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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Has Arlene Foster saved power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?

After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.

A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.

Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.

Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.

Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.

She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.

The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.

Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.

Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control. His demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.

As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult.  I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.