Joan vs. Peggy

August 9, 2009

madmen-4In a Wall Street Journal article today on the women writers of Mad Men there’s this:

Peggy Olson, a secretary played by Elisabeth Moss, works her way up to copywriter and eventually lands her own office and secretary but only after she becomes pregnant and gains weight. “Part of it was her becoming a guy. She was putting on a suit of armor to protect herself sexually and because of that she could begin operating as a man,” Mr. Weiner says.

One of the most interesting contrasts in the show is the one between Joan’s professional success and Peggy’s. Joan plays by the rules, she doesn’t deny her feminism in —in fact she cultivates it and flaunts it. Peggy on the otherhand is always struggling with being a woman. In the first episode (which I recently watched again) Peggy often receives criticism for the way she dresses and not because she’s being too sexual but because she’s not demonstrating that she’s a woman enough. This happens other times throughout the show. And yet, in spite of that criticism, Peggy is able to climb higher up the success ladder than Joan is because nobody thinks of Peggy as a sex symbol the way they think of Joan. Peggy doesn’t show the sexual aspects of a feminine woman like Joan or even an average looking woman and so Peggy’s other qualities and skills are easier to see.

That’s not so for Joan who builds her own identity around her sexuality. Because of that, Joan’s entire life is limited to the parameters of what women were allowed to do at the time. Perhaps if she acted less like the ubersexy woman she might have been able (spoilers!) to get that script reading job she wanted. But I think in the process that would mean Joan would have to give up her sexual independence which she loves. It’s a tradeoff that men didn’t have to make back then —and still don’t. That can’t be said for women even today.



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