The Beautiful Girls: Not Maternal

 Posted by on November 30, 2010 at 7:40 am  Season 4
Nov 302010

One woman goes down an elevator, then three women go down a different elevator.

A reviewer pointed out that the only important woman in the series who is conspicuously absent from an episode about women is Trudy (even Jane and Carla are name-checked). Trudy, who is pregnant.

Joyce is a lesbian and is unlikely to have children (not in those days). Let’s look at the other elevator:

Joan, Peggy, Faye-Elevator


Joan has had two abortions, wants to get pregnant, but her husband isn’t available to her. Peggy has given up a child for adoption and has since then been very careful indeed about birth control. Faye spends the entire episode proving she has no maternal instinct whatsoever, and fiercely defends her choice.

Ironically, Joan is pregnant in this shot, as we will learn in the next episode. Ultimately, she’ll decide not to have a third abortion. By Tomorrowland, Joan will have chosen motherhood, and Don will have rejected the woman unable to mother his children. (Even without all the visual framing of Megan with the kids, Don fell in love with her while she was working, not as his secretary, but as his nanny.)

But at this moment, in The Beautiful Girls, a theme of the episode is “not a mother.” A complicated theme for women, even today.


  28 Responses to “The Beautiful Girls: Not Maternal”

  1. We are still being defined by whether or not we have children. *sigh*

  2. Of course women are still defined by their motherhood status. I’ve seen it myself in my own family, especially in regards to me. Almost no one in my extended family understands why I didn’t force myself to get pregnant or even try before I had a hysterectomy at 28.
    I am so glad MW is willing to go there with his show and express that women have other choices in life and should not be defined by their motherhood status. We all know that there are many people out there in the world who shouldn’t ever have children, but no one seems willing to discuss or admit it.
    Plus, the assumption that women are not whole until experiencing motherhood is horsecrap.
    Thanks for even bringing this up!

  3. Good insight — “Not a mother”!

    The open space at the end of that episode was that we were left to wonder — and feel — what each woman on the elevator might be thinking about as they kept their silence.

    What we saw was that each of these women could not reach for and comfort a child — their choices held them apart from that action.

    “Not a mother” — and what that means to each of them!

    Thank you for the post.

  4. I would really like to see Joan continue to work at SCDP after she has her baby. Except for Bobbie Barrett, we haven’t had the example of a professional working mother as a regular character. But, there were working mothers in the 60s, and it would be interesting to see how Joan and the office cope.

  5. I grew up in the 50s and 60s. My mother worked and all the women who worked with and for her were working mothers. To me, the women who stayed home were unusual. But we were lower middle class and you don’t see them on TV much, except in sitcoms or police dramas.

    I think a big problem with writing today, whether fiction or mainstream media, is that the writers are almost all middle or upper middle class with college educations. They write from their own perspective, not realizing how biased it is.

  6. LaVonne, you make a good point. Carla, after all, is a working mother.

  7. I would really like to see Joan continue to work at SCDP after she has her baby.

    Would it be period correct, though? Very few married women with provider husbands went back to work right after having a kid in those days. In fact, in the 1960s, women in corporate jobs were still routinely asked to leave jobs (or did so voluntarily) as soon as they showed.

    And until about maybe 15 or 20 years ago, women who went back to work right after the baby was born, if they didn’t “have to,” were considered monsters by a lot of people, even if (or maybe especially if!) they did have fulfilling careers they didn’t want to give up. That’s assuming Greg would even allow such a thing, and he doesn’t strike me as being especially progressive.

    Now, if the marriage breaks up (through whatever means), that’s another story. Then it’s more likely that she actually will have to work to support herself. But then who does she leave an infant with all day? We haven’t seen any of Joan’s family, so we don’t know whether she has a mother or a sister who would be willing to do this. And hiring full-time infant care would have been very expensive for a single mother then.

    This is why I’m thinking they must have some huge plot twist in mind, something really earth-shaking, like Greg divorcing Joan as soon as he smells Roger on her, and then Peggy breaking off and forming her own agency and hiring Joan away, and letting Joan bring her baby to work with her. Peggy is the kind of person who would do that. Roger Sterling? Don Draper? Eh, I dunno. I don’t know how eager Roger, especially, is going to be to accommodate her after she straight-up lied to him.

  8. Thanks, Deborah. Rethinking what I said a bit: it’s not that the writers are biased but that they have so little experience or firsthand knowledge of lives unlike their own.

    And isn’t that true for most of us? I’ve recently caught myself admiring how ‘real’ a tv show’s or movie’s portrayal of criminals is… but I have no IDEA what criminals are really like — only what I’ve seen onscreen, lol!

