The recent return of Mad Men from its 17-month hiatus has left many talking about the impact that the show has had. With regards to television programming that has tried to harness the nostalgia as well as the tumult and turmoil that this era encompassed, many have made note of other shows that have come and gone that focused on the same time period; particularly the recent failures of Pan Am and The Playboy Club.
These latter shows were more dramatic, flashier and really jumped at the opportunity to put the issues of the day right into your face and scream, “See! This is what women and minorities had to deal with!” Mad Men takes a far more nuanced approach, focusing instead on characters and how their lives roll through the landscape of one of the most important and chaotic decades in the nation’s history. The writers understand that a person’s life is not a series of adventures, but one continuous story that just keeps going. It isn’t always as exciting, but it can be far more relatable and involving for the viewer.
One of my favorite characters on the show is Joan Harris, played to perfection by this month’s celebrated ginger, Christina Hendricks. Joan is caught in a strange purgatory between the rise of young women in the workplace pushing boundaries and questioning their assigned roles as secretaries-until-they-find-a-husband and the older set that sees business as an old boy’s club where they neither belong nor desire to be. The older women accept that sometimes the boss will smack their ass and ask for a scotch while the younger group would not stand for it and demand to be treated as equals. Joan is caught in the middle having been trained that the men are in charge, but desiring to move up as indicated when she worked briefly in the Television department of Sterling Cooper, only to have her work be taken over by a man when budget freed up.
Unlike the women of Pan Am or The Playboy Club who brashly display their sexuality as a commodity with which to trade, the curvaceous Joan utilizes her sexuality to move men’s emotions enough to achieve her goals without flaunting herself. She is not ignorant of her actions and understands when she is being watched. She is an object of desire, not attainment and she is very clear about that with her soft, but teacher-like voice and quick wit which will immediately put her co-workers in their place which can be out the door if an undersecretary does not fall in line.
The introduction of her baby this season adds another layer to the cultural commentary as her husband is sure to be shipped off to Vietnam. Will she be the show’s face of single-motherhood that began to arise at the time? How will this affect the climate at SCDP when she returns to the office headed by those firmly ensconced in a post-war mentality?
Some of you might have done 10 minutes of research and found out that Ms. Hendricks dyes her hair red, that she is not a true red head. But I ask you, do we really want to start kicking players off our team that look like this? Don’t we have enough problems in the looks department without getting rid of beautiful people?
Congratulations, Christina Hendricks, you are our Mrs. Reynolds and our Ginger of the Month.