Leading Ladies

How Joan and Peggy Survived Mad Men’s Slings and Arrows

One used her seductive femininity, the other worked for her colleagues’ grudging respect. As Mad Men ends with feminism’s clarion call, how will Joan and Peggy’s tumultuous stories reach completion?   

“You want to be a big shot. Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re just another humorless bitch.”

With those venomous words, Joan saunters out of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s offices in Season 4 of Mad Men, leaving Peggy speechless in the elevator.

Having just fired a freelance artist for sexually harassing Joan—crude remarks and taping pornographic cartoons to her office window—Peggy expected gratitude from Joan.

It was unwanted assistance, Joan hissed; she’d “already handled it” in her own way. “And if I wanted to go further, one dinner with Mr. Kreutzer from Sugarberry Ham, and Joey would have been off it and out of my hair.”

Three and a half seasons later, the relationship between Joan and Peggy has mirrored a rapidly changing America, a country that will soon see the advancement of the “women’s lib” movement, the codifying of anti-discrimination laws, the rise of Ms. Magazine, and modern feminism.

So here we again find them at odds, again in an elevator, after a meeting with brutish account executives at SCDP’s new parent agency, McCann Erickson.

Having gone from a busty, bombshell secretary to a busty, bombshell account executive, Joan is again faced with a barrage of sexual innuendos as she and Peggy pitch a proposal for a pantyhose client. Times are changing, but the advertising world is still full of oafish, entitled men.

“Do you wear them, Joan?” “What’s so special about your panties?” “So you can pull them down over and over?” “Why aren’t you in the brassiere business?” When Joan politely registers her dismay (“Excuse me?”), Peggy takes over, swatting away their imbecilic and sexist questions. Joan remains silent, cowed and embittered.

“I want to burn this place down,” she tells Peggy in the elevator.

Peggy’s sympathy is short-lived. The woman who so effectively used sex to advance her career must now decide which side she’s on.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she lectures, exasperated and slightly tone deaf. “You can’t dress the way you do and expect—”

“How do I dress?” Joan interrupts, before telling Peggy that she’s not attractive enough to be targeted by men with lewd remarks.

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Peggy snaps back: “You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

It’s a fantastically tense scene playing off the turbulent sisterhood of Peggy and Joan. In the past 10 years, they’ve fought their way to the top—clawing, elbowing, sacrificing, evolving—as women in a man’s business, but with a dynamic (and resulting catty confrontations) that hasn’t changed since the first season: Joan thinks Peggy doesn’t respect her; Peggy thinks Joan belittles her.

So when Peggy shows up at Sterling Cooper—naive, timid, earnest, unsexy—in the show’s first episode, Joan gives her the rundown and a few secretarial pro-tips, some more generous than others.

“Go home, take a paper bag, and cut some eye holes out of it,” she says when Peggy sits down at her desk for the first time. “Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.”

Peggy, as ever, tries her hardest (so much so that, in a moment of desperation and insecurity, she sleeps with Pete later in the season and ends up getting pregnant).

When Joan convinces some of the guys to take her and Peggy out to lunch, Peggy is put off by their sexual advances—some mocking and some serious—which results in further belittling from Joan. “You’re the new girl, and you’re not much,” she tells her. “You might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

It’s hard to believe that Joan’s actually threatened by Peggy at this point. But Peggy’s earnestness and otherness annoys Joan.

She feels slighted by Peggy’s discomfort with male attention because she eats it up. And as Queen of the office, Joan feels entitled to put Peggy down with nasty comments about Peggy’s looks.

A few episodes later, Joan pressures Peggy into telling her that Don is having an affair, then immediately chastises her for gossiping.

In another scene, she leans over Peggy’s desk and says of Don, “I’ve always wondered why he’s ignored me.” It’s a boastful remark, though it hardly conceals her jealousy of Peggy, whom Don looks at differently than he does the other women in the office. She then reminds Peggy that it’s her job to “keep his record clean here and at home.”

“This job is odd,” Peggy mumbles. She’s still a believing Catholic, shocked and disappointed about Don’s infidelity. “But it’s the best,” Joan whispers, her eyes bright and brimming with ambition.

Despite all her talk about getting married and being taken care of, Joan loves her job. When she gets her ticket out of Sterling Cooper—a proposal from a handsome doctor (the opposite of a sleazy ad man, she thinks)—she realizes being a housewife is a lot less fun than being in the action on Madison Avenue.

Her gallant doctor-husband isn’t much better than the sleazy ad men. She spends her days reading and laboring over the stove, trying to keep busy, only to have him complain about what she prepares for dinner.

