***Contains spoilers from last night’s Mad Men episode. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading here!***
“Jaguar: the mistress who’ll do things your wife won’t.” Last night’s landmark episode of Mad Men began with a phrase that’s been reiterated throughout the series: That certain women, particularly working women like Peggy (with Pete) and Joan (with, among others, Roger), will do things other respectable women, like the men’s wives (Betty and Trudy come to mind here), won’t. But in last night’s episode, Joan, who is still technically someone’s wife, slept her way to a minority stake in SCDP, a position and arguably a well-earned right that hadn’t even been a thought in the minds of the male quartet whose names grace the company’s letterhead.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, on our sister site Blisstree, argues that Joan’s sexual transaction is inherently feminist, since she capitalizes on her sex appeal in order to reap the financial rewards and ownership she deserves. She claims that Joan is a strong, smart woman who uses her best characteristics (her beauty and desirability) to get what she wants for herself rather than the company, so her financial transaction is feminist, whether or not it’s morally sound.
But the episode makes a poignant distinction between Joan’s tryst and Peggy’s empowering decision to leave SCDP for a better offer. As the LA Times points out, Joan and Peggy both grapple with the question of how much they’re worth, and their conclusions sharply contrast one another. Peggy’s decision to leave SCDP and take a higher position with better pay is undoubtedly feminist, while Joan’s sexual transaction is less clear cut, teetering too close to the edge of prostitution (She even acknowledges herself that the transaction is prostitution).
Here is last night’s scenario: Jaguar executives first suggest then demand that if SCDP wants to win the much-sought-after Jaguar account, they can be swayed with something more than a killer pitch—a chance to sleep with sexy redhead Joan. The men initially laugh it off, but Pete, who possesses the social grace of a subway rat, turns it into a serious business proposal. No matter that Joan is married, a mother, and—oh yeah!—not a sex slave. After balking initially, Joan agrees to the proposal, seals the deal, and gets a 5% stake in the company (SCDPH?).
Joan first entered Mad Men as the show’s brazen, confident, unapologetic feminist. Not only did she manage the secretarial pool at the now-defunct Sterling Cooper, but she seemed to have her hand on the pulse of everyone and everything in the office. She oozed sex but used it for her empowerment, and didn’t let her long-standing affair with silver fox head honcho Roger Sterling derail her career.
But Joan’s career hit a wall at a certain point, because secretarial work and bookkeeping were essentially still thought of (and are often still regarded today) as “women’s work.” While Peggy’s career rises as she tries to fit in with the boys, Joan still needs to rely on her sexuality to get ahead, because her work is not regarded as important enough to do it for her. So Joan sees the decision to sleep with the Jaguar executive as her way past the secretarial glass ceiling.
But, as the LA Times notes, Joan’s unwavering confidence is, in no small part, a facade. Lest we forget Joanie’s agonizing accordion performance, or the ineffaceable scene in which her fiancé rapes her on the floor of Don Draper‘s office. Joan’s sexuality has been both her greatest asset and her greatest tragedy, because she has been both the wife and the mistress, and her willingness to do things other women wouldn’t caused such a violent reaction in her husband that her relationship with sex was, undoubtedly, permanently altered.
So sure, to Pete and the other men of SCDP (save for the glorious Don Draper), a one-night tryst is just that, one night, something people have done for free. Sure they know it’s essentially prostitution, but they see Joan’s reward as befitting this task once even performed by the likes of the mighty Cleopatra (has a more degrading line ever been uttered on television?). But for Joanie, the woman who wanted to marry a surgeon and start a family, the path to independence has been lined with confirmation that she is always the mistress, never the wife. Always the one desired, but never the one needed (and never the one whose own desires are taken seriously). And sure this may have led to a de facto feminist, but it’s far from empowering.