Once upon a time, in season 2’s “Maidenform,” the creative department of Sterling Cooper proposed a campaign to Playtex: Jackie and Marilyn as two sides of one woman. The men pointed at different women around the office, assigning them to a category. This secretary was a Jackie, that one a Marilyn, another a Jackie, Joan certainly a Marilyn. Peggy, they said, was neither (“Gertrude Stein”). At that point, as their first female copywriter, Peggy had already left behind the typical roles for women in the Sterling Cooper offices. It was like she no longer counted.
Peggy’s fight on Mad Men has always been to be taken seriously. To be seen as more than a little girl playing in a man’s world. She didn’t go to college, but to Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School. She worked her way up because the right people noticed what she could do, because she had good teachers and, most of all, because she decided what she wanted from her life and wouldn’t let anyone take it away from her. She learned to be firm, to stand her ground, to say no. She watched Don and she tried to emulate him until she could get her own way. It made her a force as a copywriter. It also meant she had to sacrifice a great deal in her personal life, giving up repeatedly on loves that weren’t quite right, and giving up a child–and its domestic trappings–to single-mindedly pursue her career.
Joan isn’t seen as a little girl at all. Her battle has been with her own figure, and the expectations the world places upon it. When we first met her, in the pilot, she had more power than any other woman in Sterling Cooper’s offices. She looked at Peggy like a puppy she could train. She was pleased with her life, with her own understanding of how the office worked, with her ability to do her job well. Professionally, she didn’t want anything more. And over the years since that’s changed. She got married and realized maybe that victory wasn’t what she wanted. She became a single mother and realized she’d have to provide for her son. She took on new responsibilities at work and realized maybe there were opportunities she hadn’t seen before. Joan watched Peggy’s ascent and started looking up her own ladder, discovering it had more rungs than she’d previously thought.
But when Peggy called a bunch of used tissue a “basket of kisses” in front of Freddie Rumsen he saw potential. When Joan excelled in the media department Harry Crane saw it as a job so easy even a secretary could do it.
“Maidenform” is the episode where Peggy starts to figure out the path that will work for her at Sterling Cooper. She’s finding herself shut out of meetings on the Playtex account. She’s not invited to casting, nor to the after-hours partying where the real business gets done. And she goes to Joan for advice. “You’re in their country. Learn to speak the language,” Joan tells her. And: “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl.” At the end of the episode Peggy shows up to boy’s night at the strip club with the Playtex executives. She wears a low-cut dress and her hair down. She sits on an executive’s lap and she smiles and she plays along with the men. And over the years since she’s excelled because she has learned to speak the language. She’s given up her old spoil-sport attitude toward the ways the men in the office behave and she’s learned to talk back. Her clothes have become more adult and more professional. She has asserted herself by defying people’s expectations of her.
Meanwhile, Joan has always used those expectations to her advantage. She’s seemed to grow stronger from them. She knew that she could swing her hips or wear the right dress and get her way with just about anyone. And that power culminated in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce pimping her out to a Jaguar executive in exchange for a partnership.
In that partnership Joan found a way to provide for her son. She found self-sufficiency beyond anything she’d ever imagined. And she’s also leveraged it into more fulfilling work. She’s got her own accounts. She’s got new challenges. She has a job that shouldn’t have anything to do with her physical assets, but with her brain and everything she’s learned watching business happen in the Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) (And Partners) offices over the years.
In the meeting that Peggy and Joan take with the McCann Erickson executives in last night’s episode, “Severance,” they are the only representatives for SC&P. Don’s not there, nor Pete or Ken or Harry. They sit across the table from three men who will listen to what they have to say, sure, they’ll even approve the request for support with Topaz Pantyhose. But first they’re going to make a whole bunch of jokes, they’re going to comment on Joan’s breasts and make references to her panties. They see the novelty of taking this unusual meeting with two women, and not the everyday of Peggy and Joan’s lives, working in this office.
Peggy has sat through these meetings for years. She’s rarely been targeted sexually, at least not the way Joan has, but she’s had to fight for men to take her seriously in her job. It’s wasn’t enough to gain the respect of her co-workers, because the nature of the industry required the clients to listen to her, too. Her ability to roll with the daily micro-aggressions, that advice she took from Joan back in “Maidenform,” to learn to speak the language, allows her to keep her cool in that meeting. To laugh a bit at the inappropriate jokes at her expense, and to keep chugging through her presentation until the men are ready to listen to her. But Joan has run out of patience for being treated like a walking bra. She’s not an office manager anymore. Topaz is her account. She expects more.
But over and over again Joan is reminded that people will refuse to look past her appearance. Hell, she’s a partner, but she has to wait with the models in casting to get an audience with Don (who, like the rest of the men in the office, has had his business hours consumed by the effort to find a beautiful woman to walk around in nothing but a fur coat and show off her smooth skin). And then, in the elevator after the meeting, so much rage boiling in her blood that all she can say is “I want to burn this place down,” Peggy twists the knife, blaming the comments on the way Joan dresses and then, in frustration, saying, “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Of course, Peggy doesn’t know the price Joan paid to become a partner, the price she paid for her wealth. She’s seen men treat Joan like a sex object for years, and she’s never seen Joan angered by it. Peggy and Joan have both come a long way since they met in 1960, but they struggle to see past their initial impressions of each other. Joan still sees Peggy as naive, and Peggy sees Joan as worldly, and to a certain extent each of them envies the other. But Peggy is taken more seriously now. It’s hearing Stevie repeat back the compliments Mathis paid her that starts to shift her attitude on their date later in the episode, the respect that this man who works under her has for her, that he’d pass it along to his brother-in-law, makes her warmer, more open. Joan has not yet reached that point. Joan can’t even see it.
So instead she goes and spends some of that money she worked so hard to earn. She goes to the department store she once worked in, back when she was trying to support the husband who couldn’t support her, and spends her own money on dresses and boots that will show off the figure men and women can’t look past. She refuses the offer of a discount because she doesn’t need it, doesn’t want it.
She’s filthy rich, after all. She doesn’t have to take a call from a jerk at McCann Erickson.