One of the advantages of setting a show in an advertising firm is that the writers can talk about societal symbols directly. According to Paul, every woman fits one of two archetypes: the wife or the mistress. Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe are not only two of the biggest female icons of the post-war era, they’re also historic figures. And, whether they knew it at the time or not, there was only one degree of separation between them in the person of another icon, JFK. (But let’s not get smutty.)
In Paul’s assessment, there’s only one thought in women’s head: How do you want to get your man? With promises of the hearth or with a detour through the bedroom? Jackie and Marilyn’s motivations, characters, their entire lives even, are seen from this one perspective. Peggy is the only one who chafes at the restriction of having only two role models, neither one of whom fits her career aspirations.
Whatever happened to another iconic Monroe, Rose Will Monroe, aka Rosie the Riveter?
During WWII, women joined the workforce en masse in order to pick up the slack from the men shipped overseas. Once in factories and offices they often found that they liked the work, the money, and the sense of accomplishment, not to mention the fulfillment of being part of the war effort.
But the truth is that women had joined and succeeded in the workforce as far back as the 30s and Hollywood depicted them in movies such as Pat and Mike and Woman of the Year. In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant has to persuade Rosalind Russell to give up the wrong-headed notion of being a housewife and return to her rightful calling as a reporter. (And, interestingly, a lot of the outfits Hepburn and Russell wore in these movies are the perfect amalgam between fashion and power).
At the end of the war, though, as the soldiers returned, women were pushed back to their traditional roles as housewives and mothers. And as caretakers of traumatized war veterans.
In the postwar economic boom of the 1950s, the one dark secret that was never really addressed was the psychic cost of war on men’s souls. The men came back haunted by the horrors they had witnessed. Thus the swing back to the more conservative ideas of womanhood. When you’re afraid and unsure, you want a safe haven. Whether it’s the bed or the kitchen, it doesn’t matter, just as long as you have a home to retreat to. Remember “nesting” after September 11? New Yorkers were baking pies and stews and hunkering down with friends or loved ones. And sure enough, a baby boomlet followed a year later.
Season 2 opens in February 1962, some six months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this context, Paul’s campaign might also be asking: “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn? Which way will you soothe me and make me forget the dangers at large?”
The MM men reflect the need to hold on to these retro images of women, not just out of their own fear of emasculation but precisely because they feel their own vulnerability. In this way, Betty’s insistence on being the perfect housewife seems almost heroic — even as it is doomed to failure. You can see her refusal to pry into Don’s past, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of respect for what he went through during the war. Would it be too much of a stretch to call Don a sex-addict? He certainly acts like one and not just because of his promiscuity. Like a good addict, when confronted with the truth, he places the blame on the person he hurt. He evades the guilt by trying to make Betty question herself. Don is looking for comfort from both a wife and a mistress. No woman is enough to quench his hunger for solace. And the women, too, yearn for these comforts whether by channeling mother or by leaning on a man.
Peggy is the only one with enough foresight to forge a different path.
In August, Marilyn, the most famous sex symbol of all time, will die an early death. In the fall of the following year, Jackie will lose her husband in a particularly cruel way. Beauty and sex appeal non-withstanding, each one made terrible compromises in love and neither enjoyed the comfort of a long-lasting and genuine relationship with the man she loved.