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 good, the bad, and the meaningless: Jeremy Corbyn’s “digital democracy” decoded

The Labour leader has promised to “democratise the internet” but which parts of his manifesto would actually work?

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to “democratise the internet”, speaking this morning at the launch of his eight-point digital manifesto at Newspeak House in east London.

“Labour under my leadership will utilise the advances of digital technology to mobilise the most visible general election campaign ever,” said Corbyn, in a clip you might have watched via a livestream on his Facebook page, before it crashed.

His manifesto sets out how Labour hopes to democratise the internet so that “no one and no community is left behind”. Unfortunately, some of the terminology used isn’t so universal. In a bid to leave no one behind, we thought we’d decode the manifesto here.

The good

Universal Service Network

It’s hard to argue with Corbyn’s first and largest proposal – that high speed broadband should be accessible across the country. According to the Labour leader, this would cost £25bn to implement and would be funded by his proposed National Investment Bank, “at minimal cost to the taxpayer”.

Although this is good idea, it isn’t a new one. The Conservatives already announced plans for a similar Universal Service Obligation (USO) in March, whereby everyone has a legal right to request download speeds of at least 10Mbps. A report published by Ofcom last week shows the government faces resistance from internet service providers who don’t want to pick up the extra costs.

The People’s Charter of Digital Liberties

Corbyn’s second most eye-catching suggestion, a digital bill of rights, is a win for anyone wary of Theresa May’s Snoopers Charter. He promises to protect personal privacy and “[enhance] the on-line rights of every individual”.

Platform Cooperatives

Corbyn hopes to “foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services”, which essentially means he wants services like Airbnb, Deliveroo, and Uber to be community-run (or, if you want to go there, nationalised). The National Investment Bank would fund these websites and apps, which in turn would allow greater regulations of employment contracts. It’s quite a utopian vision and it's easy to be cynical about how this could work in practice, but were it to work, it could arguably transform the entire economy. 

The bad

Digital Citizen Passport

“We will develop a voluntary scheme that provides British citizens with a secure and portable identity for their on-line activities,” claims the manifesto, explaining this can be used to interact with public services like health, welfare, education and housing. Without even considering any potential security or privacy issues, the largest criticism of this proposal is that it already exists, as Gov.uk’s Verify.

Programming For Everyone

By encouraging publicly funded software and hardware to be released under an Open Source License, Corbyn dreams of a world where everyone can share code and learn from one another. Unfortunately, this opens up multiple privacy and security concerns, and Corbyn's other suggestions for teaching code also already exist, as the EU’s All You Need Is (C<3de) programme. 

The meaningless

Open Knowledge Library

At first glance, Corbyn’s proposal for a “free-to-use on-line hub of learning resources for the National Education Service” is undeniably a good idea. The problem is that the idea ends there, with no real discussion of what it is and how it will work. At present, it simply sounds like a publicly-funded version of resources that are already available (Wikipedia, anyone?).

Community Media Freedom

The entirety of this policy basically boils down to “free speech, yo”, which is, unarguably, fantastic. Unfortunately, the manifesto offers little in the way of explaining how its goals, such as stopping the “manipulation of software algorithms for private gain”, will actually be achieved.

Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation

Corbyn’s plan to “organise online . . . meetings for individuals and communities to deliberate about pressing political issues and participate in devising new legislation” is Twitter. It’s just Twitter.

The extras

Outside of this eight-point manifesto, here are some other things we learned today about Labour’s digital plans:

  • According to Corbyn, some MPs don’t turn on their computers because they do not know how to, which, honestly, shall we deal with that first?
  • Team Corbyn hopes that technology – and the visibility it allows – will be Labour’s "path to victory", which is nice, but what he really means is: memes.
  • Corbyn reveals he has an “open mind” about nationalising the broadband network.
  • Corbyn calls online abuse appalling and says that Labour is chasing down offensive material.
  • A team of coders called Coders for Corbyn have released some digital tools to show your support for the leader. Yes, the Corbyn emoji  Jeremoji  is about to be a thing.
  • The entire manifesto features “online” written as “on-line” and really, that is the real issue here.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.