Laurie Penny on Mad Men: Airbrushing the truth about women

The equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, wants us to embrace Mad Men’s curvy secretary Joan as a role model. Wrong choice, right idea.

Lynne Featherstone MP has given the impression that young women should aspire to look like saucy secretaries with accommodating attitudes to sexual harassment. Speaking in support of the Girl Guides' call for images of airbrushed models in magazines and on posters to be labelled clearly, the new equalities minister said that Christina Hendricks, the "curvy" actress who plays the sexually performative office manager Joan in the AMC series Mad Men, is an ideal antidote to the advertising industry's impossible standards of female emaciation.

It is likely that Featherstone's decision to tout Hendricks as a body-image role model was based on asking the girls in the office who their favourite curvy celebrities were. Unfortunately, following her comments, aspirational photos of Joan in a range of tight dresses have illustrated nearly every report on the anti-airbrushing campaign, sending a clear message about the limited ambitions of women's liberation today. We don't want young girls to starve themselves to resemble a modern advertising executive's wet dream, so we'll settle for encouraging them to emulate an advertising executive's wet dream from the 1960s.

Object of fantasy

Hendricks is beautiful, with creamy skin and cascades of auburn hair - but, at the UK average dress size of 14, she has been criticised by fashion insiders for being "too heavy". In Mattel's new line of Mad Men Barbies, the Joan doll appears substantially underweight, her lollipop head wobbling on spindly plastic limbs, shrinking Hendricks's curves into a body type that the toy company claims is more in keeping with "the aesthetic" of the show. Peggy Olson, a mousy-but-talented copywriter in Mad Men, has not been made into a doll, because frumpy, difficult and demanding women never get to be Barbie, whatever their accomplishments.

This isn't the only problem with the suggestion that Hendricks and her Mad Men alter ego are feminist role models. Joan may be curvy and confident, but that confidence comes from her skill at manipulating men sexually, embracing her role as an object of fantasy and encouraging the secretaries she supervises to dress prettily, stay quiet and accept sexual bullying as part of the job. Her male bosses consistently demean her intelligence. She is a victim of rape, and marries her rapist to avoid being left "on the shelf".

Sexism has long been the stock-in-trade of the advertising industry. Since the heyday of Madison Avenue, which Mad Men seeks to recall, advertisements have defined how we understand gender and power. The theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote in the 1960s that "ads are the cave art of the 20th century . . . the richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities". Today, the industry has an income worth roughly £16bn in the UK alone, and the average consumer in Britain and America absorbs thousands of adverts every day.

According to the activist Jean Kilbourne, who created the Killing Us Softly films to expose advertising's harmful effect on women, "Advertising tells us, just as it did 30 years ago, that the most important thing about women is our appearance. We learn from an early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and, above all, money, striving to achieve an ideal of absolute flawlessness and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail."

The ubiquity of images of airbrushed, idealised, half-naked female bodies affects the self-esteem of women and girls. In 1991, the US-based magazine Ad Age conceded that "sexism, sexual harassment and the cultural portrayal of women in advertising are inextricably linked".

Irritated by pesky accusations of sexism and body fascism, the advertising and fashion industries are engaged in a struggle to neutralise dissent. Mad Men is part of the cultural territory on which that struggle is taking place. What makes the show compelling is its exposition of how the ugly ideology of the golden age of advertising reflected real-life misogyny, as experienced by characters such as Joan or the frustrated housewife Betty Draper.

Wrong model, right idea

Today's fashion and advertising industries have decided to glamorise this narrative. Instead of recoiling in horror from Mad Men's depiction of the objectification and abuse that defined working women's lives within living memory, young women are shopping for circle skirts, ordering vodka Martinis and swallowing the line that Joan is a sassy, inspirational character who should be applauded for being allowed to appear on prime-time television weighing more than a packet of crisps.

In her mission to encourage advertisers to label airbrushed images of idealised female beauty, Featherstone has the wrong role model but the right idea. The Joan character is the living, breathing, breast-heaving embodiment of the idea that one cannot fight misogyny in the advertising industry. This campaign offers the bold and simple notion that one can, and that if the health and happiness of young women are at stake, the government should.

If we saw little but digitally manipulated, blandly sexualised images of young men everywhere around us, this campaign would be understood as urgently political, rather than merely frivolous. If it were young men who understood that, in order to get and keep a job, they had to pummel their bodies into a sick image of perfection and shrink every aspect of their personhood, if it were men whom advertisements were complicit in erasing, it would be easier to persuade Westminster that the advertising industry is not just a harmless function of the market, but a delivery system for sexism that can and should be monitored.



Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

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Why don’t we talk about the pain of friendship break ups?

Breaking up with a friend is hard to do – society should give more weight to the process.

Countless songs have been written about heartbreak; we recall the disintegration of our romantic entanglements as pivotal moments in our lives; being "dumped" by a boyfriend or girlfriend is understood as a kind of trauma that requires "healing" and a "mourning period". But what of the friendship break up?

