“MAD MEN”: “Joan Holloway and the Art of Imagery”

After the “MAD MEN” Season Three episode, (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo” had aired nearly two years ago, I wrote this article about the character, Joan Holloway Harris: 

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“MAD MEN”: “Joan Holloway and the Art of Imagery”

After reading some of the message boards and articles about “MAD MEN”, it is quite clear to me that the character, Joan Holloway, is very popular to many of the series’ fans. They view her as a mature, stylish woman who knows how to use her sexuality to control her life. However, I disagree. I have finally realized that my opinion of Joan is not as positive as those of her fans. 

One might get the impression from my opening statement that I dislike Joan. Trust me, I do not. I do not harbor any love for Joan, but I do believe that she is one of the many fascinating characters on “MAD MEN”. But I cannot put her on a pedestal the way many other fans have done. In some ways, Joan reminds me of the Creative Director at Sterling Cooper, Don Draper. Both of them seemed to have mastered the art of projecting the illusion of people who have mature and stable personalities. Because the series’ viewers are very familiar with Draper’s background, we are aware of the fact that Don is far from being the mature man that projects. But many fans seem incapable of realizing that Joan is no more together than Don or any of the other major characters.

You want to know what really irritates me about a lot of fans in regard to Joan? They go through such lengths to defend her actions on the show. Actions that I have personally found to be questionable. It is one thing to be a fan of a certain character. It is another to deliberately blind oneself to that character’s flaws. And Joan is the one character that most fans refuse to criticize . . . to a point that I find very annoying. I do not want to dislike Joan. But if this adulation and tendency to ignore her flaws keep up, I might find myself nearly hating her. And I think it would be a waste of time to express hated for a fictional character.

In the Season Two episode, (2.02) “Flight 1”, Joan met copywriter Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend at the time – an African-American woman named Sheila White at a party held at his apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. Joan and Paul, who had been lovers in the past, were discussing various wines and liquors, when Sheila walked up to introduce herself. When Paul found himself distracted by another guest, Joan made this remark to Sheila:

“When Paul and I were together, the last thing I would have taken him for was open-minded.”

It had been a vicious and catty remark. And not surprisingly, a good number of fans believed that Joan reacted in a subtle, yet racist manner. Yet, it did not take long for Miss Holloway’s fans came to her rescue. Many of them claimed that Joan tried to point out Paul’s pretentious behavior, stating that he was dating Sheila in order to appear as a “liberal”. But according to actor Michael Gladis, Paul was genuinely attracted to Sheila. This made sense, considering that the pair dated for nearly a year. The fans refused to believe this. They used Paul’s personality to make excuses for Joan’s remark. None of them stopped to wonder why Joan had even bother to make such a remark in the first place, considering that she and Paul were in the middle of a friendly conversation before she met Sheila. Come to think of it, many failed to remember that during her argument with Paul, Joan had dismissed Sheila as a check-out cashier, despite the fact that Sheila told her that she was a grocery store manager. But in the fans’ eyes, Joan could do no wrong. I believe that the blogger of “What Tami Said” had put it best:

“Poseur Paul introduces Joan Hollowell, head of the steno pool, to his (surprise) black girlfriend, Sheila, the manager of a local supermarket. When the ladies are left to talk, Joan first patronizes Sheila, intoning that maybe one day she’ll be able to “pull up in a station wagon” and shop at the supermarket, as well as work there. When Sheila points out that she has already shopped there, as she grew up in the suburb, Joan turns more nasty: (paraphrasing) It’s great that you and Paul are together. When we were together I wouldn’t have thought he would be so broad-minded. It’s left to the viewers’ imaginations what else Joan may have said, but later in the office Paul confronts her and she accuses him of dating Sheila merely to seem “interesting.”.

Now, it is clear to me that Paul certainly is a showy, pompous ass and just the type to think hanging with Negroes is proof of sophistication. It is also clear that Joan is a Queen Bee sort who doesn’t take kindly to female competition or being left behind by a former paramour. But it is also more than clear, given Joan’s insistence on putting Sheila in “her place,” that Joan is particularly offended by a former beau moving on to a black woman. She digs with the “maybe one day you’ll be able to shop there” and “he wasn’t that broad minded” thing and takes care to insult Sheila out of Paul’s hearing.

The meaning of the interaction between Joan and Sheila seems obvious to me, especially given the early 60s time frame. The Civil Rights Act had not been signed. There had been no Freedom Summer. Blacks in about 11 states could not vote. Is it such a surprise that the average American held racially biased beliefs? To me, it is no more surprising than the sexism that runs rampant in the show. But many of the comments on “Mad Men” forums are ambivalent about the racism in the show’s recent episode.

