TOTAL SPOILER ALERT. If you watch Mad Men but haven’t seen Sunday’s episode yet, you’ve been warned. But the whole wide internet has been talking about this episode all week, so we don’t really know how you don’t know. Despite this being Friday, Charlotte and I couldn’t possible expect you all to get along without hearing what Tits and Sass had to say about “The Other Woman.”
Bubbles: Along with the smoking, racism, Beatles references, and plastic raincoats, the subordinate place of women in the workplace and the home is one of the ways Mad Men reminds viewers it’s set in the Sixties. Last Sunday’s episode, “The Other Woman,” gave each female lead gender-related obstacles: Peggy Olson was thwarted in her efforts to be recognized professionally, Megan Draper had to assert her independence within marriage, and Joan Harris confronted her treatment as an asset to be used to win an account.
Joan turned/was turned out for one very expensive trick in this episode when she agreed to sleep with a sleazy Jaguar dealer—thought to have a crucial say in whether the agency would land the account, and willing to booty call- blackmail the firm —in exchange for a partnership stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Harris? Holloway?). The act was revealed in an effective, emotionally manipulative bit of story structure. First we think she didn’t go, as Don Draper stops by her apartment to tell her that 1) he wasn’t in on the partners’ decision to extend the offer to her and 2) it wasn’t worth it (I hoped she’d just look at him and say “I’m not your damn mother, Don,” instead of giving him that maternal “good boy!” pat on the cheek). But then in cutaways, we see he came by after the deal was done. My first reaction was mild panic as I thought “Oh, no, I hope this doesn’t mean she misses out on the payday!” It would be like getting ripped off by a customer/client. And then I thought “Boy, when Sal wouldn’t bang the closet case from Lucky Strike, they didn’t offer him shit, and then they just canned his ass.”
But Joan went through with it and grabbed the brass ring of partnership, which in my opinion is as much of a happy ending as we’re likely to see on this show. Opinions in the weird world of television recapping varied widely, though, and give us a great opportunity to look at some of the tropes that get trotted out whenever people talk about prostitution. Woman’s bodies don’t just belong to their inhabitants, after all. They’re for everyone to have an opinion about! Starting with their value.
We Have Already Established What You Are, Now We’re Just Haggling Over The Price
It’s reminiscent of the old joke (which I’ve seen alternately credited to Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw) about the man who offers a woman a million pounds for sex, which she accepts. He then changes his offer to a single pound, and she’s offended and asks what he thinks she is, to which he replies that they’ve already established what she is, and are now haggling over the price. —Alan Sepinwall
David Hinckley and Deborah Lipp also referenced this quote in reference to the scene where Joan tells Pete Campbell “You couldn’t afford it,” which, instead of “No,” gives him room to continue the discussion with the partners. What this says is that she does have a price, which, if you’re referencing that apocryphal Churchill quote, means you think a whore’s a whore and all other details are mere haggling. And if you’re already a known sexually available woman, well, you’re pretty close anyway.
There’s a huge line between a fun party girl and a professional sex worker, but Pete has never been one to really vibe on the nuances of human behavior.Everyone knows you’re already a huge slut for free, went the gist of his argument to Joan, so why not get paid for it? —Molly Lambert
Believing that all the partners, including Don, are on board with the idea, Joan pays a visit to Herb’s hotel room. It’s telling that Joan’s decision hinges so much on what the men, especially Don, think. As long as they continue to think of her as a kind of prostitute, why shouldn’t she? —Meredith Blake
Charlotte: The one angle that didn’t make it entirely outrageous is the probability that because Joan is so voluptuous, so attractive, and so aware of her physical appeal, she, like all sexy women, is presumed by most men to be in a permanent state of availability. In other words, sluts, or women who look like sluts, can’t be raped. Nor can they give a meaningful “no.” It’s also apparent that the SDCP men assume the sex act itself will be, for her, a minor inconvenience at worst, an okay time at best. (“He’s not that bad,” says Pete, when she asks about the guy. Since we can’t smell through the television, I’m guessing that Pete’s trying to tell us he at least showers.) Are Lane, Roger, and Bert really so clueless/incapable of empathy as to think having sex with a guy she’s never met before upon their request would be the same as her having a fling for fun? Maybe. But I wish they’d spent more time on this. It all seems too rushed.
Bubbles: Some more pragmatic (and maybe cynical) observers see Joan’s move not just understandable, but triumphant.
