'Mad Men': Joan Holloway Harris, Leaning In


Finally, four hours into the storytelling of Mad Men‘s sixth season, we get to catch up with Joan and see how she’s faring since becoming the first female partner at SCDP. We soon learn that heavy hangs the head that’s used as a battering ram against the glass ceiling.

The way that Joan secured her partnership—by sleeping with slimy Herb, per his request, to land the Jaguar account for the agency—always threatened to undermine her otherwise impressive accomplishment of rising through the ranks from the typing pool to the executive boardroom.

It came to fruition this week (perhaps not for the first time) when Harry Crane, head of the television division of SCDP, was suddenly gripped with a wicked case of status anxiety when he was forced to face the fact that Joan has more power than he does and can fire his secretary without consulting him. (He’s probably sleeping with said secretary, right? “Did you find your keys?” seems like post-coital banter.) In a pretty humorous scene, he burst into the partners’ meeting, thinking that Joan was dishing on him to everyone, arrogant enough to think that he’s the topic of discussion behind closed doors.

But his little tantrum stopped being so funny when he brought up Joan’s encounter with Herb, “I’m sorry my accomplishments happened in broad daylight and I can’t be given the same rewards.”

The partners assured Joan that they are on her side, not Harry’s, but that’s partly because if she’s implicated as being a whore, then they are the pimps. They were all complicit in that whole scenario. Still, it’s in some small way a comfort that they have her back, even it’s for totally selfish reasons.

And sure, it can’t be denied that Joan was given that partnership in exchange for sex. But that’s not to say that she didn’t earn it. She worked at the company twice as long as Harry, and, for a time, worked side-by-side with him back at the old agency when they first started the television department. For Harry, it’s just sour grapes, because he thinks that she has something that he deserves. He would never even consider secretarial work or office management—jobs he’s likely never held and thus has no idea what they entail—to be of any worth. That’s why they’re women’s jobs after all! (And as the white ladies move up the corporate ladder, they’re becoming black women’s jobs.) He also would never consider, or even begin to understand, that despite Joan’s qualifications, dedication, loyalty, efficiency and competence, the only way that she could’ve become a partner in the company was by fucking her way into it. So Harry’s right about one thing: it’s not fair. But he doesn’t see that he’s had the advantage since the beginning.

Will the sordidness behind her rise in the company ensure that she’ll never be treated as the men’s equal? Maybe. But would she have ever been treated as such anyway? Probably not. (Remember how there were rumors that Peggy had fucked her way into her copywriting position? They’ll always come up with an excuse as to why you’re not worthy of what you’ve earned.) But honestly, the way that women are treated by men says so much more about the men, who are often blinded by their innate biases or their own dicks. It’s much more accurate to gauge a woman’s level of respect by how much she receives from other women. And we get to see that in regards to Joan through the eyes of two different women.

I loved her visit from her hometown friend Kate, a successful Mary Kay saleswoman who’s in NYC to meet with Avon in an attempt to further her career. It was nice to see that Joan actually has a lifelong close girlfriend, and that the writers didn’t turn it into some cliched competitive relationship fueled by jealousy, but one that was fun and supportive. In a smeary-mascaraed, hungover heart-to-heart Kate admitted that Joan is her inspiration. She wants what Joan has, and wants more for herself because Joan allowed her to think that was possible. All this time, Joan has thought that she’s done it all wrong, when really, she’s just done it differently.

Back at the office, Dawn is terrified that she’ll lose her job, and approaches Joan. Instead of firing her, Joan gives her a promotion of sorts, handing over the keys to the supply closet and the punch cards. It was kind of like passing the torch. After her talk with Kate, Joan realized that if she wants the men in her office to stop treating her like a secretary, then she should stop acting like one. She decides to sever the last of those ties to her old position, and lean in to her new one.

Before she walks out of her office, Dawn says to Joan, “I don’t care if everybody hates me here as long as you don’t.” Coupled with Kate’s comments, you really can see how important Joan is to other women in her life. And she’s beginning to see that, too.

Speaking of worth and transactional sex, I thought that having Sylvia use a penny as the secret code for Don was genius. It works on so many levels! It helps illustrate that Don is nothing but a cheap whore, the ultimate irony after trying to insinuate that Megan is a prostitute because she gets paid to perform love scenes on her soap. (Also, I think that Don, who’s been “acting” for most of his adult life, believes that if you’re good at pretending, then you’re a bad person. So he views Megan’s career as some kind of moral failure. Even more irony.)

Also the idiom: a bad penny always turns up, meaning that a worthless person always comes back to the place he started. For Don, who was raised in a brothel, that’s loveless sex. For his narrative in this show, dating back to the first episode, it’s infidelity (a theme of this season, as we see with the Heinz guys, and those seedy, secret meetings in Pete’s sex pad and a hotel room).

And that brings us to what a penny actually is: change, which I think is the overarching theme of this season, in that Don is trying to figure out if he’s capable of it. So far, it doesn’t seem likely, but the concept of free will and whether or not human behavior can be predicted has been debated since the beginning of time and probably won’t be totally resolved this season on Mad Men.

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