  9. That’s also the world they’re depicting on the show, though — corporate, white middle-class. Peggy can be said to have worked her way up from her working-class beginnings (her mom probably worked, too, especially considering Peggy was 12 when her father died), while Pete can be said to have worked his way down by pursuing the career he wanted. But that’s the milieu they all exist in now, other than peripheral characters like Carla. (And it’s not clear whether Carla went back to work right after she gave birth, either, or whether she took a few years off and then resumed working when the kids were in school. Probably that would depend on how much money her husband made at the time.)

    I think I might have said this before, but my grandmothers, who had their children in the 1940s, were a study in contrasts here. One worked (in a department store) after the kids were born (and for many years after that), the other didn’t. The one who didn’t had a breadwinner husband (i.e. someone who could support the entire family without a dime contributed by his wife), and the one who did had a husband whose work history was much more erratic.

    ETA: Both families could be said to have been working-class Brooklynites — i.e. they lived in smallish rented apartments, not houses that they owned — but the income pattern was very different.

  10. LaVonne, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” the Talmud. Respectfully,

  11. Right, which is why diversity in hiring is so very important. This show is so brill about women because it has so many women writers. If the writing staff was racially diverse, that, too, would be reflected in the writing.

  12. I don’t think the characters’ roles should be dictated by statistics. Most white middle class women stopped working when they became mothers. But not every one. Even some grads of Bryn Mawr managed to combine families & careers. Not to mention the women who “had to” work; but, of course, we’re not supposed to mention them. My own mother was widowed at 29 with 3 pre-schoolers. She returned to work once we were all in school, since the government’s unremarried widow benefits weren’t all that great.

    Betty has been the only white middle class mother we’ve seen up close. I really don’t consider her typical.

    (This morning I saw a bit of The Bitter Tea of General Yen on TCM, a 1933 Frank Capra film with Barbara Stanwyck flirting with a Chinese General played by a Swedish actor. Her character’s name? Megan!)

  13. A question was recently posed about where and what Peggy would be doing in 1975. I watched the Man Men pilot episode and thought what if this was Peggy’s story set in 1975 instead of Don in 1960. How would we react to her? Let’s say she did marry Abe. How would we react to Abe feeding the kids while she has a business dinner in Manhattan? How would we react to Peggy meeting some guy she met on the train into Grand Central for an afternoon liasion? How would we react to Peggy being in a cocktail lounge alone? 1975 is not that much different than 1960; it seems that viewers seem to accept Don’s affair and Roger and Joan meeting for their fling. I doubt that Peggy would receive that acceptance. Men and women are still viewed very differently.

  14. Not Bridget, sure, it was a lot more common for women to go back to work once the kids were in school, or at least old enough that they could be left with an older sibling or relative or neighbor, especially if they had careers they invested a lot of time in educationally, or if the family really needed her paycheck.

    But we’re talking about Joan resuming work pretty much the minute she’s physically recovered from the birth, juggling infant care and office job in a glamour profession, which was not at all common for married women in a high-profile corporate environment (in which they were not proprietors or partners) with breadwinner husbands in those days. That’s specifically Joan’s world. By the time she takes five or six years off before coming back to work, the series (in all likelihood) is over. Like I said, it would take a Peggy Olson to make that work for Joan, someone ahead of her time. (And I probably do mean her time.) Either that, or a raw divorce deal where she gets zippo.

  15. If the baby is born healthy, I wonder how they will get Joan back to SCDP soon. Even if mothers did work, infants are so different from older kids.

    If the firm really needs Joan (possible) I can see Don paying Carla (or another nanny) to help Joan out. Or perhaps he’d volunteer Megan’s childcare services if it’s short term?

    If Greg were injured or killed, I think lots of people in the office would be as helpful as they could be for awhile.

    Perhaps Joan has been estranged from her family and the baby brings about a reunion?

    Or maybe she’ll make peace with her former roommate?

    It just seems like the wrong style of office for Joan to bring the baby to work and so weird with Roger around.

    I am not sure Peggy would be “more open” to babies at work. She gave up her baby so that she could keep working. I am not sure she thinks children at work are appropriate.

    I do, however, think that Joan is going to stay a part of the show somehow. I hope that Joan does not miscarry. All of that drama, and then just one more sad thing. It would also avoid the whole working mom issue. I think the working mom situation should be addressed.

    MW will surprise us.

  16. […] recently wrote a great post  on “The Beautiful Girls.” Coincidentally, I had been watching that episode when I read her […]

  17. Granted, it was the late ’60’s rather than the middle ones, but my mother was a secretary who went back to work a few months after her oldest child was born. She had a regular babysitter for the days her mother couldn’t watch him. (My impression is that there were more SAHM’s doing unlicensed daycare in their homes at the time, so it was more affordable.) Then again, she was one of the working-class girls who needed the paycheck.

