For six seasons we've watched Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway go from secretaries to meaningful employees at Sterling Cooper & Partners, but it was only in season six that we watched them both meet the inevitable glass ceiling. It's 1968 in the world of Mad Men, which means neither of them has been given a hammer with which they can break through that barrier -- so they've had to find other ways around it.
In Sunday's season finale ("In Care Of"), Peggy finally gives in to having sex with her boss (one of many), Ted Chaough -- a terrible idea. Not just because he's her boss or because he's married, but because he's gone through the entire season pretending to have her best interests at heart. One of the worst feelings, as a woman, is being told what's best for you by someone who cannot possibly identify with your individual experience. Granted, Ted is more honorable than Don and has certainly put more effort into his career, as evidenced by his attitude and approach to the work, but he's never had to fight as hard and as long as Peggy has for less than what her male counterparts have accomplished in a fraction of the time. It doesn't matter that she's devoted the same time and energy as her male co-workers because she is a she. Ted wooed her with his groovy egalitarian mindset over at his own firm, where she was given the esteem she couldn't obtain at the now-defunct Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but the fact is that she'd never amount to much beyond a mid-level career there. She hit the glass ceiling at SCDP and fled for a glass ceiling that comfortably sat just a little higher over at Ted's firm.
But it's not just about work. During the finale, Ted inevitably "comes to his senses" and retreats back to his family man ideals, breaking his promise to Peggy that he'd leave his wife for her. She didn't expect it to happen soon -- hell, she didn't want it to happen anytime soon, what with the approaching holidays and all the predictable office drama that would follow. So Ted goes to Peggy and explains that he just loves her too damn much to dishonor his family, which she should take as some sort of backwards compliment. And as if that weren't hideously painful enough, Ted basically tells her that she might not see it now, but someday she'll look back and realize he did her a big favor. He did do her a favor, ultimately, but not in the way he thinks -- in that moment, Peggy realizes that it's good that he's ditched her because the kind of cowardly man who would lust after her, manipulate her emotions for personal gain (whether financial, mental or physical), and then cut the cord and run is not the kind of guy to whom she should dedicate herself. He's not doing her a favor in the sense that he knows he's a bad guy -- he's doing her a favor, in his mind, to protect their reputations and preserve their morals. When it comes down to it, Ted isn't that much different from the rest of the men at SC&P. Just like Don and Roger and Pete, Ted is the kind of guy who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, but once he has it, he has no desire for it. To these men, desire and need are so dangerously intertwined. They work in advertising; they are trying to sell to people who demand instant satisfaction, a generation of people who want it when they want it and how they want it before they even know what they want, and to know your client you must become your client.
And that's the key right there: Don Draper and the men of SC&P are successful because they are able to tell the client -- and the consumer -- that they're missing something in their lives that they're not even aware they were missing. Draper once said, "We make the lie, we invent the want." So Ted strings Peggy along, at first telling her he can't indulge in his feelings because he is married and it's wrong, but then he gives in, and we're supposed to understand that he couldn't help himself because she was wearing that dress with her cleavage pushed up and those sexy black stockings. And afterward, he promises her a rose garden that she never asked for before taking it all away. It's no different from the way his co-workers get women (and their clients) into bed all the time: seduce them, create a desire they didn't know they had, tell them you know what's best for them, play hard to get, throw your integrity out the window to get what you want from them, and once you get it, you whisper sweet promises in their ear to keep them right where you want them until you're done with them.
Ted is a man, so he has all the decisions in the world to make, and when he tells her it's over, Peggy says, "Well aren't you lucky to have decisions." And she -- just like so many women at the time -- would know it better than anyone. She had little choice in her mind but to leave Don Draper to go work for Ted Chaough, and she certainly had no choice when Don and Ted merged the companies, putting her right back where she started. She had no choice when her boyfriend Abe dumped her, and she has no choice in the finale when Ted tells her they're over before they even started. Any promotion she'll get within the company now isn't based on merit -- the job just goes to Peggy by default. And with Ted gone and Don put on involuntary sabbatical, Peggy will have more power, but it's not the kind she's fought to earn with hard work, dedication and resilience. She won't get a higher position because she deserves it.
Joan Holloway knows a similar story. In season five, we watched as Joan sacrificed her body to an executive from Jaguar to help the company land the white whale of advertising: an automobile account. This big, heaving, sweaty man looked at Joan like a juicy filet mignon dripping with butter. If he could have her, the company could have his business. So Joan "took one for the team" with the endorsement from some of her colleagues. We can look down on Joan for buying a company's business with sexual favors, but it's not much different from what the men she works with do all the time -- she just did it with a different kind of currency, a currency they don't possess. In the end, Joan used her sexual transaction as a springboard to negotiate a partnership for herself at SCDP, and who was going to tell her she didn't earn that spot? After years of practically running the office for these overgrown, alcohol-soaked man-children, she finally earned a place at their table, but it didn't come without a price. What Joan did was respectable, in a sense, because she took agency over her self in a place and time where women had little agency. She sold her body for an account, sure, but it was her body to sell.
Unfortunately, in season six, Don loses the Jaguar account -- and even though they wound up getting a shot at landing the Chevy account to replace it, it's as if everyone in that building forgot the sacrifice Joan made to get Jaguar. She rightfully explodes at Don, scolding him for his selfish actions. When she tells him "We're all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you'll decide whatever you think is right for our lives," it goes back to the idea that these men think they know what's best for everyone, especially the women in their lives. Don is telling Joan this is what's best for her, but he didn't have to make the same sacrifices she did. He will never empathize with her because he will thankfully never have to experience the same challenges she has, just like Ted will never have to experience what life have been like for Peggy. Don's words echo what he himself -- and his colleagues -- have expressed time and again, about knowing what a client or a consumer needs before they even realize it.
When Joan met the glass ceiling, she fucked her way through it. She sacrificed something her colleagues couldn't, but there's something so bittersweet about that -- the idea that because she's a woman she has the ability to do something her co-workers can't because they are men. It may be sad and horrific and unthinkable, but it's something they are incapable of doing -- she gave up something that was strictly hers to give, something that belonged to no one else but her. These men possess many things, but what they don't possess is womanhood. They can try to control and oppress these women by stifling their voices and keeping them a few rungs below on the corporate ladder; they can dismiss their opinions and disregard their validity as equals, but they can never take away the one thing that makes them different, the one thing that makes these women so much more powerful: an individual experience these men can neither buy nor sell with all the money and advertising in the world.