But in striking a deal that involves an ownership stake in the company that seems to matter more to her than her own family, Joan doubly takes possession of the means of production. It’s not “empowering,” and it’s a partly coerced decision – she’s not even given accurate or full information about the partners’ response, who were in turn misled about her position, and she believes they think she’s a whore anyway — but it’s a rational choice that will give her much more autonomy than anything else available to her. — Irin Carmon
Joan pushes back against the partners’ sexual exploitation of her by putting a very high price on her body, and working out a deal that will put her in a position so powerful that she’ll never have to sully herself again. —Matt Zoller Seitz
Charlotte: To me, Joan’s “You can’t afford it” response is an attempt to exert power over Pete, who has deeply insulted, shocked, and disrespected her to her face, the only way he knows how. She’s trying to regain her equilibrium in her snappy, collected, Joan-ish way by saying, “there’s something you can’t have that is otherwise available because you’re not good enough [rich enough] to have it.” That has a different sting than “you can’t have this thing that no one can ever have under any circumstances because it’s completely off limits” and it’s clear that her incredulous protestations to that effect weren’t making an impact on him anyway. Because he’s Pete, he wasn’t going to truly listen to “Why, I NEVER!” huffiness. Because he’s Pete, he’s going to cling even more tightly to what he wants and just make it happen—exactly as he did when he forced his presence on Beth by being a cretinous stalker. I don’t know that it was a glimpse into Joan’s secret prostitute-y heart, as someone reviewers seem to think. It’s obvious that she did not expect him to come back with a real offer.
Bubbles: So here’s the question, Charlotte: Was this an act of prostitution or a canny business move or both? Is Joan forever a whore? And isn’t it great that the slogan SCDP came up with, “Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own” contrasts with how Joan is now a position to be owned by no one?
Charlotte: Prostitution is definitely a canny business move! At least it can be for some of us. What kills me is the (artificial, superficially comforting) insistence that having sex for money is so outside the realm of most women’s behavior when women, like men, have sex for a lot of reasons: to placate a romantic partner, to maintain a marriage, because they’re bored, because they want something the other person can offer them. I think what lots of people freak out about when they consider prostitution is somebody being so open-eyed and aware of what’s motivating them when our culture encourages so much avoidance around sex. I don’t think Joan will ever think of herself as a whore, but I bet she’ll have a new appreciation (albeit a grim one) for what she’s capable of doing in service of achieving a goal.
Even If You Sell It, You Can Still Sit On It
Bubbles: The prohibitionist idea that prostitution involves something intrinsically debasing relies on acceptance of the idea that a person is selling something that should not have a dollar value, usually termed as selling one’s body or soul. It’s such a bothersome term. After you fuck someone for money you still walk away with your body. You’ve merely rented access! But there were a lot of comments with more than a touch of “hooking gives me a sad.” For the sake of the show, we have to experience some emotional conflict around Joan’s choice, but was she debased?
It was a win-win, except to anyone who has a problem with, say, selling your soul. —David Hinckley
Joan Harris is a lot of things but she has never sold herself to get ahead. —Christina Dowling
But essentially two things happened: Joan prostituted herself and Peggy quit. One woman moves ahead at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce by selling her body, while the other finally gives in to the fact that the only way she can keep her integrity and advance her career is to leave. —Mike Hale
Not because Joan did this and is now somehow tainted (I judge her decision primarily on her own apparent distaste for it), but because the fact that they would ask her to do such a thing, and go along with having her do it, and pay her to do it, indicates a profound and fundamental contempt for her. —Linda Holmes
What shall it profit an ad agency if it gains a luxury car but loses its soul?
As Lane said about Don watching Megan singing “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the season premiere, I think I saw SCDP’s soul leave its body last night, not just once but twice: when all the partners except Don agreed that Joan should prostitute herself for the firm, and when Peggy left. Which seems like a smart move, given how women who work at the agency are now being sold off to the highest and most disgusting bidder. —Nelle Engeron
Charlotte: I’m grateful to Linda Holmes for saying something not many others said: the scene where the men nonchalantly and briskly wrap up the issue of pimping Joan was pretty fucking weird. Is is plausible? I don’t know; I’ve never been invited into an all-male partner debate on whether the company should incentive an office manager to sleep with a potential client. But it happens with head-spinning speed, minimal discussion and barely any emotional reaction, and requires—as Holmes point out—an awful lot of faith in Pete to accurately depict a situation. I get that we’re supposed to think these men are scummy anyway because most of them have hired prostitutes and cheated on their wives and so forth (because it was the 60s, and no one does that thing any more today!) but Joan is someone uniquely close to Lane and Roger. I don’t believe they would have proceeded as quickly and with as little resistance as they did.
The my-ideals-before-your-reality crowd can fuck off, particularly Nelle Engoron for implying that Joan’s a piece of feminism-ruining trash for “sleeping [her] way” into position as partner. The idea that Joan’s decision to sleep with a man for a handsome reward “demoted” her in the eyes of the men who arranged and pressed her with that very reward is straight patriarchy-propping slut-shaming bullshit. “Come on Joan, you single mom in 1966! You’re supposed to take the high road! I’m sure you would have been invited to be partner eventually, what with all your diligent efforts that always went noticed.” I can’t tell what’s more offensive, Engoron’s blind endorsement of the idea that explicitly transactional sex makes someone a lesser person, or her contention that Joan should base her decisions around what her would-be (and then-are) pimps think of her sexual decisions. A man’s opinion means everything, right? We’ve clearly come a long way in terms of how we think about women. #not
Bubbles: So Charlotte, what do we make of the sad hand-wringing about the selling of souls and bodies here? Are you surprised, as I was, at some of the intensely Puritanical reactions to this plotline?