  18. My understanding is Carla (and her family) live somewhere in Westchester county (or maybe the upper Bronx). If she doesn’t get rehired by Henry Francis, I’m sure she’ll be able to find another housekeeper job in that area.
    Why would she spend even more time away from her own family coming into Manhattan to take care of Joan’s (whom she doesn’t even know) baby?

  19. CParis, I’m sure you are probably right, yet I’d still love it if it did somehow happen. 🙂

  20. (Even without all the visual framing of Megan with the kids, Don fell in love with her while she was working, not as his secretary, but as his nanny.)

    Ah, but he fell in lust with her when she was framed in his doorway at work, after she made sure he got the Beatles tickets. Which I guess has maternal undertones; the tickets were for his daughter. But Megan was for him.

  21. I am not sure Peggy would be “more open” to babies at work. She gave up her baby so that she could keep working. I am not sure she thinks children at work are appropriate.

    Peggy’s had a LOT of education in the last 5 years. NOW started in 1966, and their original statement of purpose dealt directly with providing more childcare options to women with kids who still wanted to retain paying jobs. Peggy’s the kind of person who’d read that and go, “Yeah, that makes sense!” Furthermore, she’ll probably be meeting lots of other women who feel the same way, in the circles she runs in.

  22. #18 CParis

    I agree it is more likely that Joan/Don would pay someone like Carla (another nanny) rather than actually get Carla to travel that far.

    However, we know Carla asked for a reference, and Betty wouldn’t give her one. I do not know how hard or easy it would be for Carla to get hired again without a reference from the Draper household. If she is going to claim she has experience as a nanny, potential employers will want to know where she worked. If she cannot provide a reference after all those years, it will look bad.

    I do not know how desperately Carla and her family need the money to get by. If Carla is hard-up for money, she may move her familiy closer or travel farther than she’d like to for work.

    If Carla contacted Don in a desperate plea for a reference right when Don knew that Joan couldn’t work for SCDP without childcare–it isn’t totally impossible Carla would help out, even if it isn’t the most likely scenario.

    #21 Meowser. I would like to think you are right. I like the general idea of NOW pushing for more childcare for women who want to keep their jobs. But Peggy has wounds she’s buried when it comes to children and working. I am not entirely sure if she’s fully dealt with these wounds. When I remember the way Peggy reacted toward Allison, I am not confident that Peggy would be the one to push for more childcare options. She could be a huge advocate for it, OR the whole subject could be very painful for Peggy in a way that makes it difficult for her to support. The scene with Allison is what makes me unsure.

  23. NOW may have begun pushing for more childcare options in 1966, but in 1986, when my son was born, bringing a child to work was not even on the radar in the Washington DC corporate world. I was an executive and had few options other than full-time child care. Staying home with a sick child was seriously frowned upon, “part-time” did not exist in the executive suite, and “telecommuting” was not even a word.

    Things have changed considerably in the last 20 years. New mothers now are often able to work at home a couple of days a week, and part-time is an option. [Much of this, of course has to do with technology as well as attitude changes.] Interestingly, I find that younger women believe they are entitled to these options (and I agree). Just as I had no concept of how different the situation would be in 20 years, many seem to have no concept of how it was then to “have it all.”.

  24. The scene with Allison is what makes me unsure.

    Peggy seemed pretty sympathetic to Allison’s plight until she realized that Allison assumed Peggy had slept with Don, and moreover, that this assumption was probably universal in (most of) the office, if Allison bought it. Peggy was probably too angry at that point to think straight; that’s a hot-button issue for her, being perceived as having gotten her position by dropping trou.

    Besides, there were (and are today) definitely strains of feminist thought that said crying over a man is for wimps, especially where you can be seen; it’s certainly possible to believe that, and also believe that women shouldn’t have to choose between baby and paycheck. “Men don’t do X; why should we have to?” is an argument I can see Peggy taking up.

  25. I think the only women who “stopped working” when they had children during the sixties were women wealthy enough to stay home. Working class, entrepreneur class women, middle class women, all of them worked right on up to and right on after having children, and some of those considered themselves lucky if they could arrange for another adult to help with child care while they went out to earn money. Remember, men still died young unexpectedly, leaving widowed moms and their children behind, even during the 60’s. Men also divorced their wives often during that time, too–again leaving women to care for their children single-handedly (and please don’t start with “child support”–that was not a given in the 60’s!) We forget that many of the “small” businesses started in North America typically belong (and belonged) to women who had to work full time while looking after their babies. It was still 100% legal to not hire a woman if she was married, or to fire a woman once she became married or pregnant. The only way many women could raise their children and earn a living was by taking them along while she earned her living. I saw many women in my family do this–open up importing businesses or shops where they could nurse or play with or keep an eye on their children all day while they worked–or at least until the children were old enough to go to school. It just wouldn’t have been possible for them to have an income any other way.

