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Why Joan Deserves More Attention On 'Mad Men'

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Spoiler Alert: Do not read unless you have seen "Time Zones," the Season 7 premiere of "Mad Men."

There are plenty of excellent recaps covering last night's "Mad Men," but none of them found the virtual space to talk much about Joan, although she's arguably had one of the most interesting trajectories on the show. Last night, our Joan was most certainly worth discussing. She seemed like a new woman, invigorated rather than intimidated by the chance to work with (and then fight to retain) the footwear account. She was clever and confident, unwilling to be reduced to her enviable aesthetic, especially when her client commented on her looks. It felt like she was a phoenix, having risen from the gender inequality ashes ... and then there was a blatant reference to "The Other Woman."

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It's hard to forget the episode in which Joan prostituted herself to that sweaty beast of a Jaguar executive. She had spent past seasons poised and dignified, willing only to play by the rules. That distinct swerve felt like a crack in her character, but it did more to further her career than tireless years of work at the firm. There was opportunity to use that progress -- despite the sordid way it was gained -- to increase her influence beyond her reputation as someone whose "accomplishments [did not] happen in broad daylight," as Harry Crane put it in "To Have And To Hold." And Joan is aware of that -- a fact that is painfully evident, when she responds to the professor's request for "a trade." "Doesn't money work here?" she asks, her face turning to stone. It's a misunderstanding, but that doesn't do much to reduce the sting.

For too long Joan has been ignored, by the partners, but kind of the show as well. Think of the Avon account she fought so hard to earn in "Tale Of Two Cities" last season. Matthew Weiner later told Alan Sepinwall of Hit Fix that he thought the audience "assumed it would be understood" that she got the account. Even if we were so adept at the mind reading, it would have been nice to have a 30-second frame dedicated to her success. That account, like much of her success, required a cunning combination of strategies. She was given the advantage in getting the tip from her friend Kate, but (somewhat deceptively) maneuvered to pursue it on her own against Pete's (unfair and patently petulant) insistence that he be involved.

As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote at Vulture, "Joan has more power at the agency than Peggy does, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she’s treated." Let's pause to take a look at Peggy, another woman who has found her way as close to the top as the glass ceiling will allow. We left her at the Season 6 finale in Don's office, literally wearing the pants, only to see her now working under a man whose job she could easily do (and much better). But Peggy's path has always been much clearer than Joan's. She worked hard and relied on her dogmatic stubbornness, refusing to let the continued patronization undermine her ferocity. In her own right, she broke the rules merely by moving to a copywriting position from her secretary desk, but from there her path has been a relatively straight line, ruled by determination. (One might argue that her relationship with Ted was professionally advantageous, but I'd counter she got that promotion based at least primarily on merit).

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Joan on the other hand was still being treated like a secretary long after she had been made partner. In addition to the glass ceiling, Joan is constantly blockaded by the paradox of sex and power. Having been given her position as a result of transactional sex may mean that the remaining partners will never be able to truly respect her as their peer. But would they have otherwise? There's a self-defeating logic in thinking that simply because there was sex involved in her rise, that she cannot obtain true power. Instead, she'll just have to continue doing so creatively.

All of the women on this show are faced with a less clear-cut version of that contradiction. They often are given the opportunity to use their looks to get ahead, but know they will be disrespected for doing so, even if they achieve exactly what they want. Joan has always known that her beauty was an advantage. As she once told Don, her mother raised her "to be admired." She's been objectified her entire life, in some way or another. So, isn't it ideal, then, for her to use that subdued version of prostitution to her advantage? Plain and simple, Joan used sex to rise out of her secretarial queendom, but she is now operating that acceleration to prove her ability. And that hasn't gone unrecognized. Ken was dismissive when he handed her the footwear dinner ("I need underlings"), but he wouldn't have given it to her at all, if he didn't have confidence in her business acumen, and Joan knows that.

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It's morally valiant to derive success from pure hard work, but that's never been the reality for women in the 1950s and now late 60s. Historically speaking, the women's movement is on the rise, but it'll be a while before those changes hit the office. (Spoiler Alert: half a century later and things could still use a bit of an overhaul.) The reality is that women in Joan's setting can only strive for a sense of control over their sexuality, rather than eschewing it all together. In an ideal world, we'd have watch Joan climb to partnership using only her nerve and talent, but it's 1969 and, unfortunately, her other assets are still a factor. Now that she's here, all she can do is own the vixen status for which she'll always be undermined. Based off the Season 7 premiere, we know for certain that Joan is ready to lean in, finally having realized that she, as the folks at the A.V. Club put it, "has nothing to beg forgiveness for." It's time to claim her deserved treatment as an SC&P partner, and the earrings are (literally) coming off.

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