I’m going to fault the script of this episode for being too on the nose; Joyce walks in at the end and explains it all for us, in case we hadn’t noticed. In case the title of the episode hadn’t clued us in. In case the final shot of three dissatisfied, confused women hadn’t painted a picture.
Yet, Joyce’s little “soup” monologue (transcript to follow eventually), on the nose though it was, was a fabulous piece of thinking, and it’s actually a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately. How we, as women, shape ourselves to the man we’re with, to the men we love, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it, or if we do, we don’t think there’s a problem, or if we don’t do it, we notice that we don’t.
I’m single, and I see this often, within myself, how I’m different when I’m alone, how the presence of a man shifts my focus and I begin to alter myself; everything from what I wear to my sleep cycle. In recent years I’ve made a conscious effort to look at what I want, and yet still I see that there’s an awful lot of attracting a man and then adapting to him, rather than deciding if that’s a desirable adaptation. Wasn’t that the point of the focus group in The Rejected? Those women want to find and keep a man; “a” man, not necessarily a worthwhile one. They want to be pots to male soup.
When I interviewed Matt about Season 2, he talked about Maidenform and “the gaze:”
There’s this thing, it’s called “the gaze” in feminist literature. It’s about the way that men look at women, mostly, and it’s about this process of assigning all these qualities to someone based on looking at them, and then all the information you get just sort of tears away at that, and just sort of erodes the fantasy. I don’t know what the gaze is about, but that’s what it was about to me.
In fact, the “gaze” of feminist theory isn’t about fantasy at all, and that’s fine; a writer gets inspired by an idea, twists it his own way, and goes someplace new. But maybe the idea inspired some further study, because The Beautiful Girls is very much about the gaze and its implication.
Without turning this into a women’s study course (which I am not qualified to teach!) suffice it to say that the gaze, or “the male gaze” has to do with who is looking, and who is being looked at. When a woman’s role is to be gazed at, to be beautiful, she is merely object, never subject. She’s not soup, she’s just the pot. She’s not there to have agency, to be the lead actor in her own story, she’s there to be gazed at by a male who is, of course, a lead player in his own life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a modern manifestation of the male gaze, so don’t imagine it’s a quaint mid-century notion.
So, the gaze as theory starts out visual, with pictures and films, and we can look at lots of examples, but you can extend the ideas further, into subject and object, into actor and acted-upon, into soup and pot. The title of the episode suggests this right away, The Beautiful Girls, defined by how they look, not who they are (and of course girls, not women, because being objectified is infantalizing).
The clearest example of the objectification of a woman in this episode is the one who becomes an actual object; Ida Blankenship. She is explicitly a thing—a body—but it turns out she was so much “pot” that even Roger and Bert, who’d known her for decades, had no idea how to describe her. It took another objectified woman to come up with the answer, and it was still a description dependent upon (male) others; “loyal” is not a quality in isolation, after all.
But virtually every woman here is another object, another example of pot versus soup.
Faye protests too much when she says she doesn’t feel she’s a failure. She’s so aware of Don’s gaze that she’s responding to things he didn’t say; his genuine emergency, his genuine floundering, is interpreted by her as a demand that she be mother material (and no one has ever been as comically bad with kids as “Hi, I’m Faye!” Miller). Last week we learned she doesn’t cook; she’s angry about male attempts to mold her into a “normal” woman, and maybe she’s taking a preemptive strike at Don.
But Don is the counterpart to all this; he’s the soup and he’s utterly helpless without some woman to contain and shape him. Manage his own daughter? OH NO! He cannot tolerate five minutes without a secretary, even under the direst of circumstances; someone female must fill in, and even though Faye has no qualifications, even though her profession removes her from secretaries and her relationship removes her from mothering, she is female, she’s a “Beautiful Girl,” so she’ll have to do.
Peggy is being acted upon by Abe, who wants to turn her into the object of his political theories, just as Mark wanted to turn her into the object of his idea of the good girlfriend; the virgin and the obedient daughter.
Joan’s response is perhaps the most complicated, she’s an expert in being the object of male gaze; it’s been her career, her lifestyle, and her greatest talent. Her super-competence is based on knowing what others need and how to fulfill it, she’s the ultimate pot for any soup.
We learn in this episode that Roger’s overtures have become more frequent and more obvious, yet he doesn’t know what’s going on in Joan’s life until another secretary, another “object,” tells him. Roger clearly objectifies her; he wants her to the exclusion of paying attention to her. But it’s not so simple; he does pay attention to her, or wants to; the massage is actually incredibly thoughtful and attentive. It required him thinking for himself (she’s teased him about that in the past), making the arrangements himself (I doubt this was something he’d let Caroline in on) and knowing what would really make her feel good.
Watching Peggy and Joan live with the experience of being “the pot” and reacting to it is a continuation of their confrontation in the elevator last week. Joan wants a subtle, feminine response that is effective yet stays within the system, while Peggy wants to use her real voice and say what’s wrong and not stand for it. (And by the way, Abe’s mockery of “civil rights for women” is historically accurate.) Yet Peggy, for all her strength, isn’t sure if she’s angry or lovesick; most people can’t just throw away the gender rules, Peggy really isn’t sure.
Sally just isn’t having it. She’s the upcoming Woodstock Generation, and more, she’s second wave feminism with jet fuel. She wants to make her own choices for her own reasons and she wants to understand what other people’s reasons are. Her own subjectivity matters to her; she refuses to be just an object to her parents.
The younger you get in this episode, the less interested you are in being subjected to the male gaze. Ida was utterly in its thrall, Joan is largely controlled by it, Faye objects but too loudly, Peggy fights back, and Sally runs away, screams No! and physically fights (but to fight is to fall). The season’s theme of changing generations persists.