(Please note: “Mad Men” spoilers ahead. Trigger warning: rape.)
“Mad Men” is one of my favorite television shows. The writing is what some may call slow-paced, but it’s great at showcasing individual character development.
Sadly, a lot of this characterization and development is overlooked by casual viewers. I hear so many people cast out the women in the show, putting them down as if we, as viewers, are in the 1960s just like the characters. It makes me disheartened that in 2014 we are still demeaning how a woman acts based on their gender — yet when a man acts similarly many of the fans are completely into it. (See: how viewers react when Peggy acts callous as opposed to when Don acts callous.)
I feel like every main female character in Mad Men should be defended, from Peggy Olson to Betty Draper-Francis. However, I will be defending my hands-down favorite television woman: Joan Holloway.
Joan Holloway: The Good
Peggy is very forward thinking for a woman in the 1960s; Betty is shown as being old-fashioned; and Joan fits comfortably between the two mindsets. Joan knows where women fit in men’s minds; she’s comfortable with slowly gaining ground. She knows how to use her feminine wiles to her favor.
Joan is protective of her job, the company she works for, and her personal life. If she feels someone is getting the short end of the stick, she’ll let herself be available for them. She’s been supportive of Peggy several times. After she has a son, she does everything possible and available to her to ensure she gives him a good life, including becoming a partner at the company, something unheard of for a woman to have in the 1960s.
She holds others to high standards and, in doing so, pushes them to shine brighter. (Roger straightens up his act when around her.) Joan respects others and shows it with warm camaraderie. However, when someone soils the relationship, she’s not quick to forgive; you have to work to be in Joan’s inner circle. When Don ruins multiple client relationships, and falls into addiction, then comes back to work after a leave of absence, she’s not quick to welcome him back. She needs to know someone is worth her time.
Joan is valuable to others around her. She knows how to make herself available and ensure others view her as valuable. She knows the billing and inner workings of the office and, when Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce break away to form their own firm, she is the first one they call. The office is essentially inoperable without her.
Joan is extremely bold and lively. She has a fierceness that is intimidating to both men and women. She prefers a more sophisticated atmosphere but still likes to have fun.
Joan Holloway: The Bad
In truth, Joan is judgmental — she wants the women she employs to succeed, but she’s often times critical of them. She runs a tight ship and this sometimes results in the secretaries disliking her (which would happen with any boss figure, really).
Joan struggles between being ambitious by running most of the company’s daily business and wanting to be well-off and married. The old-fashioned ideals that are residual in her make it impossible for her to walk away and report her soon-to-be husband when he rapes her. Even 60 years after Mad Men is set, people who are sexually active tend to not report rapes because they fear no one will believe them; I believe this is also how Joan felt. Between that and wanting to be married, she decided to push it under the rug until it comes to a head and she decides she wants a divorce, finally bringing up the rape by saying, “You’ve never been a good man and you know what I am talking about.”
Joan is very obsessive about image. She’s critical of the secretaries’ work but also about their looks. She’s just as critical about herself and keeps herself put together as often as she can.
Joan Holloway: The Ugly
Joan had to sleep with someone to get her high-ranking position of being a partner in the company. People tend to think that was ugly and either mock her or argue that she shouldn’t have done it. Yet what the men in “Mad Men” need to do in order to land business deals is unsavory or humiliating. It’s not unreasonable to think sex would be used as a bargaining tool at this ad agency. However, Joan knows she is worth more than a few million in billings and leverages sex not just to get the account, but to gain a significant role within the company.
And I don’t think she was wrong for it. As I’ve outlined before she’s a valuable part of the office, she’s worked at the agency for over 12 years with most of the partners. She knows how to be a partner, likely better than some of the partners there. She knows the jobs for women are generally limited to secretaries and operators. She’s recently divorced and has a son to care for and whose future she needs to think about. Her counter offer is practically perfect. She secures her and her son’s futures and gets a promotion that no matter how well she served them, she would have never got otherwise. Men are often fine with using women’s bodies as they see fit, but when a woman uses her own body for the same suddenly there is an uprising about it.
Joan Holloway is a strong, realistic character, who deserves nothing but admiration and praise.
Photo credit AMC.