Charlotte: I wish I were surprised but there are so many closet assholes when it comes to prostitution. The tone of the “bad girl, Joan” articles is so icky. It’s very paternal, even when the authors are women—and so self-righteous! (Surprise surprise.) I think the authors should be embarrassed at how unexamined their reactions are. They struck me as being completely ignorant and cold-hearted more than anything else. I’m embarrassed for them.
Let’s All Be Realistic About What It Was Like Back Then. And Now.
Bubbles: There was a lot of questionable male behavior in that meeting where the decision to go ahead with project Turn Joan Out For Jaguar. The partners (save Sleazy Pete) acted as if the business at hand disgusted them, but, except for Don, not enough to make them shut it down, and they essentially agreed to let Pete broker the deal. While a lot was written about whether or not it was believeable, I think that those of us who’ve worked with, oh, strip club managers and VIP hosts and escort agencies and massage parlor owners really do find it believable that someone can both think he really cares for a woman and see her as a straight-up asset, or have his care be directly tied to her erotic capital. The cultural shame around prostitution clashes with Joan’s place as the emotional center of the show, and is what makes this episode land so hard. It’s a harsh reminder that in those times, a woman’s own merits as a person only went so far, until they butted up against economic and social realities.
I think this episode is going to be an excellent litmus test for viewers’ unexplored attitudes towards sex work. The reason that we’re more appalled that the partners would pimp Joan out than we have been at their frequent visits with prostitutes before is simple: We think of Joan as a “real” person that we respect. But really, all those prostitutes are “real” people. These men have always been like this; we just have to deal with it now that their gross attitudes are being inflicted on a character we love. —Amanda Marcotte
It’s not easy to find a core of morality in scummy circumstances, but Joan did it here. It makes no sense to judge her actions by 2012 upper-middle-class liberal standards. There was no such thing as “sexual harassment” in pre-1980s American offices, only piggish behavior that was more often endured than punished. At the highest levels of every industry, women’s bodies got traded — for accounts, for real estate, for cash, for Super Bowl tickets, you name it. —Matt Zoller Seitz
Charlotte: I’m with Holmes on the partner meeting but I think she, like many reviewers, fails to give appropriate weight to Joan’s realization (courtesy of Lane) that the partners are on board with Pete’s prostitution plan. Let me say that again: they’re with Pete. No one is ever with Pete! They must have been thinking of Joan as a hardcore whore for years if they went along with him so quickly (is what Joan has got to be thinking.) She’s given out tremendous amounts of energy, patience, warmth, and honesty to these men but they barely bat an eye at working out this deal. Ok, maybe co-ed workplace-appropriate behaviors were not in place during the 60s, but these men are her friends, her co-conspirators in making SCDP possible back at the end of Season 3. One is her formerly frequent, long-time lover, and the father of her baby. And yet they don’t hesitate to treat her as an object, something fundamentally inconsequential—merely a means to an end. (I know Don jumped ship, but Joan didn’t find that out until later, so let’s stay in her head for a moment.)
She’s staring down the barrel of single motherhood and now her work, which had previously been her refuge during a shit marriage, is just another arena in which she doesn’t have the power or respect she deserves. Furthermore, reviewers gripe about the broken refrigerator and the apparent broke-ness of Joan as being thin motivation, but she’s offered permanence beyond that of a lump sum, and so her decision-making is more complex than “hey, I need a new refrigerator.” Even more so than financial stability, she’s given the (public!) title of partner and a seat at the table with the men who were so quick to use her. It’s strange to me that so many recappers failed to see the power in that, or recognize the solid ground it would represent for someone so badly shaken by the amoral actions of the men who matter(ed) to her. What do you grasp for when virtually everyone in your life has failed you?
Bubbles: I don’t know about you, Charlotte, but Marcotte and Seitz’s realistic takes were my favorites, perhaps because I tend to see sex work in economic terms more than anything else. It’s the money, stupid, and what the money buys you. I appreciate the fact that the show sort of settles on that, and Joan taking what seems like a step forward. Why shouldn’t she switch her loyalty to her own future? It’s true that her work has been the one constant for Joan, always there for her. Do you think . . . Joan just decided to marry the agency?
Charlotte: Yes! That was exactly my final thought: Joan’s committed to the business now. She truly is a partner, and her focus is going to be on nurturing the growth and economic health of the agency. I was sort of bothered that none of the reviews even glanced upon that idea. It’s taken for granted that a man would be deeply invested in a business he helped build from the ground up. But Joan was there at the beginning of SDCP and she was integral to it coming into being. It wouldn’t run the way it does without her. It’s only natural that she would be taking her rightful place at the table, even if the path there was not what we would have liked for her.
There’s only one way to properly repay Pete for this one:
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Holloway. —Mark Lisanti