Mad Women: Joan and the double-edged sword of female sexuality

Married life was her ticket out of the office... so she thought.

When we first meet Joan, she’s the office sexpot who seems to have it all: impeccable style, irresistible curves, and command over all of the suits and secretaries in the office. The young women admire her and listen to her wisdom. The men do her favors just to see her smile. She is in complete command of her sexuality, and she can use it to get whatever she wants.

But not anymore. In the latest season, we’ve seen Joan unable to fight her own battles. When some male goons make inappropriate comments (and illustrations) about her, she fights them the best way she knows how: She tattles. When that doesn’t work, she confronts them with a scathingly sincere tongue lashing that reminds them her husband is off at war, and one day, they could be too. Then Peggy fires one of them, for which Joan is pointedly ungrateful: Now everyone will know you took care of it for me, she tells Peggy.

Joan has lost her power. She’s just an aging secretary, as one of the goons in Creative tells Peggy: “Just like my mom. There’s a woman like her in every office.”

The first time we saw Joan powerless, though, was when her to-be husband rapes her. It happens just after they run into Roger, who makes it clear that he and Joan used to have a relationship. The scene was a power play: Roger was threatened by Joan’s young fiancée, so he hinted that Joan didn’t even like the restaurant that her fiancée was taking her to. It was completely insensitive and selfish on Roger’s part, but when have we seen him be much of anything else? Her fiancée responds by making it clear that Joan is now in his control.

Joan's hubby hopes she'll charm his work superiors into forgetting he's an unsuccessful doctor.

Later, her husband pouts about his lack of success as a doctor and snaps at Joan: “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life!” Joan’s response? To throw a vase at him. Of course she knows what it’s like to want something your whole life and not get it. She married this loser, didn’t she? Her husband has been the dependent one in the relationship since day one. Marriage back then was supposed to provide a woman with all she needed, but he hasn’t been able to provide that end of the bargain.

So I have to ask Joan the same question I asked Betty: What do you want? At the end of season four, Joan coolly tells Peggy, “I get my enjoyment from other things outside of this office.” Peggy rightly calls “Bullshit!” and they both laugh. But Joan clearly isn’t happy in the office anymore. She’s overworked and underpaid, and now she’s pregnant with Roger’s child. After meeting a mother in the abortion clinic this season, who asked Joan how old her daughter was, it was clear that Joan was getting too old for this. So she lies, says she has a 15-year-old, and walks out of the clinic, still pregnant.

Joan’s pregnancy signifies that she’s moving on to another phase in her life. After all, mothers in the sixties didn’t work. Will Joan want to live the domestic life? She seems lonely. Whenever we see her outside of work, she’s home alone in her pajamas.

But right now, Joan wants a change, and any one will do.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

One thought on “Mad Women: Joan and the double-edged sword of female sexuality

  1. Pingback: Mad Women: The secretaries « FemThreads

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