well. In fact, my predecessor was a highly regarded member of the editorial staff precisely because she was so good at her job; just as Joan fashioned her sexual prowess into a marketable weapon, my colleague made an art out of assisting and was promoted to a managing position based on it.
It was ultimately this desire to be good at being an assistant that I needed to muster. In the bumpy search for Peggy’s replacement, Draper asserted his prerequisite: “I want someone who is happy to be there.” I needed to stop thinking about where I wanted to be, and start being where I was. Joan and Peggy helped me with that too, even if on the most superficial of levels—I had to do a little role playing. As said Bobbie Barrett: “Find a job and become the person who does that.” If it took weekly manicures and neck ties, phony smiles and peppy “sure things,” so be it. I even started smoking a little—just enough for it to count, hopefully not enough for it to hurt.
But then the show went on. And as season one turned over into season two, it became harder to maintain my lust and my awe for the Mad women. As the women got bolder, the times—or at least the men trying to outdo the times—got crueler. It was a harsh sting when Roger Sterling thwarted Joan’s chance for advancement, hiring a new guy for the role of TV script reader so that Joan could quit being distracted from her “real duties.” And when Peggy’s sister revealed Peggy’s secret child to the local priest, I started counting the episodes before her budding career went the way of the typewriter. It’s a development I hope does not unfold in Season Three: How willing is show creator Matthew Weiner to break our hearts?
If it took weekly manicures and neckties, phony smiles and peppy “sure things,” so be it. I even started smoking a little—just enough for it to count, hopefully not enough for it to hurt.
As the sixties edged forward in the show, forcing our red-blooded characters into a double-edged limbo, my resolve to be content gave way to the second nature I was fighting against, telling me that it was an insidious act of reverse feminism to salute my boss with a draping arm and a coffee at the beginning of every work day. After all, while I relished watching Joan and Peggy perform their decorous rituals, rarely did such pleasure go uninterrupted by record-scratching misogynistic moments as when Freddy Rumsen equated Peggy’s advertising brainstorm with “watching a dog play the piano.”
My life—from my feminist father who abhorred Barbie to my adolescence discovering Bikini Kill and Gloria Steinem—has been one long lesson in how to avoid the fate of women like Betty and Joan. But sometimes I wonder whether my feminism has become so second nature that I’m blind to when it’s getting in the way. Sexism was Peggy, Joan and Betty’s cross to bear; mine is when to distinguish between gender inequality and reality.
There is no way I could have held my tongue the way Joan did when she was introduced to the clueless young man they’d hired to do the TV job she’d done so well. My old boss, who after almost three years promoted me, would back me up on that. On the scale of Peggy to Joan via Betty, I was none of them. And I couldn’t, as Don could, adopt a persona and become it. I was—am—more of a Lois, the girl who was hired and fired after being reprimanded constantly for things like crying in the break room. Draper told Lois that she was not made for a secretarial job. Neither was I. And it was cold comfort that I got from the firing scene in which Draper concludes in a boldfaced lie: “It’s not an insult. It’s just the way it is.”
Emma Pearse is a contributing writer at New York magazine.