The Feminist Mystique: Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson, And Protofeminism In Mad Men

Published on July 30th, 2011 in: Feminism, Issues, My Dream Is On The Screen, TV |

By Chelsea Spear

Hey Mad Men fans, let’s play a word association game. When I say to you “Peggy Olson,” what comes to mind? Of course you’d think of the plucky, ambitious copywriter of Sterling Cooper, a Cinderella out of nowhere who’s made a name for herself both through her skill with words and her dogged pursuit of every opportunity that comes her way. Thoughts of Peggy’s unfortunate wardrobe might also cross your mind, as you think about her fondness for mustard yellow and those ridiculous fluffy bangs she rocked in the early episodes.

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Okay, so let’s try this again, this time with “Joan Holloway.” Two words might pop into your head: Hotchie and/or motchie! Yes, Joan is the series’ breakout character, beloved by voluptuous women and drag queens everywhere for her jewel-toned wiggle dresses, her red hair, and her way with a bon mot. True, she’s saved the bacon at SC and assisted in building the new ad firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but who are we kidding? She’s as well known for her sex appeal as she is for her efficiency and professionalism.

Peggy has worked her way through the ranks as a copywriter, and while Joan has maintained a cushy perch as the well-dressed HLIC, both women are judged—harshly—by their looks. An emphasis on the way both women perform their femininity has played a role in how each are perceived, and the opportunities open to both of them.

Peggy Olson would have been just another whey-faced member of the steno pool at Sterling Cooper had she not uttered three magic words: “Basket of Kisses.” This poetic description of a wastebasket full of lipstick-stained tissues struck the right note with the executives from Belle Jolie Cosmetics, who opted to incorporate it into their upcoming ad campaign. She becomes the first woman to receive a promotion to junior copywriter. True to her savvy approach to the workplace, Peggy asks for her own office at the close of Season Two.

In spite of her obvious skills and abilities, Peggy is frequently mocked for her dowdy style of dress–both to her face and behind her back. Prior to Peggy’s promotion, copywriter Ken Cosgrove compares her to a lobster: “All the meat’s in the tail.” In a subsequent season, as the creative team is working on a Playtex ad that asks women “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” Ken informs Peggy that she’s a “Gertrude Stein.” Even when Peggy saves his ass in a meeting with an account executive, Paul Kinsey still takes a crack at her skirt, which is tied at the waist with a cheery bow. Mad Men bloggers Tom and Lorenzo describe Peggy’s approach to work as “Just Do the Work and Avoid All the Bullshit,” but on those occasions when her male coworkers need to knock someone down to make themselves look better, at times they look to the dowdy Miss Olson to play the scapegoat.

At the start of Season Four, SC heads Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper have broken away from their firm, along with Peggy’s boss Don Draper and British ad exec Lane Pryce. Peggy’s star continues to ascend. She works as a senior copywriter at the new firm, with her own office and a young assistant. Joan, meanwhile, works once again as a super-efficient office manager in the new digs.

Among both the SCDP staff and the show’s fanbase, Joan is seen as the pinup. This is established during the first episode. As she takes Peggy on a tour of the office, she passes four of the principal “creatives,” who gaze longingly at her as though she was a hot fudge sundae. During the aforementioned discussion of the Playtex Jackie/Marilyn ad, one writer compares Joan to Marilyn, ” . . . or perhaps Marilyn’s a Joan.” Mad fans—many of whom are female—also revel in actress Christina Hendricks’ sex appeal, as seen by the dozens of women and men who dress as Joan for Halloween and call the character “our Joanie.”

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Many of the cruel tricks played upon Joan—particularly in the show’s second season—at first appear as though they’re perpetrated in response to something Joan did. However, the characters seem to know that hitting Joan in her outsized femininity hurts her the most. Paul Kinsey, a senior copywriter and one of Joan’s exes, ends a fight with Joan by confiscating and posting her driver’s license on the office bulletin board. In another episode, Joan fires Don Draper’s new secretary after she says that Joan is acting like her mother.

Unlike Peggy, finding a connection between Joan’s appearance and how her coworkers treat her because of it is a bit of a challenge. This may speak to the fact that they see Peggy as a peer, and they give her the same business they would give one another. Her coworkers may see Joan as beneath them and express their indignation towards her in more passive-aggressive ways.

Many lesser shows might be content to portray the smart, hardworking Peggy as a protofeminist ideal, and allow for her appearance to go unmentioned. On the flip side, Joan could also suffer from being painted in broad strokes as an oversexed villainess. Though the ways in which both characters suffer judgment for their appearance can make the audience squirm, it also gives Mad Men a much more truthful quality.

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