Betty and Trudy know this routine all too well, and they smile and whip up something else. But they only tolerate the whining and philandering for so long.

Joan’s marriage collapses too, but at least she can flee her broken home for work every day. So when a lawyer arrives at the office to serve her divorce papers, she loses it.

It’s not the divorce that pushes her over the edge, but the encroachment on her turf, the only place where she can hold her head high despite the grim realities of a failed marriage and single-motherhood.

Peggy only has work, where she’s desexualized by her male colleagues and teased for not having motherly instincts. (Only Don knows about the baby she gave away—Pete’s child—though she later confides in Stan about it.)

Earlier in the series, when she’s still struggling to be taken seriously as a junior copywriter, she consults Joan about how to make the boys include her more.

“I’ve never had your job. I’ve never wanted it,” Joan spits at Peggy.

Perhaps, but she still wants respect from the men in the office. And Peggy’s one of the boys now, despite having previously tried—and failed—to emulate Joan’s sexiness and sophistication.

“You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl,” Joan says, puffing at a cigarette. So Peggy does just that, and it works: she’s included on a big meeting for Maidenform, in which the men are working on a pitch about how all women are either Jackies or Marilyns.

Everyone agrees Joan is a Marilyn. Peggy asks which one she is, and Ken volunteers, somewhat cruelly, Gertrude Stein.

Struggling with her identity, asking Joan for advice, Peggy wants to be objectified. In the 1960s (and ’70s, and ’80s) it was how one got ahead in advertising.

No one knows this better than Joan. So she resents Peggy when she ends up getting ahead purely on her talent and determination.

Joan eventually gets ahead too. But as much as she’s valued at SCDP for her business savvy and work ethic, her looks are worth more.

When the company is trying to secure Jaguar as a client, Pete and Lane pressure Joan into sleeping with Jaguar’s slimy CEO, promising her a partnership.

She prostitutes herself, because a woman in her position at that time often sacrificed dignity in deal-making. So Joan degrades herself for one brutal night, knowing it’s worth the financial and professional rewards.

Peggy is still Don’s protégé (and is kept off the Jaguar account because they don’t want a woman on it), while Joan becomes his equal.

But fast-forward to last week’s episode, with Joan radicalized, a woman’s libber, and a female account executive at McCann Erickson.

As she predicted, her male colleagues at the new firm don’t treat her as an equal partner but as an annoyance.

When Dennis—the same cretin who previously suggested she be in the bra business--botches a client call, Joan reprimands him for being ill-prepared, he gives her a taste of McCann’s culture of misogyny: “Who told you to get pissed off?”

When Joan discreetly requests Dennis be taken off her account, he is replaced by yet another apeish exec who assumes she’ll be eager to sleep with someone of his stature.

“Joan, it may not have sunk in, but your status has changed,” she is told by Jim Hobart, the head of McCann. “Your little stake doesn’t mean anything here.” Adjust to her new station—and accept second-class status at McCann—or walk away from the company with 50 cents on the dollar for her shares: the glass ceiling and the wage gap, all in one scene.

The busty secretary who once advised shamelessly using sex appeal to excel now threatens lawsuits, while referencing Betty Friedan and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But as Roger reminds her, it would likely be a losing legal battle and she could come away with nothing. So she takes the bad deal, a depressing defeat and reminder of how powerless women were when faced with workplace harassment.

Two years later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act would be written into law—too late for a defeated, dejected Joan.

Meanwhile, Peggy, mistaken for a secretary during the move, works out of an empty SCDP office, a ghost ship, until McCann puts her name and title on a proper office. When she finds Roger lurking around a corner, they commiserate over a bottle of vermouth.

He gets nostalgic, but Peggy confesses she’s excited about the prospect of being a big shot at a big ad firm.

When he hands her one of Bert’s antique paintings to hang in her new office—“an octopus pleasuring a lady,” he offers—she hesitates. “They won’t take me seriously. You know I need to make men feel at ease!”

When Peggy defiantly strolls into McCann hungover the next day—sunglasses on, cigarette dangling from her mouth, Bert’s half-pornographic painting tucked under her arm, ready to hold her own among the boys—we know she’ll run into the same challenges and institutional sexism. They’re small fish in a big pond, guppies in the ocean.

But Peggy remains, self-assured and self-confident, a symbol of what is to come for women in the workplace. Joan, the sultry and sexually manipulative creature of disappearing habits, is diminished—50 cents on the dollar, apparently the price of being a beautiful woman who’s good at her job—having found out what Peggy always knew.