Womens Health

"Mad Men" Character Joan Has Abortion - Or Does She?

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Joan Harris, formerly Holloway, office manager and femme fatale supreme at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, had an abortion on this season’s “Mad Men.”

Or at least that’s what I thought when I saw the episode, although the action was shot in a somewhat cryptic way. Joan entered the illegal doctor’s office and sat in the waiting room. Sitting on those sterile couches, she had a talk with a despondent mother whose teenage daughter was also having an abortion. Joan--who we know has already had two abortions in the past--pretended that she, too, was there for a daughter and not herself. Viewers assumed that “fifteen,” the age she gave for her fictional daughter, was the number of years since her first abortion--or maybe she just wanted to make the other woman feel better.

Then Joan went home on the train looking serious. She told her paramour Roger the next day that they “avoided a tragedy” and “life goes on.” Her behavior then changed during the subsequent episodes, and she refused to sleep with Roger again, as though she had a big “I’m too old for this” epiphany.

This all made sense to me in the context of Joan having an abortion. But when I logged on to the internet, the conspiracy theories were everywhere,  flooding the comment threads of almost every single blog and message board discussing the episode. There was even a “did she or didn’t she?” poll at Slate.  Joan couldn’t have gone through with it, viewers averred. She had a moment of regret at the “clinic” and she is secretly carrying Roger’s baby, which she will pass off as being the spawn of her creepy rapist husband, Greg, who is currently serving a tour in Vietnam--even though she told Roger the timing wouldn’t work. Or she’ll move away and start a plucky new life for herself as a single mom, a la much-referenced soap opera “Peyton Place.”

I was inspired by this interpretation to reevaluate the episode in my mind--the ambiguity of Joan’s face on the train home, the oblique mention of “avoiding a tragedy.” Suddenly, knowing how showrunner Matt Weiner loves to tease his audience and play with ambiguity, I began to doubt my own convictions. So I was going to wait to write this column until I knew “for sure” what actually transpired on tonight's season finale--but then I decided to analyze the reaction to Joan’s story before anything is confirmed. Because this isn’t so much about exactly what Joan did or didn’t do as it is about the assumptions we’ve been fed by the media surrounding women, pregnancy and abortion. We are not used to women going into abortion clinics and quietly, clinically even, getting the procedure. We are used to the clinic waiting room being a place of agonizing decision making, not of determined resolution. We--even pro-choicers--are deeply accustomed to the rhetoric of regret and guilt and the association of  abortion being “unnatural” for a woman who wants to be a mother. But do all those assumptions and ingrained images actually fit Joan’s story?

Bloggger “Meowser” at fan-blog Basket of Kisses summarized the major objections to this interpretation.

Now, I know it’s kind of an unusual happenstance for a major character on television or in a movie to actually voluntarily end a pregnancy — in fact, it’s kind of like a third rail, you see people killing themselves and people who are already born... but abortion, never ever ever — but I’m just not able to wrap my head around this particular conclusion. It just doesn’t seem to be a very Joan-like thing to do; the amount and extent of fibbing that would have to take place would make Don look like an amateur, and that’s not Joan’s style.

Exactly. “Mad Men” is known for being excruciatingly period-specific. Joan was not at a modern-day abortion clinic and she was not privy to a modern-day abortion debate. She had followed a specific plan which involved breaking the law and risking arrest--which speaks to a strong determination to begin with. There were no protesters and no one to tell her what she did was immoral. Sure, by the standards of her time she was a “loose woman” but there was no pro-life movement calling women selfish babykillers. It’s likely her regret would stem from the tryst with Roger itself as much as its consequences. The “tragedy” that’s been avoided is not necessarily the abortion, but the alternate consequences: a pair of divorces, for instance, or social ostracism.

When viewers talk about Joan’s decision, they focus on her regret over her “biological clock” and her anguish over having had so many abortions. It’s true, we certainly know from her own behavior that she wants to have a perfect white picket fence family with a Doctor husband--so much so that she stays with him and gets married even after he rapes her. At the same time, however, Joan’s interest in being a mother seems to stem as much from a desire to conform to society’s prescribed path as some sort of innate maternal quality or instinct.

And that’s where the theory about Joan falls apart the most--her character. She is obsessed with outward appearance, with propriety. She shuns Peggy Olsen for breaking the mold of women in the office by pursuing a job as a copywriter. She prides herself on carefulness and subtlety, on neatness and discretion. Would she really risk the public humiliation of a rumored out-of-wedlock pregnancy? The risk of having to take time off from work with her family situation so precarious? It’s highly doubtful.

Finally, this “secret pregnancy” plotline would fly against the grain of the show. “Mad Men” telegraphed the fact that Peggy was pregnant when she herself didn’t know it--the show’s creators embrace this kind of dramatic irony. We know the character’s secrets, while the other characters do not. For instance, the recent spate of shots of Don Draper, his girlfriend Faye Miller, and Megan, the secretary he slept with floating in the background or standing in between them. So if Joan was harboring some sort of secret baby fantasy, we’d likely get at least a few more clues about it.

If, as I hypothesize, Joan “went through with it,” the tragedy in Joan’s story isn’t that she loses her “last chance” to be a mother (another trope we’re accustomed to). It’s that she has to hide every indelicate burst of passion and talent she has under a veneer of in-control femininity. The abortion is part of a story arc for Joan, but it’s not a “hidden pregnancy” story. It’s about a woman who realizes she has strained every last muscle fighting between her actual desires and her overarching belief in conformity and maintaining appearances. It’s realistic for her character, the time period, and the plot for Joan to have had the abortion. So someone is wrong. Either the show’s writers or the many viewers who think “she didn’t go through with it” are imagining a modern-day conception of abortion fueled by iffy anti-choice tropes found in movies like “Juno” or shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”  Let’s hope, for truth’s sake, that “Mad Men” proves itself better than such fare.

What do you think, RHRC readers, based on your viewing this season?

Image copyright AMC. Photo by Michael Yarish.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice