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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Calais Jungle: What will happen to child refugees when they leave?

Hundreds of unaccompanied child asylum seekers are being taken to Britain where they face an uncertain future.

Hundreds of unaccompanied child asylum seekers are being taken to Britain, moved from a camp in Calais, northern France, as its closure begins. There were 387 unaccompanied minors in the French refugee camp known as “the Jungle” with links to the UK and they are arriving in England in groups of 70.

Upon arrival, the children are taken to a secure unit for 72 hours, before being reunited with families already living in the UK. They are from a group of more than 1,000 children who have been living in the camp in recent weeks. And now, some of those without links to Britain, but who are regarded as particularly vulnerable, are now also being taken across the English Channel.

The youngsters were granted asylum under the Dublin Regulation. The children’s move to Britain has stalled twice already, over delays in accommodation and establishing proof of age. Migrant children have been subjected to intense media scrutiny upon arrival in recent weeks. Calls for dental checks to verify the true ages of youngsters who looked older were called for, but the UK government branded such a practice as “unethical”.

For a long time, the minors living in the camp faced an uncertain future, but the move to take some children to the UK signals a change of tack by the British and French governments. Britain has been criticised for its lack of humanity, but it now seems that the pleas of these children at least have been heard.

Impact of war

While the youngsters may have escaped serious physical injury, the conflicts in the Middle East will have taken a psychological toll on them. Living in the midst of war, many have witnessed unspeakable horror, losing family members in brutal circumstances. Consequently these youngsters are now incredibly vulnerable to mental illness, with research indicating that more than 80 per cent are likely to develop issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is important to remember a child’s trauma extends far beyond the experiences that resulted in them fleeing their homes. The children going to the UK now endured prolonged exposure to stress-inducing conditions in the Calais camp, and will now need to adjust to their new cultural surroundings.

War directly affects millions of children everyday. Exposure to conflict and acts of terrorism can lead to the development of acute or chronic stress reactions. Research also indicates that the psychological impact of war on children is likely to have long-term effects – they don’t simply “grow out” of their stress-related symptoms. Continued exposure to traumatic events, as these children have experienced, carries a cumulative impact too, that can worsen the severity of post-traumatic symptoms.

Funding challenge

The children going to Britain will need the right sort of trauma-based therapeutic support so they can successfully move forward before chronic conditions take hold. However, mental health services in the UK are desperately underfunded. More than 850,000 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. But just seven per cent of the total mental health budget is allocated to child and adolescent mental health services, with one in five young people refused treatment because they do not meet the criteria for care.

A recent poll of specialist nurses found 70 per cent thought child and adolescent mental health services in England were inadequate due to historic under-investment. The government is under growing pressure to invest more, and it is hoped that the arrival of these children will see additional money allocated to the services. When, or even if, this will happen, remains unclear.

Post-traumatic growth

While many of these children are likely to suffer form long-lasting psychological symptoms, there is a possibility that some may emerge stronger than they are now, benefiting in some way from the experience resulting in positive post-traumatic growth, or PTG. PTG is possible in children who have been affected by war trauma, particularly if they are young, as they are more open to learning and change. Interestingly, research has revealed that even the negative aspects of PTSD do not “block” growth when children are placed in a supportive environment – found to be the most conducive thing for PTG.

Receiving the proper social support will play an important role in helping these children deal with the psychological effects of war trauma. The complex situation that the young and unaccompanied migrants have faced calls for help that addresses both the trauma and grief, and will secure continuity in their new lives in the UK.

Losing loved ones is just one of many extremely traumatic experiences these children may have faced, and it could prove quite difficult to disentangle the effect of the loss from other stresses and changes. Time does not simply heal the long lasting scars of prolonged stress that they have experienced. However, it is vital that society does not write these children off as ill or broken. With the right support they can lead full lives and make strong contributions in their new homes.

Leanne K Simpson, PhD Candidate, School of Psychology | Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.