(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.