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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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.