Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” was all about Don being behind. He didn’t quite understand Megan’s audition, he couldn’t see what he was doing to Peggy until it was too late, and he just missed saving Joan from a weird night of prostitution.
Well, not just. Joan’s been living a life of quiet prostitution for a while. She told Don last week that “[her] mother raised her to be admired,” but that’s just a glamorous way of saying she was raised to be objectified — and she has been. Sometimes willingly, often not. She’s been indecently proposed to before to lesser degrees, dressing up in that red dress for the Christmas party so that everyone could fantasize about unwrapping her, purring after clients, maintaining her position at the top of the office pecking order by bending over just-so as a performance for the male staffers behind that two-way glass. At least this time she got a raise.
Her entire relationship with Roger is somewhere between mistress, concubine, kept woman, and the one that got away. There’s one part of him that truly and profoundly cares for and about her, but there’s another that keeps trying to give her money and doesn’t take her that seriously. “These men, we’re constantly building them up. And for what? Dinner? Jewelry? Who cares!” she says brightly but tragically in season one’s “Long Weekend.” Later that episode, she rebuffs her weepy lesbian roommate’s advances, and they go out and pick up two red-faced and oily businessmen.
Would that Joan — the “who cares?” Joan, the creme-de-menthe-sharing Joan — have agreed to have sex with the grimy car dealer? Probably not. But that Joan was in control of a certain territory of pop sexuality and had a level of ownership over her life that she doesn’t have anymore. If Don is a little behind these days (and he is), so is Joan. Her dresses are more old-fashioned. Her hairstyle is a little bit dated. We are unlikely to ever see her enter an elevator as a Kinks song plays in the background. When Joan wanted to be nasty to Peggy in season one, she cooly criticized her body, her face, her clothing, her lunch choices. When Joan wanted to be nasty to the receptionist last week, she screamed and threw a model airplane.
A lot of the discussion around this episode focuses on would Joan really do this, and hey, she’s in a desperate situation because she has to care for her child as a single parent. Yes, it’s true that Joan is a single parent, and it’s true that that’s a difficult situation. Except Joan hasn’t brought that up. She hasn’t talked about her fears about raising Kevin alone and hasn’t seemed all that stressed about money (or alimony?), to the point that she declines Roger’s attempts to pay off-the-books child support.
She didn’t sleep with scuzzy car guy just because she was desperate for the stability. She slept with him because she’s in a liminal phase.
Liminalty is the scary in-between times in our lives, the weird time when we’re not who we used to be but we’re not quite who we’re going to be. Joan’s in a classic — classic! — liminal phase right now. She’s not the office vixen anymore, but she hasn’t really transitioned to doting mother. And to top it all off, she’s in the middle of a particularly traumatic divorce. Joan doesn’t know who she is anymore; her entire identity is jeopardized.
How do you fit back into your old life, if you can’t be you? By being other people. Joan isn’t acting out or acting crazy, she’s grasping for models of behavior. She used to be the absolute queen of decorum, never a hair out of place or a situation she couldn’t handle. She is not that person anymore, and she doesn’t know who to be next — but she’s surrounded by men, some cruel, some decent, but all solid, all real, all right there. Maybe she could be like them, just for a little, just until things got easier or clearer. Liminality leads to mimesis, the imitation of the community around us in an attempt to reintegrate ourselves in our new form. Joan’s just acting like the members of the community she’s part of, and that community happens to be the bigwigs at SDCP. Roger, Don, Bert, Lane, Pete. Why would Joan prostitute herself? To fit in again.
Don’s the son of a prostitute, a guy who’s patronized many a sex worker, someone who has accidentally — or at least unconsciously — made people around him feel like they’d sold themselves. He’s the guy who coined the term “that’s what the money is for!” He threw money, actual money, at his protegée in an attempt to shame and punish her. Pete is a rapist, a cheater, a schemer, someone shockingly desperate to get what he thinks is his due. He has also partaken in the services of sex workers. Lane is an embezzler and philanderer, but he’s so darn decorous that he insists that Don let him pay his fair share for the prostitutes they picked up together on New Year’s. (That was $25 well spent.) Joan knows how deep Roger’s lecherous streak goes, and she’s been a beneficiary of it for a good chunk of her adult life. Bert Cooper embodies detachment, perhaps thanks to his lack of testicles. Heck, Joan’s just one of the guys.
Our moral outrage or discomfort or whatever it is with this episode is in a lot of ways a reflection of the misogyny Mad Men often depicts. Paying people for sex? Well, that’s just an antihero for you! Getting paid for sex? This is a tragedy! I don’t believe it! Joan would never! Oh God, poor Joan. Yes, there is a power imbalance between johns and prostitutes; of course paying for sex and getting paid for sex are not synonymous. But they’re not independent of each other, either, and we’ve tolerated, and maybe kind of celebrated, this show’s depiction of one side of that transaction. Why should the other side feel so different?
“The Other Woman” is the perfect title for this episode, and we’ll probably be unpacking it for years to come. For these purposes, that other woman’s not a mistress, or a rival, or a subordinate. Joan’s her own other woman. She’s not herself anymore. And she’s not herself yet. But she is a 5 percent partner.