Joan Holloway’s “magnificent” parlor game

Note: Today’s post on Mad Men absolutely contains spoilers. In order to set up the particular scene that will take focus, I had to contextualize other key developments in a character’s life at this point in the series. If you’re not there yet, perhaps you’ll get to it. Keep this post in mind when you do.

Joan Holloways parlor games; image courtesy of

Joan Holloway's parlor games; image courtesy of

Two musical moments for women in as many weeks? Oh, Mad Men. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Last week, I wrote about a scene involving Peggy Olson. Today, I will consider a key scene for office manager Joan Holloway (note: as she married Dr. Greg Harris, she’s now Joan Harris; however, I will refer to her as “Holloway”). And both involve music! Delightful.

Last Sunday, at her husband’s urging, Holloway broke out an accordian and sang  “C’est Magnifique” from Cole Porter’s Can-Can to entertain guests for a dinner party they were holding at home. This scene is in sharp juxtaposition with Holloway’s current situation which, as with everything in Mad Men, is hardly magnificent.

That this scene happens at a dinner party is crucial. Older than Olson by a few years, Holloway is in her early 30s and potentially informed by what Noel Murray might call hostess feminism, where wives define themselves as masters of the art of entertaining — cooking, entertainment, hospitality, charming conversation — in order to impress the work associates of their professional, commanding husbands. If we recall from season two, Holloway is transfixed by Jacqueline Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House. Her preoccupation with being the great and immaculately turned-out woman behind the great man may also speak to her status as the office sex symbol and why she seems the most shaken when Marilyn Monroe dies.

Hostess feminism seems the most applicable term for Holloway in last week’s episode, wherein she holds a dinner party for her husband’s boss. In our current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism), some may argue that playing hostess has been reclaimed as progressive, being fluent in Emily Post as a formidable skill-set, and women throw homefront soirées because they want to, not because society has ordained that they be relegated to the domestic. I get this logic, but don’t think it’s that simple here.

Of course, women opting out of the workforce to be wives and mothers is not inherently bad. Feminism is about choice (though, it must also be noted, opting out of the workforce is also about means). Mothers are key players in our society, in that they keep the species alive and, if they do a good job, contribute kind, well-adjusted, and productive people.

It just seems that being a wife and mother wouldn’t be fulfilling to a professional woman like Holloway. Even when conforming to traditional office gender politics, it’s always under the guise of professional decorum (witness how she handles the humiliating run-in with nemesis Jane, Don Draper’s twentysomething former assistant and the new Mrs. Roger Sterling, who Holloway counts as an ex). She clearly possesses more institutional knowledge of Sterling Cooper than almost anyone. We even got an all-too-brief sense for Joan’s knack for television advertising in a season two episode, a knack the boys unfortunately overlooked. They couldn’t get past the cheesecake to see the burgeoning mad woman.

So, Joan’s decision to throw all of her interests into the domestic — strongly implied by her “maturing” age and that may be running out of time — is a little disconcerting, as she herself seems to realize. It doesn’t seem like she wants this life so much as she’s internalized that this is what’s she’s supposed to want. It’s what’s expected — and if you ever need a dark mirror image of how unfulfilling these roles can be to the women who occupy but don’t connect with them, look no further than Mrs. Mommy’s Time Out herself, Betty Draper.

An additional layer to Joan’s domestic unrest is with whom she’s chosen to make her life. Her husband,  a doctor at St. Luke’s, has proven himself to be far from the great man any woman can stand behind. Last season, we witnessed him raping his intended in Don Draper’s office — an act of violence he probably dismisses as kinky rough play. In this ugly moment, we see Joan’s eye glaze over the legs of a chair as she’s ground further and further into the floor. It doesn’t get much lower on the corporate rung for this office manager than this. In addition to his brutish behavior, he may have scarce professional resources, as indicated by a botched operation he kept from his wife mentioned in passing by one of his colleagues that may result in him getting passed over her residency. In short, this horrible guy she committed her life to might be more of an albatross than she anticipated.

Which brings us to her impromptu performance of “C’est Magnifique.” Though coming from a musical written by an American, after having read Kelley Conway’s piece on the chanteuse réaliste and Phil Powrie’s piece on the role the accordian has played in French cinema in cultivating a national identity, it’s hard for me not to look for links between Holloway’s and Fréhel’s sexualized, economically marginal position. The big difference, however, is in delivery. Where Fréhel celebrates being raunchy, Holloway’s performance is professional, efficient, and unflappable.

It’s also what might be called pointedly empty. Part of this can be attributed to Holloway’s disembodied vocal performance. While it sounds like the voice pushing through actress Christina Hendricks’s mouth is her own, she is also clearly dubbed, her vocal take recorded in some unseen studio some time ago. Thus, there’s a clear break between singer and actor, even if the speaking voice and singing voice seem to match up.

