As the final season of AMC's Mad Men approaches, I am feeling a little bit of melancholy. It could be that I will miss seeing vintage clothing so perfectly showcased under Janie Bryant's brilliant supervision. It could be that I will miss the impeccable period designs executed by set decorator Amy Wells and production designer Dan Bishop. Their attention to detail brought us so many subtle realities of mid century America that we could almost smell the smoke infiltrated air of those stuffy offices. Or, maybe I'll miss the twists and turns of Don Draper's dalliances or Pete Campbell's, perhaps hopeless, eternal need for acceptance and admiration. I probably will miss all of those things, and more, but mostly, I will miss the brave women of Mad Men. The female characters who have so well represented the strong, brave women of that generation. Women who broke through seemingly impossible barriers to make life a little easier for the rest of us.
I think I will miss Joan most of all. I've always felt that Christina Hendricks' portrayal of Joan represented a lot of women. She was cursed and blessed with a body, beauty, and brains. She was more capable than most of the men for whom she worked, and yet the times required that she down play her talent and abilities. She knew how to use her sex appeal when it was required but hated the fact that she needed to do so. She demanded perfection of those women she mentored because she understood their true worth. She pushed them because she knew that they deserved to be more - something that even they didn't always understand at the time. But she also resented them a little for having opportunities she knew she would never be able to have in her lifetime. Unlike some of the younger women of the time, she was caught between two worlds - unable to let go of many of the rules and behavioral expectations of her generation but desperate to escape the limitations of being a woman in the 1960s.
“He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.”
“This is why I don’t allow crying in the break room. It erodes morale. There’s a place to do that, like you’re apartment.” Joan Harris
I've talked to many women who were trying to navigate successful careers during the 1950's and 1960's who say that Mad Men captured the struggle perfectly. Not only were these women trying to break free from the constraints of being a conventional "good wife", many were trying to be taken seriously in the work place at the same time. The term "sexual harassment wasn't introduced yet, and most women were still being told that finding a man to take care of them should be their ultimate goal. You can see Joan's struggle with those raw issues behind the deep sadness in her eyes and beyond her perfectly controlled smile.
“I was just made Director of Agency Operations. A title, no money of course. And if they poured champagne, it must have been while I was pushing the mail cart.” Joan Harris
I sometimes wonder if things have really changed that much for women. Yes, things seem like they should be easier for us, but maybe it's within the mystery of paradox that women still find their true identities. We, like the Joans of the 60's, are a mass of contradictions; obsessed with our appearance but demand that everyone see beyond it, struggling with wanting to be good mothers but leaving our kids to forge the careers for which we prepared for by spending 4 -8 years in college. We use our femininity to open doors but complain that it should be enough to simply knock. We still feel subjected to objectification - some (which I will never understand), even embrace it.
I'm grateful to the real women who forged the way for us and for characters like Joan Harris, who remind us that we didn't get here alone. Thank you Christina Hendricks, for being the perfect Joan, and thank you Mad Men, for bringing her to us! We will miss the clothes, the hair, the subtle smirks, but mostly, we will miss the silent strength of a woman who has represented a little piece of all of us.
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