Mad Men’s Queen Bee: Celebrating The Power of Joan

The following is an excerpt from Celebrating Mad Men, available in paperback and for Kindle.

mad men joan 01When Mad Men debuted in 2007, no one other than Jon Hamm got more press than Christina Hendricks, the buxom redhead who plays the always-in-control office manager Joan Holloway (later Joan Harris). It wasn’t just her good looks and voluptuous figure that drew attention (though neither hurt), it was the strength of her character. Her self-assurance and confidence gave viewers the sense that Joan was always in control. In an office full of women withering under the demands of their often lecherous bosses, Joan was a remarkable breath of fresh air, the very embodiment of an intelligent woman who had embraced the power of her own sexuality.

Surprisingly, Hendricks, who originally read for the part of Peggy, had a hard time relating to Joan’s character at first. The last thing she expected was that audience would connect with the character in the way they did.

“I thought Joan was such a bitch, and I struggled sometimes trying to make her as real as possible because I thought, who would be so mean?” she told the Hollywood Reporter, finding it surprising that the audience saw Joan as an empowered woman rather than a catty, aggressive bitch.

That point of view shouldn’t be shocking. When we’re first introduced to Joan, she comes across as bordering on ruthless and mean. She is the queen bee at Sterling Cooper and she knows it. So do all the other women – and if they doubt it, Joan is quick to remind them.

But in truth, Joan is neither ruthless nor mean, nor is she particularly self-serving. She’s just a woman who figured out how to excel in the 1950s climate through which she rose. She knew what society expected of her, she knew the role set aside for her, and she was unafraid of embracing it. She put on a big, audacious display of womanhood and power because that’s the only way she could survive the meat-grinder of a place like Sterling Cooper.

The real Joan, however, was someone quite different. She didn’t desire wild times or power, she desired love and respect. She didn’t want to use her considerable talents to serve shallow letches, she wanted to share them with someone important to her. Joan is a talented musician, a fabulous cook, excels at managing people, knows numbers as well as any man in her office … yet despite her strutting around, what she really wants is a modest, happy life.

mad men joan 02The layers start to come off once we start checking in on Joan’s home life. At first we only see her office demeanor, and it’s understandably one that intimidates every other female in the office – and a good number of the men, too! As we begin to see her outside the office, however, we learn that Joan’s larger-than-life persona is nothing more than a showcase of her shrewd survival skills. She knows what it takes to remain the big gal on campus, and she’s unafraid of doing it. At home, though, she loves to entertain; she enjoys cooking; she is a talented musician; she is charming and welcoming, and all who come into contact with her inevitably adore her. When in a relationship, she is caring and attentive. One would almost call her doting were it not that that word implies subservience, because Joan’s attentiveness is not subservient in nature. She just enjoys making the people she loves happy. She may steamroll over everyone in the office, but what she wants more than anything is a life filled with love.

She’s also a woman who came up through corporate America in the 1950s, though – when the show opens, Joan had been with Sterling Cooper for about eight years already – and part of that journey meant understanding the power of her sexuality. In fact, it’s easy to argue that she embraced that power to a fault. “As powerful as Joan is, she also encourages the sexist culture that pervades the firm in the early days,” writes critic Esther Zuckerman. When Peggy first joins the firm, Joan harangues her about not wearing the right clothes, about putting on weight, about showing a little more leg. It’s part of the reason why Joan and Peggy initially have a rocky relationship; at this point, Joan doesn’t yet understand any other way to assert herself.

Indeed, Joan’s voluptuous figure and confident demeanor may have helped her get ahead, but they have also proven an obstacle in being understood by others. The only thing people see of her are her fiery red hair, her fiery red attitude, and her breasts. This is a woman who had hopes and dreams and goals, who was as desirous of respect and admiration as anyone else in her office, but no one can see past her bold exterior. She is absolutely essential to keeping the firm running, but too often people only see her appearance.

mad men joan 03Even those who know how important she is (Roger, Bert Cooper and others) at times take her for granted. When the initial Sterling Cooper team forms the new firm at the end of season three, for example, Joan is an essential part of making it happen. She was integral to the stealth transition – no one else understands how the office runs the way she does – and in the following season she is pressured to take on a tremendous workload in large part because the agency can barely operate without her. She has more responsibility than almost anyone else with the company, the owners rely on her to ensure the day-to-day business keeps moving forward, but she is not respected in the way the firm’s founders are despite the fact that in every respect except contractually she is one of the firm’s founders.

