Peggy and Joan, the two main female characters in AMC’s Mad Men, have used different strategies to advance in the male-dominated world of 1960s advertising. You don’t need to have followed the arc of the show—whose final half-season starts April 5—to guess what those strategies are.
Just look at them: Peggy, portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, has a small chest, frumpy outfits and a genius for copywriting. Joan, portrayed by Christina Hendricks, has enormous breasts and tight-fitting dresses. She also has a genius for managing people and appearances. But if that is one of the twin engines propelling her trajectory, female physicality is the other. Early on we learn that Joan, head secretary at the ad agency Sterling Cooper, is having an affair with Roger Sterling, a named partner in thrall to her sexuality. Eventually Joan secures her own partnership stake by sleeping with a sought-after client.
Peggy’s success, by contrast, is inextricably linked to the suppression of her femaleness. The most literal example of this suppression occurs after an early fling with a coworker: she seems to hide the resulting pregnancy even from herself and then gives the baby away. Acknowledging her motherhood would have been totally incompatible with her professional ambitions. (Joan keeps the son who eventually results from her affair with Roger, stage managing the situation with her usual skill by attributing the baby to her husband.) Even when Peggy’s colleagues seek her woman’s perspective, they do so in terms that deny her gender. In an episode from Season 2 about a campaign the agency is writing for Playtex bras, Peggy stands around a desk with several men in suits, one of whom tells her she’s “just the man to do it.”
Later in that episode, one of the male characters comes up with a concept for the campaign. They’ll promote the bras as coming in two “flavors”: Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, “a line and a curve.” “Every single woman is one of them,” he says, divvying up the office secretaries. “Well, Marilyn’s really a Joan, not the other way around.”