Something Beautiful You Can Truly Bone: Prostitution For Partnership on Mad Men

by Bubbles on June 1, 2012 · 12 comments

in Reviews, Television

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

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Miss Dior Dandridge June 1, 2012 at 10:39 pm

this is a great article!

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OtroBaboso June 1, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It’s legal to make porn in California because the law there says, in essence, that sex for money isn’t prostitution as long as the person paying for the sexual act isn’t the person benefiting from the service. So by California law, Joan isn’t a prostitute because SDCP is paying for her services, not the Jaguar dealer she has sex with.

My point is that the definition of prostitute is pretty arbitrary. The question of whether Joan is a prostitute is meaningless in itself. The only issue of interest is what it says about the people who feel it’s important to judge whether or not she’s a prostitute.

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Cate June 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm

FINALLY someone wrote a good deconstruction of this episode.

Personally, Joan’s choice to be a one-time prostitute made me sad, simply because it was so clear that she didn’t really want to do it. I think Bubbles made a good point when she said that Joan seems to have decided to marry the agency, but marriage hasn’t treated her well. After all, Dr. Harris raped her before they were married, and certainly seemed to view their entire marriage as something he ran with no say from Joan herself. I can imagine that she views marriage as a system within which one accepts coercion and extreme sacrifice as the price one pays for security.

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Elle Elle June 3, 2012 at 3:04 am

I really need to start watching this show.

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toastedtofu June 3, 2012 at 7:25 am

I feel like the writers love taking little pot shots at Joan, just chipping away at her put-together persona so we see her, yet again, rise above the humiliation. But unlike Peggy, we never get to see how she FEELS. We always see how she is in front of other people. I’m thinking specifically of when she got raped, and all we see of her reaction is her at her type writer with a big bouquet of flowers. Even her decision to keep her baby was like, 3 or 4 seconds. I feel like this was one of first episodes where we got to see Joan’s inner dialogue. As much as I think the writing in this episode could have been better, Christina Hendricks acted the SHIT out of that script.

I do think there was something very sad about that inner dialogue. “I’m nearing 40, I’m a divorcee, a woman with a baby will never get married again, my mother is a nightmare, my life is broken, my bosses think I’m a whore, I work with Pete Cambell oh god how can my life get any worse” ect. But I think the prostitution itself could, if the writers handle it well, be her phoenix moment. Joan wiggling into the all male, all gray partner’s meeting in her turquoise dress and red hair was amazing. She now has the POWER to do what she wants, her voice (aka share holdings) MATTERS. She has been getting her self-worth from the men around her since season 1, and this time she got it all in one lump sum, to do with as she pleases. I really really hope to see more Joan story lines that aren’t about trying to make her look sad and pathetic.

I also hope this doesn’t turn into some Joan on a downward spiral piece of crap.

I think the two best non-Joan’s face moments in the show were when Don threw money at Peggy because he was morally outraged at the Jaguar guy, and when Lane told Joan to take a 5% stake to cover his embezzling ass.

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lyris June 3, 2012 at 8:32 am

I’ve not seen this episode, so I could be entirely wrong, but it seems to me based on this recap that Joan is the only one with her integrity left in tact. Those men who “easily” give her body away are punishing, to my mind, themselves for how desperately they need her. Pete is a twerp, so he might be the exception (actually trying to one up her). The rest are so hopelessly dependent on her that they have to make some pathetic attempt to assert their control when in reality she runs the show (double meaning intended). Joan, on the other hand, while conflicted and frankly betrayed by this knot of needy babies, demonstrates that she is business to the core. She does what needs to be done to secure her place because her vision is not so limited as theirs and her integrity not as negotiable. Perhaps my read valorizes Joan too much, but something I really like about her is that she works what she’s got to get what she needs. However, to my mind, she never gives her soul (or whatever we are calling intrinsic value and self respect these days) to anyone. She gives love, and care, but not core self. That is what makes her, if not invincible, at least damned strong and worthy of a place at the table. My two cents.

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toastedtofu June 4, 2012 at 7:17 am

@lyris, then why did she marry her rapist?

Did anyone else think that the Hare Krishna thing in ‘A Christmas Waltz’ was weird? I mean specifically the (ex?)prostitute black mailing Harry?