Not even her husband recognizes the fact that Joan is more than a pair of boobs in a form-fitting dress.

“You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life, you plan for it, to count on it, and then not get it,” Greg Harris (Sam Page) tells her after losing his bid to become a surgeon.

The thing is, Joan does know. Though he doesn’t realize it, Greg might as well be speaking about their marriage. Joan is a classic example of what is often seen as the perfect 1950s woman. Echoing the iconic and for some inspiring image of Marilyn Monroe, Joan is a curvy, eye-catching woman who can use her confidence and sexuality to snag a successful man, satisfy his every need, and live happily ever after. It may not seem a noble goal by today’s standards, but for a woman of Joan’s time – remember that Joan is almost ten years older than Peggy, who represents a new generation of women – it practically defined the notion of success.

Yet that happy, content marriage is denied to her, and in the cruelest of ways. She’s a successful woman at the office. She commands a fearful respect. She sleeps with the boss (Roger), but never lets it define her or gets consumed by it. Instead, she eventually snags herself the doctor every ‘50s woman dreamed of.

And he promptly rapes her.

mad men joan 04Greg’s act is one of cowardice and insecurity. As we learn later, he’s not the capable, skilled man we initially think he is. He doesn’t have the confidence someone in his field should have (he’s an aspiring surgeon). His wife, however, does. He sees how strong a person Joan is. He also sees how others look at her; he knows she is an object of power and desire. He is as intimidated by his own wife as the women in the office are, so in an effort to assert dominance over her, he violates her. In doing so, he weakens what had to date been her most powerful tool: her sexuality.

The result is that idyllic home life Joan had dreamed of becomes an empty shell devoid of love or comfort.

After having a domestic life taken from her, she switches focus to her career. When the new firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, is launched, Joan becomes Director of Agency Operations. In short, she ensures the trains run on time. It’s a lot of responsibility, especially for a woman in a marriage that is quietly falling apart thanks to an absentee husband and who later ends up raising a child accidentally conceived with her boss, Roger.

She manages to pull it off, though, despite the stress it puts her under. She has proven her value to the firm.

As the show wears on, in some ways Joan becomes something of a relic in the office, a representation of a time the world was leaving behind. A young freelancer, Joey, openly mocks the way she embraces her sexuality (and in turn displays a striking degree of hypocrisy from a generation that is finally beginning to celebrate female sexual freedom). Peggy fires him for it, but that only serves to make Joan look worse because now she’s someone in need of protection. That’s the last thing she needs. Despite her elevated position of importance, she continues to struggle with being seen as a glorified secretary tasked with keeping the other women in line and cleaning up after the men.

She has bigger things ahead, but they won’t come in the way she expects.

Joan’s big moment is, of course, the Jaguar moment. The Decision. The Choice. Everyone who has watched the show has an opinion about season 5’s “The Other Woman,” the pivotal episode in which Joan agrees to sleep with a sleazy Jaguar dealer in exchange for a partnership in the firm.

The episode marks a turning point for several of the show’s women – Megan makes clear to Don that pursuing an acting career is going to change her life, and Peggy accepts a job at another firm – but it is Joan’s choice that makes this one of the show’s most memorable events.