It's only recently that we've begun to have public conversations about the difficulties of losing a friend, and those conversations aren't even very good ones. A new web series, Ex-Best, explores the issue in a jokey way, exaggerating awkward situations among ex-friends who still work together or are – gasp – invited to the same dinner party, and a couple self-helpy articles will come out every year, offering advice on "How to Break Up with a Toxic Friend," but the actual impact of ending a friendship remains mostly unacknowledged.

This strange cultural silence around the sadness and, yes, grief one can experience after being rejected by a friend makes what can be a confusing situation feel even more disquieting.

I'd known my friend Will since I was a teenager and, while our friendship had waxed and waned over the years, as most do, I considered him one of my dearest friends. We'd spent countless evenings drinking wine at the beach or watching Drunk History, drunk (to fully appreciate the experience, of course), ranting about feminism and gossiping about friends. We'd shared a mutual friendship group for almost two decades. So after months of being brushed off and noticeably not invited to gatherings that had always been social staples, I couldn't ignore the fact that something was up. But what?

This is the thing with friend break ups – there is no social expectation of "processing" or that the "dumper" must offer an explanation for their sudden departure. Ghosting, something seen as a terrible faux-pas in the context of a long-term romantic partnership, is a perfectly acceptable way to end a friendship.

Friends don't go to couples counselling, they aren't expected to offer a legitimate and logical explanation for wanting to "break up", there is no effort to "work things out", and no "we have to talk". The dumpee is left only with an awkward series of unreturned texts, a few half-hearted excuses for being unable to meet up for drinks on any single evening for six months, and a mysterious missing invitation to the annual Christmas party your friend has thrown every year for a decade.

Was Will angry with me? Was it something personal? Now he had a wife and child, maybe his childless, single friends like me no longer fit into his dad lifestyle? It was strange not to know. Had Will been a boyfriend, we would have had a number of explosive arguments, teary counselling sessions, promises to do better, to communicate more honestly, to stop eating all of my yoghurt in the middle of the night, don't use my expensive moisturiser, and why can't you ever ask me about my life? I'm interesting.

When our romantic partnerships end, we usually know why. If not, it's at least expected that words will be exchanged: "We've grown apart." "I want to see other people." "You have no interests." "For the last time, it's 'mannerism,' not 'aneurysm'." "Are you literally 12?!" Etc. But with friends, for some reason, it's different.

What's strangest about the subject matter is how long it's gone unexplored. Surely we've all experienced the ending of a friendship. In fact, most of us will have more friends in our lifetimes than boyfriends or girlfriends and more friend break ups than divorces – yet we don't treat this particular kind of heartbreak with anywhere near the same kind of compassion we do our intimate partnerships.

There is no widespread social understanding of the pain we're experiencing, no "Nothing Compares 2 U, BFF" or "You've Lost That Buddy Feeling" songs to wallow in, and no "Ten Ways To Get Over A Friend Break Up" articles in Cosmo. Our other friends don't spend hours processing the break up with us, saying, "she probably just loved you too much and it scared her" or "you'll forget all about him as soon as you make a new friend".

It's as though we're expected to feel nothing at all. Which is a pity because losing a friend can be far more painful – and certainly more bewildering – than losing a lover.

The feelings of rejection are all there, but tenfold. When romantic relationships end, it often makes sense. We place expectations on our intimate partnerships that are incredibly high, often unrealistic, and that foster codependence. You end up having the same fights over and over again, often related to the fact that you've decided to live in the same house with this person for the rest of your life, and to share money as well as tiny, stinky, screaming humans. It's not exactly a recipe for success.

But when a person you've known and chosen to spend time with for 20 years, by choice – no contracts, no shared property or beds, no children to raise, no money issues to fight over, no sexual or domestic expectations, no attempts to control who the other befriends or spends time with – suddenly wants nothing to do with you and offers no explanation? That's hard.

I mean, you were friends for a reason, and the reason was simple: you liked each other. So what does it mean when a friend leaves you? There are few explanations aside from, "I guess he just doesn't like me, as a person." Talk about a blow to your heart.

In many ways we set ourselves up for this kind of pain and don't leave room to address our friendship break ups in any way that feels like the "closure" we seek at the end of a romantic relationship. As a society, we place far more value on intimate partnerships (particularly heterosexual ones) than we do on friendship. We do this despite our friends being more likely to be the ones that stick with us until the bitter end, less likely to hurt us as badly as our exes have, and more likely to actually be there through thick and thin, rather than abandoning us and trading us in for a newer, younger friend-model.

We don't tend to choose our friends for superficial reasons, because of hormones, or because of too much whiskey – we choose them because we enjoy their company, because we find them interesting or funny, or because we have shared interests and histories. Naturally, as we get older and our lives change, friends may grow apart as lovers do, but the concerted, sudden, one-sided ending of a friendship doesn't get the respect or attention it deserves. It's socially acceptable.

After Will had avoided making plans with me for months and failed to invite me to his birthday party, I realised this was not just in my head. I finally confronted him – resentful that I'd had to ask, and in effect point out the obvious. I learned little beyond that he had made a decision to no longer be my friend.

I sobbed to my boyfriend the way I would had someone died – but other than that, I was mostly alone in my grief. I felt like I had to simply push that particular heartache out of my mind and move forward as though nothing had happened. Yet I still miss my friend more than I do any ex-boyfriend.

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.