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Vy June 7, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Was I the only who wasn’t going to let Don off so easily? It’s all well and good for him to play at being all outraged and morally superior, but (for once) Pete Campbell nailed the truth v. well: the discussion doesn’t stop just because you left the room, Don. And I think it’s unreasonable to assume that he doesn’t know that (or *should*). So I see him not as objecting, but as vainly abstaining: “I’m not going to stop you, but I am going to make sure that other people make the decision/take responsibility,” which makes him among the scummiest players in this episode, for my money. The fact that he turns up at Joan’s apartment too late didn’t come across as tragic, but as just more evidence of his impotence of late.

As for Joan though: yay for making the most of a shitty work environment!

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane June 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I thought the same thing for a while, that it was cowardly and cheap and disingenuous for him to leave. But then I thought about it a little more and it seemed plausible for his character (narcissistic, increasingly disconnected from the workplace) to genuinely think his leaving would put a halt to the whole thing. Also, to be fair, it was Pete bringing it up. Pete! I’m still surprised when the other partners take him seriously about anything.

I did think that Don’s last minute visit to Joan’s apartment was kind of gross and manipulative, and infinitely more selfish than it was self-less, but I also have a constitutional distrust/dislike of men who try to meddle in the sexual decisions of women, whether it’s transactional or not.

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Julia June 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

I agree about Don’s visit to Joan – and we see it repeated in the season finale with the visit to Lane’s widow, who tells him exactly what she thinks of him showing up and trying to make nice.

This is a phenomenal rundown and very thoughtful, I wish you all did this for every episode!

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Lilly Muse June 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Personally, I love Pete, and for all his sleaziness, he’s one of the most honest characters on the show. He has fewer boundaries than any prostitute I know, as he has proven time and time again that he will do ANYTHING for the account, for the recognition, for the agency. The Jaguar account was his baby, after all, one that he believed in more than anyone, as was evidenced when his announcement of it at the partners’ meeting was met with frustrating ambivalence. Pete’s ambition, sleazy or not, surpasses that of anyone else at SCDP (Peggy is the only one who comes close).

In 1966 (not that much has changed here), it’s totally likely Pete thinks of Joan as sort of a ho already simply because she does so know how to work her sex appeal (unlike the “good,” but boring girls in his life), so he probably thinks it’s all the more convenient, but if the woman in question were anyone else, shit yeah, he’d find a way to do the exact same thing. (I’d love to know if he’d pimp out Trudy for American Airlines.) It’s not that Pete doesn’t respect Joan–I think he very much does–but her cooperation is a means to an end, and he’ll do whatever he must to seal the Jaguar deal. I don’t think he fundamentally sees her agreeing to sleep with the guy as much different than Roger getting shitfaced with all the alkie clients. At least Pete didn’t make half-assed reservations about the whole thing, unlike the other partners, who pussyfooted around with “how dare you!”s for a minute, only to ultimately agree in record time.

At the same time, I think it’s no coincidence that the show’s writers put the Joan and Peggy storylines in the same episode. We see two women faced with similarly difficult career decisions and who go about achieving them in very different ways, but in the end they’re really just playing two sides of the same coin. Joan knows and we know she can’t leave the agency to find a better position than the one she’s in at SCDP, like, say, Peggy can. She really does go through with the arrangement to not only take a huge leap forward in her career, an opportunity she would not have otherwise had, but also out of loyalty to the business she’s been with for 13 years. When Lane approaches her about the situation and considers that maybe they don’t really need the Jaguar business–before she knows he knows–she still puts on her professional hat and sincerely asserts that Jaguar is a game changer for the agency, even if she knows she’s got to sleep with a big fat greaseball in order to make it happen. On the other hand, when Peggy makes her decision to quit, she acts out of sheer personal gain and moves on to a rival agency, a knife which clearly twists in Don’s heart. I see both women’s choices as valid and necessary, but is Peggy’s so much more admirable than Joan’s? One quietly slips out the door, the other up to the table. They both make the tough decisions that they need to with the circumstances they are given.

I know I’m commenting way after the fact here, but in the season finale, my favorite part is the short scene in which the five remaining partners go to check out their new office space. The last shot in that scene, in which they stand in a line and gaze profoundly out the windows, the four men in their dark suits adopt masculine stances on either side of the powerful siren at its fulcrum: Joan in a signature red pencil dress and feminine stance. This is a beautiful picture of the new power dynamic.

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