Joan is not a racist, see, just a little bitchy. Part of the problem is that the character, with her pneumatic body and take-no-prisoners attitude is sort of a riot grrl favorite of the show’s fans. No one wants to brand someone they like a racist. It’s more comfortable to find other explanations for bad behavior toward people of color”

However, Joan’s remarks to Sheila White was nothing in compare to her next faux pas. Well, I would not exactly call it a faux pas. I would call it a mistake of major proportions. In the Season Two episode, (2.05) “The New Girl”, the Sterling Cooper employees and fans of the series discovered that Joan had become engaged to her doctor boyfriend. In(2.12) “The Mountain King”, we discovered that said fiancé’s name was Greg Harris. And in the same episode, he learned that Joan had been Sterling Cooper executive Roger Sterling’s former lover. Being the temperamental and insecure bastard that he was, Greg raped Joan inside Don Draper’s office in a show of power. Many fans speculated that after such a heinous act, Joan might dump said fiancé. However, it was confirmed in the early Season Three episode, (3.03) “My Old Kentucky Home” that Joan eventually married the brutish Greg. Fans also learned that Greg was also a loser, who proved to be an untalented surgeon.

The reaction to the news of Joan’s marriage was interesting. Many fans speculated on when Joan would finally dump her loser/rapist husband. Or if he would end up in Vietnam, where he could experience a convenient death. Or they had pointed out his childish behavior when he informed Joan about the end of his career as a surgeon in (3.06) “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”. Yet, whenever I posted a question about why Joan would bother to marry Greg after what he had done to her, I would receive answers like the following:

“People were not brought up in those days to think of rape the way we do today. Greg didn’t use a gun or a knife, or threaten Joan in any way. Men were brought up to think that if a woman was wearing sexy clothes, or was on a date with a guy, or willingly went into a room with a man alone, she’d already said yes to sex with him on a certain level. She’d already forfeited her right to say no, especially if she had accepted any sort of gifts from him. Men believed a woman wouldn’t do any of that stuff unless she really wanted it anyway. And men were expected to take control, like Rhett Butler and John Wayne.

Women, on the other hand, even though they knew that none of those things mean a woman wants sex per se, believed that men simply could not control themselves, and so a woman who let herself be alone in a room with a man really was asking for it.

Joan probably just figures Greg got too hungry to wait for dinner, figuratively speaking. She probably dismisses her own feelings of violation as an overreaction, and just doesn’t think about it anymore. It doesn’t make her love him less. She never expected him to be perfect. She expected him to be a successful doctor who owed a hefty chunk of his success to her.”

Now, unless I had misread the above statement, I got the feeling that many of Joan’s fans were excusing Joan’s decision to marry her rapist/fiancé on the grounds that as a woman of the 1950s and 1960s, she was either unaware that she had been raped, or that she simply dismissed the incident as inconsequential. I really cannot imagine any woman or man dismissing an act of rape against them as an overreaction on her/his part. Frankly, I found such an excuse rather disturbing. Was it really that important not to criticize Joan for marrying Greg after what he had done to her? Was it really that important to insult the intelligence of many grown women of the 1950s and 60s in an effort to avoid any criticism of Joan? Whenever I see the following photograph, I feel certain that Joan was quite aware of what had happened to her:

To assume that a thirty-one year-old woman with vast sexual experience would be unaware that she had been raped or that it did not really bother her . . . you know what? I do not know what to say about that. Actually, I do. What I find really disturbing about such excuses is that most of them were made by other women. That was truly disturbing. So, why did Joan marry Greg, despite the rape? I came across this theory in a response to an article about Joan:

“Rape was probably believed to be something that happens between strangers, and that it was the fault of a women or girl for being a) pretty/sexy, b) out late, c) alone, d) wearing something feminine and/or revealing, and e) you know, alive. Hell, beliefs about rape are still shockingly backward, as both the discussions about Roman Polanski and Pete’s actions in “Souvenir” prove.”

I am tired of this excuse that women of Joan’s generation were ignorant about rape. I believe Joan knew damn well that she had been raped. I believe that she had allowed some desperate need to get married to overcome any revulsion she may have harbored for Greg. And if Joan had such a desperate need for a wedding ring that she would marry her rapist, it did not reflect very well upon her. Joan has no one to blame but herself for becoming Mrs. Greg Harris. There was no real reason for her to marry this rapist. Unless for some perverse reason, she was actually in love with him. But judging from the manner in which she had crowed over receiving her engagement ring in “The New Girl”, I have doubts that she felt this way about him. Judging from said mentioned scene, I suspect that Joan saw Greg as a trophy husband.

If Peggy had the will to overcome social expectations and pursue a career in advertising, why did Joan fail to do the same? Remember her stint as Harry Crane’s assistant in (2.08) “A Night to Remember”? Joan was briefly given additional responsibilities at Sterling Cooper, by reading soap-opera scripts to determine ad placement. Joan discovered that she likes reading soap-opera scripts to determine ad placement, and that she had a knack with charming the clients. After a few days, Harry Crane hired a young, somewhat clueless man to take over the ad placement job from Joan. Joan was clearly disappointed (especially when all but asked by Harry to train the new man), but quietly gave in. Why did Joan fail to stick up for herself by offering herself as a permanent script reader? Some fans would probably argue that Harry or her former lover, Roger Sterling, would have rejected her because she was a woman engaged to be married. Regardless of whether Harry or Roger would have rejected her for the position, Joan could have made the effort to say something. But she did not.

