She's a domestic goddess who goes to the office every day
She’s driving men mad with her curves has a girlish vulnerability and chip-free scarlet nail polish. Her hemline is never anything other than modest, but she has a pair of breasts which, even under a woollen jumper, look like two zeppelins storming towards the finish line, writes Jane Graham.
She is Mad Men’s Joan Holloway and, as many of the show’s fans will tell you, she is one of the most divine creations on God’s flatscreen.
Mad Men, the third series of which is currently running on BBC2, is an American drama about the lives and loves of workers in an advertising agency in the early 1960s. Intelligent, classy and sharp, Mad Men is many things but most of all it is a brilliant study of the contradictions of the time it is set in. This is a period in history when social and political waves were rushing at each other from opposite directions, on the cusp of the tsunami of Vietnam and sexual liberation. Social propriety is still key — divorce is frowned on, as are short skirts, drunk females, working mums and swearing.
No one, however, thinks anything of a respected company boss blacking up like Al Jonson to sing at a garden party for wealthy genteels, or speaks out against a rich husband and father booking his regular Wednesday afternoon trysts with his mistress.
The inhabitants of the Mad Men universe talk about heritage, legacy and American values, but fight ruthlessly to secure clients who want to knock down historical monuments and replace them with hotel and entertainment complexes.
In the middle of all of these contradictions, these incongruous urges, is the agency’s office manager Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks. And Joan is the greatest, and most beguiling ambiguity of all.
A committed and dutiful worker, her Jessica Rabbit figure is the biggest cause of distraction in the building. She is flawlessly groomed from head to toe, and does a mean line in cupcakes and pastries, but she’s also got an edge like a razor, and some great one-liners up her sleeve. She giggles in a sisterly style with the girls, then walks through the office with a wiggle which would tear any red-blooded man from his new bride’s side in a breathless moment.
Her voice is as light and girlish as Disney’s Snow White but she speaks with the brisk, clear confidence of Susan Sarandon. If Mad Men is, as is often claimed, where style meets substance, Joan Holloway must be the moment of collision.
Joan is an absolute master stroke from Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. At first glance she is a classic American siren, with the shiny red mane of Rita Heyworth, the killer curves of Marilyn Monroe, the self-possession of Ava Gardner and the enigmatic smile — half Bambi, half hooker — of Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn.
Her respectable pencil skirts, perfectly coiffured hair and hourglass silhouette make her a devastating combination of demure and verging on illegal, as if she’s tried her best to contain her body, but it just keeps on betraying her.
I often imagine her stepping into a local library, maybe the lobby of The Europa, or even better, the chamber of Stormont — what chaos this blinding visage of colour, light, beauty and sex would cause!
But Weiner was too ambitious to make his regular characters mere one-note signifiers. Joan is much more complex than that.
Increasingly torn between a job she enjoys and is good at — she is queen bee in the agency — and the lure of domestic married baby-bound bliss, she represents modern women more convincingly than any character in the programme. While she has accepted with dignity the injustices typical of her times, such as being overlooked for a promotion in preference for a far less capable man, and has now married a man who raped her, Joan is no walkover. “I don’t want to argue,” states her husband forcibly. “Stop talking then,” she replies crisply.
The mistakes Joan has made with men — and her none too perfect union with current husband Greg Harris — have given her anxieties as compelling as any of the men in the series, and those men are some of the best-drawn figures on American television.
The story goes that Weiner originally only aimed to bring Joan into the show briefly but due to Christina Hendricks’s ‘on-screen magnetism’, the decision was made to flesh her out properly, and keep her in for the long haul. Rarely can a televisual re-think have proved more salutary.
Like all the best female characters, Joan is as adored by women as she is by men — both in the fictional and in the real world. The reasons that men love her don’t need to be spelled out here. But women’s responses are just as strong, perhaps even stronger.
Despite Joan’s acceptance of some rules that many women today would find distasteful — she demurs to men when it comes to matters of business and technology and regards her allure as her best asset, regularly giving her girlfriends advice on how maximise theirs — she is also an immensely empowering creature for a woman to watch.
It’s fun seeing her turn imposing egotistical patriarchs into jelly and verbally, Joan can spar with any man, and takes pleasure in doing so. Her bad luck with men has made her endearingly vulnerable, and her soft warmth means we’re rooting for her.
She has a fleshy, healthy body that normal women can relate to, and it’s comforting to be so readily convinced that this — and not the bony waifs we constantly see in our magazines — is what really turns the opposite sex on. Saying that, even the fashion magazines love Joan; her beautifully cut clothes — always in the most vivid red, the richest green — have made her their darling.
As luck would have it, one of Joan’s most fabulous scenes is in a recent episode (episode 3.3) and you can still watch it on BBC IPlayer. Joan and her husband Greg are hosting a dinner party, during which Joan’s excellent manners, free and easy friendliness and two-tier cake tray have impressed all of the guests. So much so that Joan is beginning to suspect that her new husband is not as respected by his peers as she first imagined.
Greg begins to goad Joan into ‘playing something’. After politely brushing him off a few times she surrenders and Greg goes off to fetch her ... accordion! There’s an element of pure parody to this revelation of yet another of Joan’s talents — is she, you wonder, going to finish the night by doing the splits while tap-dancing in rollerskates?
But something magical happens when she gets up to play the fluffy little Cole Porter song, C’est Magnifique. Maybe it’s her defiant but coquettish delivery of Cole Porter’s peppy French lyrics or the way her eyes flash with anger while she simultaneously takes on an air of puppyish playfulness, but the sensuality and poignancy Joan — or perhaps Hendricks’ — brings to the unexpected performance of an ode to marriage by a disappointed wife makes for TV gold dust. It’s an unforgettable scene, as funny and strange as it is mesmerising.
For anyone who marvelled at the formidable CJ throwing her jacket off and purring her way lasciviously though The Jackal in The West Wing all those years ago, trust me — this is as good. Where Joan is concerned, it’s all good.
The critics love it, but who else is watching?
It’s one of the most talked about TV shows of the age, with critics raving about its drama, glamour and questionable morals — yet relatively few people here actually tune in to watch Mad Men.
Largely, that’s due to its scheduling — 10pm on BBC Four.
Those who do make the effort to tune in, however, tend to become instant converts, immediately intent on spreading the message about this multi-award-winning US drama.
Its creator Matthew Weiner has admitted: “I didn’t want Mad Men just to be about glamour, but ugliness too.”
And it seems the heady mix of both means that Mad Men has proved equally seductive to men and women viewers.
With its provocative dialogue (“Have we ever hired any Jews?” “Not on my watch”) and super-sexy women in so-tight pencil skirts, this is, as one reviewer put it, “full-bodied lifestyle porn”.
Season three has just started, so what are you waiting for?