May 062015

When Deb mentioned in her recap of Mad Men’s The Forecast that Joan’s holding on to her tiny old apartment and relying on her mother and an NYU student for babysitting was unrealistic, given Joan’s newly minted millionaire status, it got me thinking that this was the second time in the past week that a TV show that I otherwise love got it staggeringly wrong about how rich, powerful moms deal with having young kids at home. The first time was the April 15, 2015 episode of Nashville, Nobody Knows But Me (318), in which 25-year-old country-pop superdiva Juliette Barnes has her first baby and is left seemingly all alone with the kid, all day, with no one to help her and no resources to call on, like she’s in a Topeka trailer park living out Loretta Lynn’s 1971 hit “One’s on the Way.” Really?

(I will be writing more extensively about Nashville later on, hopefully as a regular recapper if the series is renewed, but I will at least be writing a retrospective in any case. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, the spoilers I provide here are very minor.)

Sure, Juliette has had some career setbacks, but as with Joan, there’s no indication that she can’t afford outside help, and the best money can buy, to boot. Juliette still owns a private jet, not to mention a mansion with bathrooms bigger than Joan’s entire apartment! Both of these women have serious control-freak tendencies and egos the size of Jupiter, and the sad part is that the writers could have come up with an explanation for both situations that sounded plausible. Joan irrationally loves her apartment, secretly likes having her mom around, hates moving with a purple passion? Juliette wants to prove she can handle a baby on her own and doesn’t need any stinking nannies, doesn’t want to threaten her less-successful husband by throwing money around, doesn’t want to leave her baby because she felt abandoned by her own mother? Both of them are worried about money, even though on paper they look loaded? Fine. Then tell us, or show us that. Because what we’re seeing on screen makes about as much sense as that Darth-Vader-in-the-ocean memepic.


For example, a month after giving birth, Juliette discovers—all on her own, using the magic of her Macbook—that she can hire a nanny through a company that will screen candidates in advance! This is a superstar singer who has a manager, an assistant, and a female record label boss who’s had kids of her own, and even if those were the only three people she ever spoke to (besides her husband), you’d think the subject would have come up. A “real” Juliette (she’s kind of a Britney Spears version of Taylor Swift) wouldn’t already have received offers from people who wanted to help take care of her kid, maybe even from aspiring singers or songwriters looking to get ahead? (Her mom isn’t around; I’ll say no more than that to avoid spoilage.) But paying people to help her with this stuff is what rich and powerful moms do, even if they’re scaling back their careers. And Juliette isn’t, not by a long shot. She’s not about to quit music and become a happy housewife. (Juliette, a happy housewife? BWAH.) How could someone in her position be that ill-prepared for a baby? Even if she had no idea what was coming, surely someone in her inner circle would have.

Similarly, we’ve seen Joan blow a wad of money on clothes at Bonwit’s; as of this episode, she’s obviously not hurting for money. Why would this be the one area in life she’s cheaping out on? Maybe those things got written and then cut, but it wouldn’t have taken much to let us in on what was going on, a line here or there. It’s plausible that, in both cases, the writers got spoiled by the monster talents playing these parts. Everyone reading this blog knows all about the awesome sauce that is Christina Hendricks, but maybe you don’t know as much about Hayden Panettiere, who plays Juliette, so let me fill you in.

Juliette began the series as a villain, a phony-baloney pop-tart who existed to make the female lead, Rayna, miserable. But as the series went on, someone must have noticed that Hayden Panettiere could do it all—act, sing her butt off, and play both physical and verbal comedy like nobody’s business. This woman could scramble an egg for five minutes and have you in stitches. And so Juliette has done a reverse Walter White and become that rarest of birds, a convincing young female antihero who’s actually funny. (You haven’t lived until you’ve watched her trash an ill-fated baby shower.) And the more unhinged she gets, the funnier (and paradoxically, more moving) she is. They can get away with things with Panettiere in the role that nobody else would be able to carry off, so you can almost believe that Juliette would have alienated everyone who wanted to help her and therefore had to be at home alone during the later stages of her pregnancy and the month after giving birth, without the script having to say it. But even Panettiere can’t paper over the gaps here, although it’s vastly entertaining to watch her try.

Though Joan and Juliette are about fifteen years apart in age, and live in different eras, one thing they have in common is that their ultrafeminine appearance and demeanor both helps and hinders them in their careers. Their looks and charm get them a foot in the door, but they have a hard time getting taken seriously for what they’re best at. Joan’s impeccable business acumen is buried under pounds of hairspray and her fellow partners’ knowledge that her position came from holding her nose and sleeping with a client she detested. Juliette’s powerhouse mezzo-soprano and genuine songwriting skill are masked by all the glitz and cutesy wiggles she has to indulge in to please her audience. (Juliette’s “I’m a Girl” can be seen as either celebrating or mocking this phenomenon, depending on how you look at it. Lyrics are here.)

Probably due to the different eras in which they live, it’s taken Joan until later in life than Juliette to notice how ambitious she really is; although she tells Richard in The Forecast that now she has “the job I’ve always wanted,” when we first met Joan, she was telling Peggy that the ultimate female fantasy was marrying an account exec, not becoming one. And when she was married to Greg, she so completely downplayed her importance at Sterling Cooper that Greg thought she was still typing and filing all day. Juliette has sung professionally since her teens, and never didn’t know that she wanted to be a huge success. But she, too, knows how the game is played, and doesn’t like it one bit. Behind the scenes she’s far more overtly abrasive than Joan, and had a much more traumatic childhood, but her public image when we first meet her is all syrupy peaches and fluffy cream, America’s sweetheart. No wonder she’s chafing.

So we have two otherwise brilliantly drawn characters, whose apres-baby living situations are just not believable. These are not lunch-bucket moms we’re talking about here, these are filthy-rich, tough-as-nails women who did whatever it took to succeed, and you know what? Viewers tune in for exactly that; we don’t need them to pretend they’re “regular.” I can believe that both 1970 Joan and 2015 Juliette would feel comfortable going to work and leaving the kid at home; that’s who they are, and that’s fine. But it’s hard to believe that either of them would balk at parting with the money necessary to make sure they and their families aren’t spread too thin taking care of the kids (and in Joan’s case, that she had space for the kid to run around in), or that they would even given it so little thought. (Joan’s mom and Juliette’s husband seem to be perfectly fine caregivers, but why take over their lives completely if it’s not necessary?) Mad Men and Nashville, please put back the missing lines in these women’s scripts.


  10 Responses to “Joan Harris and Juliette Barnes: Just Two Ordinary TV Working Moms—NOT!!”

  1. i will give “nashville” a look…have an interest in that music…mom reared our family of emmy lou, willie nelson, johnny cash, waylon, etc…great music…as per joan n small apt., why is she bringing a bag lunch to mccann on her firsdays…doesnt seem to fir!

  2. fit, not fir. hate touch screen keyboard! lol

  3. While I personally can not imagine having any kind of money when my kids were babies, I know if I had any money at all, I would have had a cleaning lady, sent the laundry out, and hired someone one to come in and cook dinner at least 4 days a week. Oh and a grandma type to come in at least 3 days a week for 6 hours so I could eat a meal while it was still warm, take a shower that was so long I actually could rinse out the shampoo in my hair and then take a nap.

  4. I found Joan to be a very interesting character until season 4. In season 4,I began to detest her and how she was being written by the Mad Men writers. It was so utterly simple to write her mother into the care provider role for Kevin. Joan has never had to worry about whether Kevin is fed. A lot of single moms who worked in the 1970’s had to balance the demands of work and the demands of family every day. Joan doesn’t! Yes she loves Kevin, but, Mad Men’s writers have made her unbelievable. Joan lives an opulent lifestyle. I sometimes feel that Mad Men’s writers did not want Christina Hendricks portraying a struggling single mother; Mad Men’s viewers might not like it. They would rather see Joan dressed in beautiful clothes. It was incredible to watch Joan’s interaction with Jim Hobart. She was not believable when she talked of women’s issues. Joan more than any other woman character in Mad Men has benefited from the status quo Jim Hobart wants to preserve at McCann.