This disembodiedness has an edge to it. Holloway recognizes the cruel irony of the seemingly lovely-dovey lyrics. She may also see a bit of herself in La Môme Pistache, Can-Can‘s protagonist. Both women now just how tragic love can be when it turns out to be a lie. My hope is that the character who is working through these issues on AMC this season is proactive in trying to find a viable solution. I’d hate for her to become as hollow as her maiden name implies.


  1. Annie Petersen

    The extended look between Joan and Greg before she finally agrees is so packed with force, fight, and submission. It absolutely breaks my heart — even more than, say, Don and Betty’s moonlight kiss in wide angle, although that gets me too.

  2. Rosie

    Many people keep using society’s expectations for women as an excuse for Joan’s decision to marry Greg after he had raped her. I can’t. Joan has no one to blame but herself. There was no real reason for her to marry this rapist. Unless for some perverse reason, she was in love with him. But judging from the manner in which she had crowed over receiving her engagement ring in “The New Girl”, I have doubt that she feels that way about him. If Peggy has the will to overcome social expectations and pursue a career in advertising, why couldn’t Joan do the same and realize that a) she is not cut out to be a wife/mother; and b)marrying a rapist is not a good idea.

    I have also noticed that many fans have complimented Joan for making the best of her new domestic situation in a “competent” manner. But despite being married, Joan is not pregnant. Not yet. Which leads me to feel that she is nothing but a fool for continuing this marriage.

    • Alyx Vesey

      @Rosie – I hope she does overcome all of this and pursue a career, of any kind (I actually felt that the way she handled the lawnmowing situation in “Guy Walks Into an Ad Agency” suggested that she’d actually make a great nurse, in addition to the aptitude she had for TV when briefly working with Harry). I really do, especially after her run-in with Pete at Bonwit Teller in “Souvenir.” She handled the whole exchange with professional aplomb, but her embarrassment for being a shopgirl and supporting a clearly terrible husband was heartbreaking.

      As for your comments about “being a fool” and having “no one but to blame for herself” for staying in the marriage, they give me pause. For one, I’m hoping that she does divorce him, but understand (though wholly reject) why she might not, with or without a baby. 1) She comes from a very different era than Peggy, who is probably better able to internalize the tenets of agency and autonomy of emerging second-wave feminism. She also comes from a very different era than me (and maybe you) and, after reading Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgarder’s Manifesta, I’ve always tried to remember the differing values and norms of previous generations of women and girls and how they might inform their outlook on the world and their place(s) in it when I don’t understand their opinions or the choices they made. It seems like Joan grew up in a world where there were only two places for her: wife and mother. 2) She may not have considered what Greg did as rape. While it clearly is, it might not have been seen as such at the time. Rape wasn’t talked about in 1963, and so there might be many assumptions at work that rape isn’t rape if it’s your husband, who you must obey. Rape was probably believed to be something that happens between strangers, and that it was the fault of a women or girl for being a) pretty/sexy, b) out late, c) alone, d) wearing something feminine and/or revealing, and e) you know, alive. Hell, beliefs about rape are still shockingly backward, as both the discussions about Roman Polanski and Pete’s actions in “Souvenir” prove.

      That said, your comment about Joan having “no real reason . . . to marry this rapist” is spot-on. You’re absolutely right, Rosie. There is no reason to be with this guy. No reason to cover for him. No reason to flash around the engagement ring. No reason to continue with the wedding. No reason to continue to live this lie. I wonder how long Joan, like many real women have and continue to do today while trapped in similar marriages, has been thinking about that and if it’ll lead toward a major change in her life. As a viewer, I can only hope.

  3. Rosie

    ” 1) She comes from a very different era than Peggy, who is probably better able to internalize the tenets of agency and autonomy of emerging second-wave feminism.”

    I don’t think that Joan really has an excuse. I think that she bought the idea that women were expected to work for a short period of time or go to school before acquiring a husband and family. Not only were Joan and Betty’s generation spoon fed this nonsense, so was Peggy’s generation. Peggy simply had the balls to take a different road. Joan and Betty didn’t.

    “Rape was probably believed to be something that happens between strangers, and that it was the fault of a women or girl for being a) pretty/sexy, b) out late, c) alone, d) wearing something feminine and/or revealing, and e) you know, alive. Hell, beliefs about rape are still shockingly backward, as both the discussions about Roman Polanski and Pete’s actions in “Souvenir” prove.”

    I am tired of this excuse that women of Joan’s generation were ignorant about rape. Even Christina Hendricks does not buy this excuse. I think Joan knew damn well that she had been raped. I think that she allowed some desperate need to get married overcome any revulsion she may have harbored for Greg. And if Joan had a desperate need for a wedding ring that she would marry her rapist, it does not reflect very well upon her.

    Peggy may be a decade younger than Joan, but even her generation was encouraged to marry as soon as possible. There isn’t much of a difference between the two women.

  4. Pingback: Christina Hendricks, video star « Feminist Music Geek

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