    I also think the 60’s saw no shortage of working single mothers, either. We were just never shown them on TV (not wealthy enough, and for heaven’s sake, not in keeping with the whole media marriage ideal of the provider husband/happy housewife homemaker mom that was ubiquitous in America media after the second world war). It’s so true that most of what we’re shown in TV and film involve characters with some elevated privilege–wealthy, upper middle class and educated enough to succeed in corporate worlds. If you look at TV from any other country (Britain comes to mind because we can compare in the same language) you’ll always see a greater diversity of characterization there. Ever seen Coronation Street? It’s officially 50 years old this week, the longest running show in the history of television. Technically it’s a soap opera–but try comparing it to any American Soap opera ever shown–daytime or night time. And you’ll see there is a vast difference in story lines, characterizations, diversity, archetypal story progression, etc. The differences between characters and situations depicted there vs. what’s depicted here are startling. Media everywhere idealizes to sell, but over there TV and film have always left some room for realism; over here, we’re always looking at a fairy tale version of the American Dream.

  26. We are talking specifically about the particular circumstances of Joan’s life, though. Which are:

    – She is an employee, not an entrepreneur.

    – She specifically works in a high-profile corporate profession, where it was routine for women to quit work (or be asked to leave) as soon as they became visibly pregnant.

    – Her husband makes enough money to be able to afford letting her stay home with the kid; even if he dies, she gets his pension. In fact, most women in that particular milieu typically quit their jobs as soon as their husbands made enough money for them to do so; Joan planned to do this under the assumption that Greg would be made chief resident, even without being pregnant yet. If Greg wasn’t 9000 miles away, and was making the kind of money he is now, even without the pregnancy he’d probably demand she leave the job, and she would probably acquiesce. It’s just that he had to go that far away to get it, because of the No Brains In His Fingers (or anywhere else) thing.

    – Joan wanted a baby badly enough that she was willing to poach Roger’s sperm and lie to everyone about it. Therefore, I’d have to imagine that the very last thing she’d want to do is leave that baby behind with a sitter and go back to work right away, unless she absolutely had to.

    Now, none of that means that Joan couldn’t go back to work eventually. Or that she couldn’t start her own business, or whatnot. But I can’t see her immediately returning to SCDP, assuming no miscarriage or stillbirth, or Greg dumping her and leaving her with nothing.

  27. She may not be an entrepreneur, but she does have a recognized, elevated status (just without the pay. That may change: She could simply demand it. She wouldn’t be the only woman doing so at the time, especially not in Advertising).

    If Greg comes back from Viet Nam in an especially suspicious mood, or an incredibly insecure one, then all the problems from the marriage will just be resurrected.
    No need for a baby storyline to do that, and since pregnancies are a 40 week duration (according to medical texts! 40 weeks = 10 months! 44 weeks = not at all unusual for a “late baby”–so Joan does have a lot of leeway there in terms of technicalities).
    Fact is, Greg was incapable of supporting Joan and himself before going to war: chances are good he won’t be any better at it once he gets home.

    So, concerning both Greg and Roger, she’s a far stronger and more self-reliant character than either man; what they think about the pregnancy in any shape or form will not have an effect on what Joan has decided to do. She has no need of either their opinion or their financial support, but she’s the type of character who will politely excise either man from her life if they stand in the way of what she wants.

    She does work in a very high profile corporation, with a big name. She made it that way, she ought to know that. She’s got a lot more pull there than the other “secretaries” around–in fact, maybe even more than Megan. Don’t think she doesn’t know it yet. And as for her not wanting to leave her baby with a sitter–she’s exactly the type who A) won’t have a choice about it, there’s no such thing as Maternity Leave in the US at this time (and not much of one now, either), and, B) She lives for her work, as she’s admitted to Peggy. She might have always wanted to have a baby and a family, but the truth is, she’s as much invested in her work as Don Draper is invested in his own.

    So, we’ll see.

  28. Ah, Joan, what will she do? Greg is making a captain’s pay, which might be about what Joan will make once the firm is back in the black?

    I don’t wish anything bad to happen to Greg, but I don’t see him coming home anytime soon in any case, other than for short visits. He has signed up and Uncle owns his ass, for quite a while.

    He just might become a brilliant surgeon over there. Remember M.A.S.H.? The book, not the movie or especially the TV show.

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