Oh, don’t we all love Mad Men? I certainly do. Since 2007 it has been serving up some wonderful female characters, who show how the US evolved to respect and value women in the workplace. The very obvious example in here is Peggy Olson, who was promoted to copywriter in the first season after proving her wittiness to Don Draper. She certainly shows how women learned to survive in male dominated fields, but often at the expense of other women (no hate on Pegs, but this is true). I, personally, am fascinated by the arc we see Joan Holloway (Harris? Nah) undergo in the 7. She starts off as a secretary, and then shows the men in her workplace, and her life, how indispensable she is, though she rarely attempts to run with the “boys club”. Joan gives value to women-centric jobs that were then (and even now) looked down upon.
Dear readers, think back to the very first episode of Mad Men. What happened? Peggy is embarking on her first day at Sterling Cooper, and Joan is showing her the ropes. As Joan guides Peggy through the office, she says:
“This is the Executive floor. It should be organized but it’s not, so you’ll find Account Executives and Creative Executives, all mixed together. Please don’t ask me the difference!”
Joan at this point has been a secretary for quite a while, and is essentially the office manager. She hasn’t yet taken advantage of her intellect, though she is still highly valued at the firm for her office skills. This may have also been her playing dumb, which was fairly common in the first few seasons. Back then, it worked for her to seem less intelligent than she was.
Now, fast forward to season 7, episode 1. Joan is meeting with a marketing professor, and he asks her if she knows the difference between commissions and fees, and his voice is dripping with doubt. Joan says, confidently,
“You’re going to need another pad.”
At this point, Joan probably knows the ins and outs of the agency better than any of the partners, and she isn’t afraid to claim her intelligence. Now, she can’t stand men who think she’s dumb. Way to go, Joanie.
Joan proves how indispensable she is early on. In
Brynna’s favorite episode the season 3 finale, Don, Roger, Lane, and Bert all decide to leave the agency, in order to start a new one. Over the weekend, they have to set up a place to work, poach clients, and take files. As they gather the workers they want to take with them from the agency, they begin to realize that they didn’t know where anything is, or how to get a new office up and running. Roger calls on Joan immediately, and as soon as she arrives, she knows exactly what needs to be done. Though she’s been treated like crap because she’s a secretary, these guys know that they couldn’t do it without her, and she’s more useful than a lot of them (I’m lookin’ at you, Harry Crane). Joan has said that she’s not a solution to Roger’s problems, but she knows the solution to most office problems that are thrown her way. She is essential.
In her personal life, Joan must grapple with creating a work life balance, especially as we enter into season 5. While Joan’s husband Greg is serving in Vietnam, she has a baby, and soon wants to go back to work. Her mother says that Greg won’t allow her to work, which Joan rightfully gets pissed about.
Her mom is probably right about his opinions, however, because Greg rarely listens to Joan and more often than not does things without her consent. During their engagement, he rapes her in the office. Her independence is something he wants to rob her of, and he constantly tries to assert his power. Later in their marriage, when Joan cuts her hand open, he refuses to take her to the hospital, even though she keeps asking him to. Instead, he stitches her up himself. He won’t listen to her, and signs up for Vietnam. Greg is the man who did everything without Joan’s consent, and we all hate him. After she has the baby, she is unwilling to put up with his shit anymore, and asks him to leave their home and to never come back. She takes back the power, and shows a very real aspect of abusive relationships: they are scary to end, and are often difficult to recognize. Joan leaves him though, and begins earning hella money on her own for her little baby, Kevin.
How does she end up earning this money? Well, let us enter into the conversation that fans of Mad Men hate delving into. During season 5, Joan is asked by one of the partners to sleep with an interested client, so Sterling Cooper Draper Price will land an account. She is offered money to do so, and is initially outraged by the proposition. The next day, she says she will do it, in exchange for a partnership. Now, this made probably all fans, including myself, super uncomfortable (I mean the guy was also disgusting so there’s that).
I recently began to wonder why this was such a huge deal. The men in the office will go into brothels with clients, while trying to woo them and land accounts. Heck, they are encouraged to do it, often by the client (see the episode Signal 30). Because Joan is a woman, her sexuality is something the men of the office seem to want to simultaneously protect and exploit, which is a reflection of women’s lack of sexual agency, then and now. As Joan once said, “there’s no money in virginity”, and by engaging in one time prostitution, she made a lot of money for her family to live comfortably. She was using what she had to get ahead, and traded in her lack of agency in order to obtain security, and a partnership.
Joan made it to partner without ever trying to break into a male dominated area of the office, and helped men see the value in women workers. She even promoted Dawn, a secretary, to office manager, because she wants more women to be seen with the same value. In her home and work life, she struggles with autonomy, but once she gains agency, Joan does phenomenally. I can’t wait to see what the final season has in store for her.