    British soap operas like Eastenders and Call The Midwife portray women much more realistically than American TV series do. American viewers have watched shows like Dallas and Dynasty showing the rich and their opulent lifestyle. Americans don’t want to watch single mothers struggling to make ends meet. I look at Meredith and thought to myself how much of her meager income this lady must spend on clothes and getting her hair done. Meredith would not be mistaken for a 1970’s single mom.

    • I agree about the joan change, post season four. I used to be fascinated with so much of what was going on with her, but after the jaguar deal, I just found many moments with her to be more caricature. I miss the accordion playing joan who hits greg in the head with a vase.

    • (British soap operas) portray women much more realistically than American TV series do…Americans don’t want to watch single mothers struggling

      Joan, like all of the core characters, portrays upper-middle class professionals. Her struggles are hardly that of the garden-variety single mother (and Thank Weiner for that). The show is about her, not “single mothers” in general.

      The is in keeping with Weiner’s general approach when dealing with politics. He may put his narrative in the “macro” – the historical perspective of the day but has been scrupulous to keep the micro-perspective real. This is is not only plain for the audience but he has said as much in interviews – enough that it amounts to a talking point.

      Which is another way to say that he doesn’t carry water for anyone of any particular political aspirations.

    • I sometimes feel that Mad Men’s writers did not want Christina Hendricks portraying a struggling single mother; Mad Men’s viewers might not like it.

      This is right on the money, but not because of the viewers. Weiner has always pleased himself and his sense of quality – the viewers can go along if they like it.

      Joan lives an opulent lifestyle.

      Really? I’d like to hear your thoughts on that, Bob K. Since 1960 she’s been a clothes horse. We know before that she got a very nice fur coat from Roger (and I suppose she wore it on their dinner dates?). That wardrobe cost a big fraction of her income – so she shared a room with her college friend (the one who expressed her long-term-crush). Other than that, she seems to have lived modestly (but I can be convinced otherwise).

      • I think that it is very important for Joan to be taken seriously as a partner. Joan has also become cynical and materialistic. Joan needs the trappings of an opulent lifestyle to be taken seriously. I also feel that her marriage to Greg had an adverse impact on Joan and not just because of the rape. She hit Greg with a vase because she wasn’t accepted for who she is. Greg looked down on her. For Peggy, it is all about acceptance at work, for Joan it is much deeper. It is about perception and about image. It is about material success. Money may not be important to Don Draper, but for Joan, it is all about money.

  5. With Joan I’ve taken these things as character exposition. She doesn’t feel right/trust a stranger for the major parts of caring for Kevin-even though there’s a ton of evidence her mom is not really the best choice. She has begrudgingly got a babysitter, essentially so her mom can have some time off. I see/feel a lot of guilt in this decision. I don’t need Joan to say out loud what she may not even be aware of herself.

    And never changing her home with her rise in income and status? I always saw that as this was her Manhattan pad. Her launching pad. To a brilliant marriage. Not career. She didn’t realize she wanted a career.

    She’s still looking for love. It hasn’t occurred to her, even with a kid and a neighborhood going downhill, that she can get her own place, before she gets a man to share her life.

    She has her own glass ceiling on herself. And she’s unaware of it.

    With Nashville, I can see Juliette putting herself in the box because of her childhood and insecurities of being a mom. But Nashville is not a subtle show. They should have shown her fighting off offers to help. She fights her helpers all the damn time. I think they just really wanted that cliffhanger scene when you didn’t know what she was going to do when the baby would not stop crying. They built it up and built it up, and then whew! She just hired at nanny at midnight!

  6. I totally agree with Peggy Oh! “And never changing her home with her rise in income and status? I always saw that as this was her Manhattan pad. Her launching pad. To a brilliant marriage. Not career. She didn’t realize she wanted a career.

    She’s still looking for love. It hasn’t occurred to her, even with a kid and a neighborhood going downhill, that she can get her own place, before she gets a man to share her life.”

    My theory, is that Joan has not hired a nanny or moved to a nicer place because she saving/putting aside money so she can send Kevin to private school when the time comes.

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