‘Go home. Take a paper bag and cut some eyeholes out of it,” the bombshell supervisor says to the dowdy new girl. “Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.”
Two years ago, this is how we first met secretary-pool diva Joan Holloway on AMC’s Mad Men. Since then, she hasn’t just endured the sixties sexism of that Madison Avenue advertising office, she’s enforced it, wielding her looks like a cop swinging a baton. As office manager, she chastens her charges, sleeps with her married boss, and cruelly mocks a white co-worker for dating a black woman. For all this—not in spite of it—she has become TV’s unlikeliest heroine.
“Drinking and smoking and having sex with other people’s wives and all those things—they are bad, bad behaviors,” says Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan. “But it’s all done with fabulous clothes and lighting and excellent music, and that makes for a really sexy show. Being bad is sexy.”
Which is kind of the point of Mad Men. Bad is sexy. And then just very, very bad. The show lures you in with a glittering surface, but just below is a hothouse of homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and a more general and crushing sense of isolation. Joan embodies all of the show’s brazen contradictions, strutting and posing no matter how awful or retrograde the circumstances. And yet, with less screen time than the other main characters, Joan has broken out as the show’s most seductive player. Part of the allure is her retro-bodacious beauty—obviously attractive to men, straight and gay (she’s hot and campy), and oddly empowering to women. “Joan has one of those characters based on strength,” says Mad Men creator Matt Weiner. “Even her roommate says to her, ‘You are so upbeat despite what happens.’ ”
“On a show where so many of the women seem like victims, crying in the bathroom, to see a woman holding her head up high and being witty and kinda running the show is fun,” says Hendricks. “People love Joan’s clothes first of all. But they also love her spirit, so I get a lot of you-go-girl reactions. Which is funny since I shudder sometimes when I see the script, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have to say this!’ ”
Joan’s occasionally withering pizzazz was showcased in season one. She wrapped her silver-fox married boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) around her finger while keeping the secretaries in line—a goddess of mid-century Manhattan with an ass that literally makes male co-workers stand up and salute. As Hendricks points out, “When Joan is walking somewhere, she always knows that at least one person is watching her. That changes how you behave, because she wants to make sure at least one person’s watching her.”
Early in the much darker season two, a male ad writer asks another if Joan is a Marilyn Monroe type. “Well, Marilyn is really a Joan.” By the end of the season, Marilyn has committed suicide, devastating Joan. Her driver’s license (age: a mortifying 31) ends up on the office bulletin board. She temporarily fills an ad job, performs brilliantly—and the job goes to a guy. She fires a young, uppity new secretary—only to see the woman sweet-talk her way back into the office and into Roger’s bed, publicly undermining Joan’s authority. And in the penultimate episode of the season, her doctor-fiancé rapes her. “Every time I got the script, I was like, ‘Poor Joan!’ ” says Hendricks.
“Joan is a story of a generation,” says Weiner. “Our moms had friends like her—very confident and sexy and they got punished for it. She has the confidence of a man and that’s really hurt her.”
The rape was a shocker—but the audience reactions were perhaps more disturbing. “What’s astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?’ Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers,” says Hendricks. “I’m like, ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!’ It illustrates how similar people are today, because we’re still questioning whether it’s a rape. It’s almost like, ‘Why didn’t you just say bad date?’ ”
The scene was polarizing, sparking heated online debates in which some questioned Joan’s reaction (she and her fiancé head off for dinner afterward) while others wondered whether Joan would understand that it was rape, a taboo subject in 1962. Labels aside, Hendricks says Joan knew what was going on. “She’s smart. She’d think it was awful and ‘Holy shit!’ But she also thinks, ‘Pick yourself up, comb your hair. You’ve got a dinner reservation; don’t be a baby. You know many girls this has happened to.’ ”
Joan was controversial from the start. When Hendricks got the pilot script, she was immediately attracted to the character. Her agents were appalled. Hendricks had worked her way up from model to occasional TV parts to a breakout part on Joss Whedon’s Firefly. They urged her to take a role in a more mainstream show that, Hendricks admits, “flat-out paid more. They scolded me: ‘Are you serious? Honey, it’s AMC!’ ” Hendricks took the role; her agents dropped her.
What do agents know? The actress and Joan have exploded. Hendricks just wrapped a lead role opposite Emily Mortimer in the upcoming film Leonie. Online, you can download Joan paper dolls; obsessively debate her clothing, makeup, and hair choices; or read an unauthorized blog called What Would Joan Holloway Do? (Advice: “Men like it when you smoke their brand.”) It all adds up to a larger-than-life glamour that can prove overwhelming off-camera. “I’m a lot more girly than Joan. When I’m her, the register of my voice drops significantly,” says Hendricks, who adds that fans are surprised when they meet her. “They say, ‘But you’re so sweet!’ or ‘You don’t intimidate me at all!’ or ‘You’re not that tall!’ ” More bewildering is the attention paid to Hendricks’s curves. “I’ve been on TV shows for years and no one said a word about it. All of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, it must be so great to be on a show from the sixties, because now you can be on TV.’ It’s strange how astounded people are that I have breasts.”
• An Abridged Guide to the First Two Seasons
• In Defense of Pete Campbell