Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

These depictions are fictional but historically accurate, and they raise disturbing questions about parenthood in the present. 

I am finally current on two of my favorite shows: Mad Men and Downton Abbey. After a long wait in the library queue, my husband and I did a week-long marathon of Mad Men to finish season 5 and sent it back into circulation for the next eager viewers, and we made a major sacrifice (for us) in staying up until DOUBLE DIGITS to catch up with the emotional roller coaster that is Downton Abbey. I couldn’t help but notice the similar plot lines around characters from each show, Joan and Ethel, plot lines that go beyond being beautiful, red-haired, single (for all intents and purposes) mothers.

At the end of Mad Men season 5, Joan is a junior partner at SCDP (not sure what they’ll do about the P, but that’s a digression). She negotiates for this position through an act of prostitution, after being solicited by one of the major players in the Jaguar deal. Her conditions include a raise, a stake in the company, and a partnership—considerable rewards in exchange for her indispensable assets (since there’s pretty much no way they’ll land the deal without giving the client what he wants, and what he wants is Joan). The decision comes for Joan on the heels of her imminent divorce, the end of an unequal and lonely marriage that leaves her free of Greg’s neediness and abandonment, but also struggling as a divorced mother in the 1960s. Not exactly friendly territory, even with her helpful if irritating mother; indeed, even today some studies suggest that while men are more likely to gain prosperity through divorce, women are more likely to sink into poverty. Yet Joan somehow manages to manipulate the circumstances (thanks for the advice, Lane!) so that her financial future is secured; it’s just that the cost to her integrity, the sacrifice of what virtue she may retain, make her success bittersweet.  It’s clear that she makes a decision she finds patently offensive for her child’s sake—a motive that demonstrates tremendous growth from the petty office manager of season 1. A bit of misfortune, it seems, goes a long way for Joan’s character.

Meanwhile, across the pond and almost half a century earlier, another red-headed beauty faces a similar fate. Yet where Joan is elevated by prostitution (a singular act, supported by her professional acumen and savvy bargaining), Ethel seems almost hopelessly degraded. She is English, a former maid, and unable to make a proper cup of tea. Never married to the father of her child (who never acknowledged paternity), Ethel sinks from a respectable service position to abject poverty, with no recourse for earning a living except through prostitution. We learn through the world of Isobel Crawley that such women were not uncommon, that many war widows and mothers found themselves without means, without education, and descending a slippery slope into desperation, poverty, and, yes, prostitution. Ethel escapes prostitution to become comedic fodder in the Crawleys’ kitchen, but her isolation seems nearly absolute (most of the other servants are scandalized, and there is concern downstairs at Downton that it will appear Mrs. Crawley is running a brothel). And, unlike Joan, Ethel cannot see a way to keep her child, ultimately giving him up to his condescending grandparents to secure his future and drag herself out of a life of scandal and misery.

Both of these depictions are fictional but historically accurate, and they raise disturbing questions about parenthood in the present. Fathers in both of these examples are absent. Mothers are desperate. Though Ethel lacks class capital and education, she is certainly not without marketable skills; still, her character illustrates the double-standard by which mothers assume more responsibility—social and financial—for extra-marital trysts. Even Joan, a shrewd manager with longstanding professional relationships, falls back on her body in her time of need, demonstrating what her culture (and, yes, I’d say ours) views as a woman’s primary assets. Joan tells us her mother raised her to be admired, and she, at least in that sense, does not sell herself short. These examples reflect what feminists call the Madonna-whore dichotomy (think virgin mother, not pop singer), the self-sacrificing mother working as a prostitute. There is a middle ground that most women, fictional and otherwise, inhabit, but this duality lives on for Joan and Ethel in compelling storylines that highlight a contact zone of values: the prostitute mother, nurturing her child with the most valuable commodity society has given her—her body.


  1. Interestingly, I was just cross-posting to Goodreads a review I did a couple months ago of a biography of Kiki de Montparnasse, the relatively famous artistic model who inhabited France probably concurrently with events in Downton Abbey. Early in the book, she and her friends are routinely approached by who offer money for a flash of her breasts. It was routine and she was poor and so she obliged. For sustenance.

    It’s pretty brutal and horrible and definitely turns the way Kiki interacts with men and shapes the direction of her life.


  2. I am in the middle of both of these shows right now, and I really enjoyed this article! Great comparison that I hadn’t picked up on!

  3. Even apart from institutionalized prostitution, I wonder if this same phenomenon occurs in a lesser way as single mothers get trapped in the cycle of revolving relationships with men who are not the father of their children. Does the need for another adult in the home and a second source of income propel some women lower their standards and settle for the live-in boyfriend who will never commit to marriage?

  4. I’m a divorced mom, a former stay-at-home mom now trying to raise my son, take care of a house, and pay the bills. I’m blessed with a very supportive family, but the weight of the debt and burden of abuse from my ex-husband are sometimes unbearable. Putting off my education to play the role of supporting wife is one of the worst decisions I have ever made. Dating has been difficult because even the “good Christian” men are mostly unwilling to commit or they are looking for casual sex until they find their proverbial virtuous woman. Before coming to this place in my life, I never had any compassion on women who sacrificed their morality in the name of providing for their children; but now that doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable option. The truth is men in general are willing to pay more for sex than they are for most other services.

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