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

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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