It all begins with a simple business meeting. Sterling, Cooper, et al has been positioning themselves to make a pitch to Jaguar. Securing their first automobile client would be a huge feather in this new and upcoming firm’s cap. Standing in the way is Herb Rennet, head of the Dealer’s Association and a member of Jaguar’s selection committee. His vote could make or break SCDP’s bid to become Jaguar’s advertising agency. Ken and Pete sit down to have dinner with him to figure out how they can make him happy. What he wants in exchange for his support, however, is a few steps over the line: he wants a night in bed with Joan.

mad men joan 05Kenny dismisses the idea entirely, but Pete, ever willing to use others for his own gain, goes to Joan and asks if she’d be willing to do it without actually coming right out and saying it. (Even when asking something as big as this, Peter Campbell is a coward.) Joan rejects the notion, but Pete takes the idea to the firm partners anyway. Astonishingly, all but Don agree that though it might be distasteful, if she would be willing to do it they would endorse the idea. Lane then goes to Joan and informs her that the partners talked money – $50,000, a generous sum for a single mother and equal to $350,000 in 2015 dollars – and advises her not to accept it. Instead, he says, ask for a 5% stake in the firm.

She thinks on it.

And she accepts the offer.

The decision seems shocking at first, especially given what a no-compromises person Joan tends to be. She slept with Roger, yes, but there was never any indication that that decision was about career-advancement. Joan’s in-office sexuality has always been suggestive, but there was never a sense that she used it for career advancement. Not, at least, in such a direct way.

This is not the same Joan we once knew, however. Or rather, her concerns are much larger than they once were. At one time she wanted a good husband and a happy home life. Now, she is struggling to raise a child on her own after ejecting a selfish husband from her life. “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,” Hendricks told The Hollywood Reporter (3).

Her decision has been the subject of endless commentary. Views are split, and likely always will be. This author was initially deeply disappointed in Joan’s choice. It was in no uncertain terms a form of prostitution, and Joan had become one of the show’s most dignified, noble characters, a woman of tremendous strength who managed to make herself an essential part of a machine that had historically been unfriendly to women. On the surface, it appears that the Joan we knew would never do this, but isn’t this the same woman who was willing to cast aside her husband because it would be better for her and her child? Isn’t this the same woman who repeatedly refuses financial help from the wealthy Roger Sterling simply because she knows it’s for the best?

Look closer and consider what she did, and it begins to look like a pragmatic decision after all. A difficult decision, morally murky and unsavory, but pragmatic all the same. “People who think this is out of character haven’t watched the show,” Weiner said, adding “I don’t think you’d judge her for a second if she were a guy.” (4) Joan understood what she was sacrificing. She understood that it might be a blow to her image. She had already suffered the trauma and indignity of being raped by her husband. This, at least, was her choice. And more importantly, it would be a choice that would secure a comfortable future for her child.

“All the men in this office have done sort of off-color things, and acted in ways that we’ve all hissed at throughout the entire series. She acted like one of the guys, to a certain extent. And she’s a single mother. When Lane comes in [with the $50,000 offer] and she says, “It’s four times as much as I make in the entire year”—are you kidding me? How moral are we all? How much can it help my family, and how much can it help my son? And once it’s done, it’s done; it never has to be spoken about again. But it’s a terrible price to pay.” – Christina Hendricks

mad men joan 06It was a risky move both for Joan and for the writers of the show. In the fictional world of Mad Men, there was (and remains) a very real danger of Joan’s partnership not being taken seriously. Harry Crane certainly doesn’t take it seriously, using it to take thinly-veiled jabs at her when his own partnership ambitions are repeatedly stymied. The other partners seem more understanding about what Joan sacrificed, but the shadow of that choice will always loom over all.

In typical Joan fashion, the only way to address that was to act. One way she did this was to give the last of her secretarial work to Dawn. “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.” (6) And it works. To our surprise, she is largely treated as an equal, even to the point where her objections to Don’s continued employment there are heeded by the other partners.

That huge moral decision was a risk for the show, too, threatening to upend the good will we have for a beloved character and make us see her in a way they never intended.

But when you’re as strong, smart and purposeful as Joan, it’s going to take more than an unfortunate-but-pragmatic choice for the audience to turn against her.

We love her too much for that.


For more about this amazing show, including examinations of each season, a look at characters like Don, Peggy, and Joan, and more, check out Celebrating Mad Men: Your Unofficial Guide to What Makes the Show and its Characters Tick, available in paperback and for Kindle.