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The first in a series of posts examining the women of the popular AMC drama Mad Men, from my feminist lens. Note: Mild spoilers from earlier seasons below!

Joan Harris, the office manager of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (and formerly the office manager of Sterling Cooper) is often described in terms of her looks: voluptuous, bombshell, curvy, sexy, etc. According to Wikipedia, the actress who plays her is 5’8” and 140 pounds – which I totally do not believe as a woman who is 5’7” (when I round up), although perhaps they add padding to her costume. Joan is played by Christina Hendricks, who was voted the “best looking woman in America” in a 2010 Esquire magazine poll of female readers.

During season one of Mad Men, Joan is living a carefree, single-gal-in-the-city lifestyle. You could consider her the early 1960s version of Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones. She lives with a female roommate, has a successful job (for a woman of the time), and makes no apologies for having an affair with her older, married boss – nor does she pressure him to leave his wife and ‘make an honest woman’ out of her. She’s assertive, smart, witty, confident and doesn’t try to act as if she needs a man. Joan quickly becomes a favorite character of fans.

Unfortunately, in season two, Joan gets engaged to a man who quickly became a villain to fans. Greg Harris seemed like a charming almost-doctor when his character is first introduced – but then he date rapes Joan … our Joan, as many fans feel connected to her in some way.

In season three, Greg, now her husband, is supposed to become a doctor. Joan even quits her job in anticipation for life as the doctor’s wife. Unfortunately, Greg fails to land a job as a doctor, and Joan’s embarrassment and sense of disappointment is obvious. In the finale of season three, Greg announces he has enlisted in the Army as a surgeon. It’s the end of 1963, and history gives Joan’s Number One Fans the hope that the villainous husband will meet his fate in Vietnam.

In season four, Joan is back to work as the office manager of the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This time around, she has her own office. She is waiting for word that Greg will ship out to Vietnam.

Joan is an interesting character. At first, she seems to be the poster child for sexy feminists. She doesn’t have a husband, and doesn’t seem to care. She has a good job. She sleeps with whoever she wants. She has a brain and isn’t afraid to use it. Personally, I was disappointed in seasons two and three when she seemed on the road to life as a stay-at-home-wife. Especially when it seemed like that’s what her character wanted. What would have been the point of introducing such a strong, independent female character just to “clip her wings” into stay-at-home-wifedom?

Regardless, the most noticeable thing about Joan, especially as a relief to 2000s audiences, is that she has a figure! A beautiful, curvy, voluptuous figure.

However … in much of the coverage of her character, it starts to feel like that’s ALL she is … a curvy figure. Fixating on one woman’s curves to such an extent is almost as bad as fixating on another woman’s perfect, slim, girlish shape. In the end, they are still just their bodies.

And apparently, even Christina’s voluptuous figure isn’t safe from airbrushing. Photos of her modeling for London Fog (one time client on Mad Men) reveal that she’s been airbrushed down a few curves. It’s interesting to compare the coverage from feminist (and female-authored) with fashion bloggers (and gay males) Tom and Lorenzo at Project Rungay. Granted, Project Rungay is about fashion and style and not social commentary, which is Jezebel’s territory. However, they do point out that “it's always a good thing when a woman who isn't starving herself to death gets hired for this sort of thing.” Yes, yes it is. However, when the photos are edited to make her appear thinner, what’s the point?

Either way, the focus is still on her body. I honestly don’t know much about Christina Hendricks, but I’ve watched every single episode of Mad Men (minus last night’s, I don’t have cable so I usually don’t watch new episodes until the Monday or Tuesday after they air), some episodes two or three times, so I know a lot about the character of Joan Harris. And many other female television characters. It takes intent to write a funny, witty, smart, confident female character. It does make sense that a smart woman of her time (well, any time) would understand how to use her looks to get noticed and get ahead (the character of Bobbie Barrett did as well, if you’re a fan, you might remember her advice to Peggy Olsen on making it in a man’s world: “You can't be a man. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly.”)

But is it feminist or anti-feminist for a woman to use her looks to get ahead? Clearly, as we can see in Mad Men, all woman of that era, both career women and housewives, knew the importance of their looks. Was it fair? Of course not. But it’s how they got ahead. For women who aspired to be stay-at-home mothers, they knew their husband wanted pretty, put-together and presentable wives to come home to and take out on the town. Heck, these women wore pearls and did their hair to go to the grocery store. Career women knew they had to look professional in the work place, but also attractive, if not also sexy. But not too sexy – remember when Jane showed too much cleavage? Or maybe she was just butting into Joan’s territory as the office sexpot. Regardless, anyone who has examined that era (even just by watching Mad Men) can clearly see the emphasis on women’s appearances.

But is that anti-feminist? I sometimes struggle with my daily application of make-up and heels for work. Why do I feel the need to do so? I think regardless of gender, appearances count. That opinion is probably largely affected by the fact that my full-time job is in the field of public relations. But appearance sends a message. Taking the time to look professional at work tells my colleagues that I take my job seriously. Wearing a sexy dress to go out with my husband tells him that I want to look good for him, and I’m sure he doesn’t mind being able to “show off” his sexy wife. Likewise for me; I appreciate when he takes the time to look nice.

Getting back to Joan. I wonder what the show would be like if she wasn’t the voluptuous character, but rather Peggy (the young, single, doing-a-man’s-job career woman) or Betty (the stay-at-home-mom) was. Would it have the same affect? Would it seem out of place? Does it work on Joan because her role at the office is one of authority and support – authority over the secretaries (women) but support of the partners (men)? She’s in the middle so you don’t suspect that her looks have gotten her too far, but you don’t feel bad about fixating on them because she’s not too important.

So, we can’t argue that looks mattered then, and they matter now, but is that bad? As long as the looks don’t overpower what’s really important – intelligence, personality, morals, drive, work ethic, etc? I feel that as long as looks support those things – draw you in to learn more – instead of overshadow or replace those things, they’re a good thing. So what do they do for Joan?

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