In the Mad Men Season 5 episode The Other Woman, Don Draper is horrified at the proposition the partners want to present to Joan. He protests, “she has a husband in Vietnam and a baby at home!”
Because otherwise it’s okay?
This is a standard sort of protest, and on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it. You’re meant to understand he’s reminding you of Joan’s goodness, decency, and virtue. Oh, yeah, virtue. “She’s not a slut,” he’s saying, “she’s worth protecting.” The underlying message is patriarchal: Joan has value because she’s a mother: in other words, the Madonna side of the Madonna/whore complex, Apple Pie Motherhood, an idealized creature whose role is biologically determined. Joan has value because she’s a wife, the possession of a man, and not just any man, but that manliest of men: A soldier.
The protest isn’t, “She’s a human being and human beings shouldn’t be bought and sold.” The protest isn’t, “She has more value as a person and as an employee than simply her body.” The protest is entirely about her body. The protest treats her body as a commodity every bit as much as the original offer does.
The reason this matters is simply that the offer didn’t take place in a vacuum. It occurred in a society that commodifies women, and as horrified as Don is, his knee-jerk protest is a product of that same society.
At some level, Joan understands this. She is a commodity no matter what; it’s part of why she confronts Peggy in the elevator in Season 4′s The Summer Man: “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.” Joan didn’t decide that being an object was worth a partnership; Joan knew that she was already an object. And Don knew it too: The object “mother” and the object “wife” are still objects.