With the second half of the final season of Mad Men already in full swing, it’s about time we reflect back on our most-loved and most-hated characters of the show. There’s no doubt that much has changed since Season 1. Our beloved Bert Cooper has tragically passed away, along with partner Lane Price who offed himself in his Sterling Cooper & Partners office of all places. Roger and Don, our two remaining partners, have replaced the other half of the SC&P partnership with Pete and (more importantly) Joan!
Not to diminish the importance of her male counterparts, but it seems essential that we take a closer look at the incredible advancement of Joan from secretary in Season 1 to partner in Season 5. Her behavior can be labeled as nothing less than progressive, both within and outside of the office.
When we first meet her, Joan is a secretary – no different than every other woman employed by the company. With her calm, assertive attitude and striking appearance, she demands attention of all those around her and, consequently, does not hold this position for long. She knows the ins and outs of the office, is the sounding board for all problems (secretarial or not) and has no problem with taking charge and making sure any new girls get fired if they show the least bit of incompetence. The men that she works alongside are fully aware of Joan’s intelligence and authority, giving her minor but meaningful promotions throughout the series.
Eventually in Season 5, Joan is presented with the offer of partner, but the conditions are nowhere near ideal. In order to gain this title, Joan must secure an account by sleeping with the head of the agency. With much repulsion, Joan follows through. At first, this seems like nothing but a step backwards for confident, hard-working Joan, and it is in a sense. However, Joan knows that she deserved the partnership and knows that there was no chance of her landing it without doing something as absurd as what was requested of her. This sort of unruly behavior is something other women would shame her for if they knew. But did she have a choice? In order to be an equal to Don, Pete and Roger, in the sense of both money and power, it seems she didn’t.
Nowadays, this logic seems entirely irrational, but Joan knew the ways of this era and the men that she was up against. Although at first it was difficult for her to completely step away from secretarial duties, she now is an account executive on an equal playing field with Roger, Don and Pete.
Outside of the workplace, Joan is no stranger to hardship. Living in a time where the norm was to get married and be a stay-at-home housewife, she showed no fear in doing just the opposite. Joan marries Greg who is failing as a surgeon. After a brief stint leaving work to be a housewife, Joan decides that lifestyle is not for her. Greg is later sent to Vietnam, and Joan then almost immediately gets pregnant with Roger’s baby. Instead of following through with an abortion, she decides to raise the baby on her own. After passing off the baby to Greg as his child for some time, Joan eventually gets a divorce from her mentally unstable husband.
Regardless of her status as a married woman, Joan will not succumb to the norm of living solely to be a housewife. Even in a financially stable home, she is happier in the workplace. Joan returns to SC&P against her husband’s wishes, and when he threatens her son’s and her own well-being, she does not hesitate to throw him out.
Joan Holloway is a force to be reckoned with. Though typically not without consequence, she makes the choices that are ultimately the best for her. Joan must look past the criticism of her coworkers and family members for her sometimes-rebellious behavior. In doing so, she displays more advancements than just about any other female character that we see on the show. Keep watching Mad Men to see how the captivating series concludes, and check back next week for more unruly women!