About Joan’s choice

(Lots of SPOILERS for season 5 of Mad Men in this post).

It has been a fascinating season for the character of Joan, hasn’t it?

This season Joan is a new mother and she’s very quickly also become a single mother with the failure of her marriage to a (rapist) doctor volunteering for his second tour of duty in the war. As a single mother newly returned to work Joan makes an interesting choice. She agrees to sleep with a potential client for the advertising agency in order to help win the client’s high-profile account for the firm and to be rewarded with a partnership for herself in the agency. In making this decision Joan secures hers and her infant son’s financial future – it is difficult to see the decision as anything other than brave. The show’s (anti) hero, Don Draper expresses his disgust, not so much at Joan, although it appears to me to be vaguely implied by the end of the storyline, but at the other male partners in the firm who have promoted or gone along with this sleazy arrangement. Don expresses the gentlemanly high moral ground here but if any of his disapproval is meant for Joan then is it such high moral ground? After all, as a talented, good-looking, white male he would never be confronted with this kind of dilemma.

There is no doubt that the arrangement is exploitative of Joan, although she has led a triumphant negotiation. Only one partner has had to literally sleep her way to a top position and it’s the only female partner in the firm. Though Joan is observed to be a high performing and stunningly intelligent office manager, on account of her gender (and even more so, her sexy image), it is clear she would never have been taken seriously enough to be offered ‘partner’ status legitimately.

The show also provides interesting questions about female sources of power in the workplace by juxtaposing Joan against Peggy, as two of the only three women in the office (the other being a boss’s wife, Megan Draper) who are managing to rise above secretary on the career ladder. How each of them have obtained and managed power differently in the workplace is ripe for discussion. But that discussion could easily be unfair to Joan.

This is an interesting article about Joan’s storyline, from here at The Hollywood Reporter.

In a series long driven by the exploits of Jon Hamm‘s Don Draper, Hendricks’ Joan suddenly has found herself Topic A among the TV-viewing intelligentsia (the AMC show has averaged 2.6 million viewers this season). In an era where great female roles are few and far between, a character that brims with sexuality (and just plain sex) is far from that of a bimbo. Instead, as a lightning rod for discussion about power, business, office politics, sacrifice and, frankly, every other complicated issue of the day, Joan is a Rorschach for our own deepest meditations on morality and ambition. “The question is, what would you do to protect your family? Joan is raising her son all on her own. She has no help from anybody. So is it noble? Is it slutty? I don’t know,” says Hendricks, 37, who admits she has felt compelled to justify Joan’s actions to the many friends and family who reached out after the show. Softer and gentler than the character she plays onscreen, she acknowledges she’s still deeply conflicted about her character’s decision.

The article argues that Joan has sacrificed control in the arrangement with that sleazy client and her employer, but I think it is something more nuanced than that. Much of Joan’s power has been derived from a perception of her being both incredibly desirable and largely unavailable – she was the person who educated Peggy in the beginning of the show on how to secure her future the traditional way; by sleeping with powerful men until she could marry a rich husband. Once Joan cashed her chips in she let go of this power forever. In this case it was for financial and professional security and so it was a considered investment, but that it was such a trade-off and that the options available to her were so nasty should be important for the audience.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, ethics & philosophy, fun & hobbies, gender & feminism, Life, parenting, Sociology

10 replies

  1. Literally just finished watching this episode. I was kind of struck by how the episode contrasted Joan’s sacrifice-for-personal-[financial but also kinda psychological]-empowerment with Peggy’s. And delighted in how unequivocally it treated Pete Campbell like an utter amoral douchebag.

  2. Mad Men is one of those shows I just decided that I didn’t have time to get sucked into – I already have too many series to watch!
    But this summary makes me regret that choice a bit – sounds like some fascinating layers in the storytelling.

  3. The way I “watch” Mad Men is to read commentary on it. I am fascinated by it and the story arcs but can only stand to view small portions of the actual show. I really don’t know why my anxiety gets unbearable when I try to watch, is it because I lived through much of this, though not in advertising? Is it because the situations seem too real and therefore too painful? I don’t know, but I listen to Amanda Marcotte’s The Orange Couch and I read commentaries and maybe one day I’ll actually watch the series.

  4. I love it but the latest series is on pay TV in NZ and I won’t sign up for a massive package just to watch one decent channel. Wait for the DVD shall I.

  5. In one respect, I do think Joan’s choice was easy in the end. She’s been such an important part of the firm (even getting it off the ground) and has never been remotely considered for partner even though she deserves it. And given the time period, even if somehow her colleagues had recognised her contribution and made her partner, there would still be rumours that she had slept her way to partnership.
    I think this is a really interesting part of the conundrum of being a woman in a patriarchy: there are so many constraints on her behaviour to “keep her reputation” but in reality she has no real control over her reputation, and once she realises that, her decision-making may change. (There are a lot of parallels with how rape culture attempts to control what women wear, where they go and when, etc.)

  6. Does anyone recall the incident in series 2 (I think) in which a gay male employee of the firm (Sal) is propositioned by a client, refuses his advances, and when Don finds out he basically tells him that he knows what a total slut Sal is so he should have put out, and sacks him?
    I’m finding this sensitive new age Don very frustrating this series. I know it’s not entirely inconsistent that he should get all chivalrous for Joan, as he does tend to treat the women he hasn’t bonked with more respect than those he has. I just don’t like the idea that the writers are seriously pursuing a path of redemption for him. He just doesn’t deserve it.

  7. Hedgepig, are you experiencing a similar sensation to Sady Doyle, who put her finger on it by quoting Peggy’s client: “Stop giving me what I ask for”?

  8. Hedgepig, are you experiencing the same sensation as Sady Doyle, who put her finger on it by quoting Peggy’s client: “Stop giving me what I ask for”?

  9. Yes! It only took a couple of episodes of this season to make me decide to consider it a high quality soap opera, rather than a drama series. I look forward to watching it more than I used to, because, like OlderThanDirt, I felt almost scared to watch it in the early series. I was mainly anxious for poor Betty, whom I sympathised with enormously.
    I think if Don doesn’t cheat on Megan by the end of this series I may have to decide it’s a not very good quality soap opera.

  10. Yes! Hedgepig, I’m so glad I’m not the only one who felt for Betty. So many places around the web are Betty hatefests. Betty is trying very hard to be the perfect housewife and mother per the instructions of the time. And the instructions don’t say much other than “everything should look like this!”, with very little how-to.

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