Several months later, Joan passively surrendered herself to becoming the wife of Dr. Greg Harris. Did Joan ever consider that a) she is not cut out to be a wife/mother; and b) marrying one’s rapist was not a good idea? I still recall her reaction to Sally Draper’s presence, when the latter appeared at the offices of Sterling Cooper with Don Draper in(2.04) “Three Sundays”. Joan did not strike me as the maternal type in that one scene. And judging from the manner in which Joan had flinched when a drunken Greg lost his temper in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”, I could only wonder if she ever found herself regretting that she had married Greg.

A member of the TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY forum defended Joan’s decision to marry Greg in the following passage:

“That wasn’t true for a lot of women in the past: Marriage wasn’t just something that they would have liked to have but could live a full life without it. The failure to “marry well” meant to someone like Joan (and the vast majority of women before the 1970s) would not get anything they wanted in life — no children, no family, precious few friends or confidantes, no role in society, and very significantly, the very real probability of living out a life of diminished financial means, or even poverty. Not being married to Joan wasn’t just the prospect of not having Dr. Husband to show off on her arm to the rest of the girls, but the prospect of not being a full member of society and living a life in poverty.”

I understand that society demanded that women consider marriage and motherhood over a career for women. I also understand that there is nothing wrong with a woman leaving the workforce to become a full time housewife. But there were already professional women in advertising and other professions during that period. I cannot help but feel that the above passage was an exaggerated excuse on Joan’s behalf. Before Season Two, Joan had ascended to the position of Sterling Cooper’s office manager and head of the secretarial pool. She had received several marriage proposals in the past, and witnessed Peggy’s ascent from newly hired secretary to a senior copywriter (with her own office) by “The Mountain King”. I am sorry, but the only excuse I can find for Joan’s decision to marry Greg is that she loved him. Sincerely. As I had stated earlier, I have trouble believing that Joan loved him that much.

The past several seasons of “MAD MEN” has revealed one aspect of Joan’s personality. Image means a great deal to her. Frankly, I could say the same about all of the series’ major characters. However, I have rarely come across any criticism or comments about Joan’s penchant for shallow projection. Many of Joan’s advice to Peggy in the first two seasons – especially Season One – seemed to revolve around image. When former roommate Carol, revealed feelings for the red-haired Joan in (1.10) “The Long Weekend”, the latter icily ignored Carol’s revelation and insisted that they go ahead with their dates with two middle-aged businessmen. I understood that Joan did not share Carol’s feelings, but I suspect that it was more important to her to maintain the illusion that her roommate never made that revelation in the first place. Although many fans believe that Joan’s outburst to Sheila White was simply motivated by her disgust at what she perceived as Paul using his former girlfriend to project the image of the open-minded liberal. I believe that Joan’s outburst had more to do with her own personal humiliation at the idea of a former boyfriend moving on with a woman who would be considered a social inferior. She failed to speak up for herself following her stint as a script reader for Harry Crane and married Greg Harris after he had raped her in order to achieve what she believed was the ideal life for a woman – marriage to an upwardly mobile husband and a house in the suburbs.

It is easy to see that Joan had sacrificed a great deal – sacrifices that led her no longer employed by Sterling Cooper and married to the insecure, and brutish Greg Harris. One could claim that Joan had been a victim of society . . . that she had no choice but to dismiss the idea of another career at Sterling Cooper or marry the fiancé who had raped her, in order to survive as a woman in 1960s America. I find that difficult to accept. Despite the limitations women had in the 1960s, they still had choices. Characters like Peggy Olson and real life women who managed to carve out careers before the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s are proof that even Joan had choices. I suspect that mindful of her self image, Joan had internalized that she wanted a life as an upper middle-class suburban housewife and ended up making some very serious mistakes in her life.

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Post-Script: In the Season Three finale, (3.13) “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”, Joan resumed her old position of Office Manager for the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency. However, the agency endured a series of misfortunes that threatened its financial situation during Season Four. Joan finally rose above her old position to become the agency’s new Director of Agency Operations in recognition of her role in barely keeping SCDP afloat. Unfortunately, a salary increase did not accompany the new promotion. And Joan remained married to Greg by the end of Season Four. To make matters worse, following Greg’s deployment to Vietnam, Joan had a one-night stand with old flame Roger Sterling. After discovering that she was pregnant with Roger’s child, Joan decided to keep the baby and pretend that Greg is the father.

Perhaps I had been wrong in assuming that Joan was not the maternal type. She might surprise me. But I still have doubts about her decision to have Roger’s baby and pass it off as Greg’s. I wonder if she has forgotten how . . . volatile Greg can be. Or if she is simply deceiving herself that he will never learn the truth. I hope so . . . for her sake. Because with this new deception . . . this illusion, Joan is now playing a dangerous game.

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