"Mad Men" and the tense sisterhood of Peggy and Joan: "I want to burn this place down"

A staggeringly sexist meeting reveals simmering resentments between Joan and Peggy — and a betrayal

Published April 6, 2015 5:18PM (EDT)

Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks in "Mad Men"              (AP/Michael Yarish/amc)
Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks in "Mad Men" (AP/Michael Yarish/amc)

Like millions of others, I anticipated last night’s return of AMC’s “Mad Men” as a return to familiar scenarios: rolling my eyes at Don, chuckling at Roger, wondering what it must have been like to live and work in that era.

Throughout the series, one of the most complex dynamics has been between the women of “Mad Men,” specifically Joan and Peggy. The series began with experienced Joan showing wide-eyed Peggy the ropes, advising her to toughen up in an industry that serves as a microcosm for the overwhelming sexism that occurred nearly as often as one of the characters pours a drink.

The first half of the last season saw Joan and Peggy coming into their own professionally, Joan receiving a huge pay day after selling her share in the company with the other partners and Peggy having authority over a team of male coworkers. For a second, it seemed like just maybe the status in the workforce was moving forward with the times. But one of the key things about “Mad Men” is that the show never allows viewers to get too comfortable.

In last night’s premiere, Joan and Peggy are tasked to work together to rebrand a line of drugstore pantyhose that lead the pair to a meeting with a team of male reps with their partners at McCann Erickson. The ladies arrive, informed, professional and prepared to get the ball rolling, while the men are unable to resist shifting the meeting’s focus to spewing double entendres about female fashion and anatomy.

“So you can pull [the pantyhose] down over and over?” asks one of the men while another comments on the state of the world if their competitor, L’eggs, is to spread all over.

Peggy goes on a well-played offensive by shifting the panythose metaphor to highlight their strength, but the men don’t care. In fact, I don’t think they heard her.

The situation gets personal when one of the men leans across the table, eyes directed at Joan. “Why aren’t you in the brassiere business?” he asks, “You should be in the bra business -- you’re a work of art!”


Joan and Peggy handle the meeting with aplomb, but get candid with each other in the elevator after when Peggy confronts a visibly upset Joan. For a while, Joan seemed to accept -- or at least go along with -- the “come for the boobs, stay for the brains” method of being effective at work, smiling coquettishly when need be, gently suggesting alternatives to her male coworkers ideas. But things are different now that Joan is a partner in the company and financially secure, not to mention excellent at her job. She’s realizing that despite her success, men still refuse to acknowledge her as little more than a sexual “work of art.”

“You can’t dress the way you do and expect… You can’t have it both ways,” said Peggy to an aghast Joan, who replied, “So what you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you, and that’s very, very true.” Peggy fires back that because Joan is rich now, she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to — the implication being that Peggy still has to put up with that degree of unwanted sexual behavior because unlike Joan, she doesn't have the option to just walk out if on-the-job harassment becomes too much to bear.

It’s an interesting shift in the dynamic considering that Joan told Peggy in Season One that she needed to stop dressing like a child if she wanted to be taken seriously. Peggy dismisses the men’s behavior at the meeting, seemingly okay with — or at least pragmatically at peace with — the company continuing to use Joan as sexual currency.

Peggy’s response seems conditioned by years of undergoing sexism and harassment, but translates as a betrayal once she shames Joan for her appearance and successes, whereas Joan’s response suggests an underlying vulnerability that’s rarely exposed. Later in the episode, Joan regains some of her control through shopping for beautiful clothes, while Peggy relinquishes some of hers by taking a chance on a date with Mathis' brother-in-law Stevie. The design of their respective shields and how they raise and lower them isn't accidental.

It was Joan in Season Four that said to Peggy, “You want to be a big shot. Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.” It’s clear that Joan recognizes that despite her success, both Peggy and the men she works with see her as little more than a cartoon of her own accomplishments and assets. But she continues to look ahead.

“I want to burn this place down,” she says before exiting the elevator. That’s one way to break a glass ceiling.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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