Debate This: Joan Holloway’s Choice To “Sleep Her Way To The Top” On “Mad Men”

Sunday night’s episode of “Mad Men” was a climactic one, and possibly the best episode of the season. Peggy, fed up with being taken for granted by Don, landed a new job at a rival firm and resigned by Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Meanwhile, SCDP’s deal with Jaguar seemingly hinges on Joan sleeping with an exec from the car manufacturer. That Pete dared to bring this proposal to Joan was loathsome. The other partners’ (save Don’s) begrudging support of pimping out one of their most loyal and hardworking employees was disgusting. Even Don’s plea to Joan that sleeping with the exec “wouldn’t be worth it” (which came, unbeknownst to him, just a little too late) was not without room for criticism — his primary motivation was likely his ego’s desire to land the deal on his own merit. 

But what of Joan’s decision to sleep with the Jaguar exec in exchange for partnership in SCDP (with a five percent stake)? We got a glimpse at Joan’s current home life as a single mom (her husband, Greg, having filed for divorce last episode), living with her judgmental mother, and it was clear that it’s not an easy, comfortable one. Was Joan’s decision to use her sexuality in the most blatant of ways to get ahead (exchanging sex for money) ultimately a feminist decision? Or was the fact that she was clearly conflicted — and certainly not “enjoying it” — a sign that she was clearly disempowered, whether she came out better financially or not? Jessica and I both had really strong opinions on the subject, so we decided to talk it out over IM. Read our convo after the jump and then share your views in the comments!

Amelia: So, I really loathe to see this complicated situation and choice Joan made devolve into a “You go girl!” vs. “Oh Joan, I’m so disappointed in you” debate.

Jessica: I don’t think it will devolve into that binary around Joan. I think people will judge the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Price moreso than they’ll judge her decisions. As I see it, [the men] were the ones who acted reprehensibly by pressuring her into it. Sex work is not something in and of itself to be ashamed of, anyway.

A: Yes, but in discussions I’ve heard/seen about the episode, yes, people are judging the dudes, but they’re also judging her, both positively and negatively. I personally think Joan did was she felt she needed to do. I also hate to see Don seen as some sort of hero. Let’s not forget that he tossed money in Peggy’s face in the same episode.

J: I sure don’t see Don as a hero; he’s an asshole, he’s always been an asshole.

A: Don wanted to be Joan’s white knight in this situation and that was gross too. Plus, he wanted to believe he could get/got the Jaguar business himself, based on his pitch and his star power. Now he’ll never know if he did. I think that nipped any chance of a romance in the bud.

J: I hope so. He’s far too selfish and fucked up to treat anyone right. I’m betting Megan is going to leave him eventually.

A: But back to Joan’s decision to sleep with the Jaguar exec … just because she didn’t want to sleep with that guy, sexually, doesn’t make it disempowering. It doesn’t make it empowering either. There was no empowering choice for her.

J: I think that it was empowering in the long term for her financial health, but it was disempowering in more short term ways: one of them being how conflicted/unhappy she felt about it, and the other being how the other partners will regard her in the long term (i.e. they know she wasn’t made partner out of her own merit). It really bothers me that she was made a partner because she SLEPT WITH A CLIENT, not because she’s awesome at her job. But it’s not Joan’s fault that’s the way it is; it’s the partners’ fault for fostering that kind of culture.

A: Oh sure, me too. But the reality is that she was never going to be made a partner because she’s awesome at her job.

J: Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know if she even asked that before.  It’s not entirely accurate to say sleeping with the car guy is the ONLY way Joan would have ever gotten financial stability ever.  I mean, Peggy was able to leave a bad work situation and go find a better one.  Who’s to say Joan couldn’t do that, too? 

A: One thing that bothers me is that we’re always evaluating major decisions made by female characters by whether they are empowering or disempowering. We rarely if ever do that with men. And it’s really, really annoying because things are rarely that black and white — choices are rarely wholly empowering or wholly disempowering. It bugs me that when a strong female character makes a choice that we view as “disempowering,” we somehow think less of her.

J: Well, I agree that women characters are more scrutinized. But I am scrutinizing this situation, personally, because I don’t think that what she ultimately chose was particularly empowering/feminist/good. I’m not judging her, I don’t think LESS of her, but I feel sad for her that this happened.

A: Why does her choice have to be conclusively either — i.e. feminist/good/empowering versus not?

J: Because it has longterm repercussions on other women in the company. If Joan gets made partner because she sleeps with a client, does that mean sleeping with a client is the only way women get to be made partner at SCDP? Her decision doesn’t just affect her. 

A: Joan needs to take care of Joan and her kid, because no one else is going to.

J: I know that, but Joan has other choices in life that don’t involve being exploited like that.

A: Like what? What would have benefited her as much?

J: Asking for a raise. Getting another job. Asking to be made partner on her own merit as an employee.

A: But that would never happen and she knows it.

J: Maybe, maybe not. It happened for Peggy. Peggy left for a lot more money.

A: Peggy and Joan can’t really be compared in this scenario though.

J: Why can’t they? That was the point of the episode, to show the differences between the two women.

A: But first of all, Peggy is younger.

J: What does age have to do with it?

A: They are in two totally different positions. Peggy came into that company at a pivotal time, while Joan had been there much longer.

J: Peggy may be younger, but her life isn’t any more easy than Joan’s. They’re both middle class and they’re both pretty much fending for themselves in the world. They’re two different people, but I think their situations are more alike than different. 

A: That’s not what I’m saying. Joan and Peggy don’t have the same job, first of all.

J: They’re of the same milieu, though! Moreso than, say, Megan or Betty or any of the other wives.

A: I think in terms of their role in the company, how they are used to being treated etc. is very different.

J: We may have to agree to disagree on that. Ultimately I think that Peggy made the more empowering decisions in this episode and I am happy for her. Peggy’s decisions will serve her well and will hopefully serve other women well in the future, too.  Joan, I just feel sad for.

A: Yes, but Joan didn’t have the same options. The point is that they were both presented with a choice and each made the choice that they felt was best for them. Peggy told Don he could not own her. Joan made a deal in which she sold a little bit of herself and now owns a little bit of them in the form of five percent of the company.

J: But just because somebody FEELS LIKE something is the best option for them doesn’t mean it is the best option for them, objectively speaking.

A: I don’t think what is the best option for Joan is set in stone. Look, Joan has ALWAYS been treated a sex object. What happened in the episode was just a more extreme example. And she did what she could with it.

J: It’s a “does the ends justify the means?” question. And generally speaking, philosophically, I don’t think it does. Perhaps I just feel this way because I relate a lot more to Peggy’s work experiences than Joan’s. 

A: Right, but Peggy is also easier to relate to by virtue of the fact that she is someone who has been able to get ahead on her own terms in a way that women like us can, too. She is naturally more relatable to women of our generation. Joan’s age DOES make a difference — a female copy writer would have never been a shot at the time Joan started at the firm. The women were exclusively secretaries.

J: Yeah, that’s a good point.

A: Peggy’s advancement and thus her access to a more “empowering” choice that we can be happy about and root for is, yes, due to her hard work, but it’s also due to the time period that she entered the work force and Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Joan, sadly, was seven or eight years too early.

J: That’s all good food for thought.  I hope things work out well for Joan.  

What did you think of the episode? Share your thoughts in the comments!