Joan’s plot arc on last night’s Mad Men read like she was climbing a ladder of misogyny, only to be knocked back down by someone boorish at every rung — each triumphant moment of confrontation undercut by the defeat that followed it.
Like ur-feminist novel heroine Jane Eyre, a woman who rebels against a male authority figure at each stage of the novel and her life, Joan butts heads with man after man throughout the episode, going up the McCann hierarchy. Each man — Dennis, then Ferg Donnelly, then Jim Hobart — symbolizes a unique variety of sexism that a working woman has to put up with. The first stage represents aggression, the second is oozing, creepy condescension — and the third, perhaps the worst of all, is utter contempt. Whereas she once primarily fended off come-ons, at this point Joan faces multiple kinds of misogyny because of her changed position: she’s older and more accomplished, she’s still beautiful, and she’s no longer interested in charming her way out of awkward situations. In other words, she’s not having it.
My Twitter feed was divided between people (mostly male) who found Joan’s plotline unrealistic, and women who felt it was all too realistic. The latter group witnessed a still undeniable truth about workplaces in the episode, marking Joan’s very feminist struggle as our own.
Today, of course, women may experience a subtle sense of undermining or a paranoid fear of being condescended to, rather than the overt rudeness Joan endures, but viewers who believed her plot arc did so because the problem still exists.
It’s worth noting Joan’s invoking of feminism and anti-discrimination laws caused a minor explosion. The ACLU agreed with Joan’s assessment of her hostile environment.
Certainly, it’s hard to argue with those critics who think that over the course of seven seasons, Joan has come in for more than her share of poor treatment by the writers, that she is being used by the show as a repository of male evil. Her rape and the indecent proposal that she trade her body to land an account partnership were particularly cruel developments.
But Mad Men has always been most accurate when it comes to Joan and Peggy’s maneuvers around gender and power in the office. So in isolation from those past injustices, Joan’s struggle in last night’s episode not only rung true, but it also worked to serve the show’s overall arc this season about the indignity, rather than the dignity, of work.
Joan’s career tsuris represents exactly what might happen to a woman or minority who has finally earned a precarious but comfortable place at one workplace, and then has to start anew at another and run the gauntlet of oppression once more. Even Shirley’s acknowledgement to Roger that the role she eked out as a black woman at SC&P could never be replicated at McCann foreshadowed Joan’s predicament. Over seven seasons, Joan has proven her worth to the men at her smaller firm, and this season, rather than sneer at her for her “unearned” partnership, everyone from Pete to Don to Roger has treated her with respect, even deferred to her wisdom.
But at McCann, without the earned protection and understanding of “her” male posse in the boat of SC&P, Joan was adrift in the water, discovering her formidable no-nonsense attitude would get her nowhere. And the men from the old firm, much as they do value her, simply don’t understand: consider the fact that Don, just like Pete in an earlier episode, expresses confidence that Joan will handle herself just fine in the new digs. Meanwhile, Roger, the architect of the move that shook Joan out of her position of comfort, now merely offers a sort of cowed male protectiveness — he cares about Joan, but in a paternalistic way. He seeks to see her out of the line of fire, rather than vindicated against their shared boss.
Hobart intimates to Joan that Peggy’s supervisor status may not last forever at McCann, either. His warning, combined with Peggy’s being mistaken for a secretary and left in the purgatory of the old, empty offices, suggests she’s in for a whole new world of male aggression, too. The implication is that Peggy will indeed suffer as Joan has, and also have to prove herself again, although she’ll emerge more triumphant —which has been the case throughout the entire show. Peggy consistently follows Joan and does a little bit better by being a little bit more pig-headed, brusque, and entitled — in other words, a little bit more “male.” But Joan’s plight highlights the unfairness experienced by those whose demeanor and exterior reads as womanly: the further up the ladder they go, the worse it gets.