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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Theresa May can play big fish with devolved nations - in the EU she's already a nobody

The PM may have more time for domestic meetings in future. 

Theresa May is sitting down with representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday to hear their concerns about Brexit. 

For the devolved nations, it is the first chance since the seismic vote in June to sit down at a table and talk to the Prime Minister together. 

May has reportedly offered them a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis. It must be a nice change for her to be the big fish in the small pond, rather than the small fish in the big pond that everyone's already sick of. 

Because, when it comes to the EU, the roles of Westminster and other nations is reversed. 

Brexit was small potatoes on the menu of Theresa May’s first European Council summit. It may hurt British pride but the other 27 heads of state and government had far more pressing issues on their plate to worry about.

So, it was an awkward debut Council evening meal of lamb and figs for Prime Minister Theresa May and dinner was served with a large reality check.

As May was later asked at her press conference, why would anyone listen to someone who already has one foot out the door?

Britain is in limbo until it triggers article 50, the legal process taking it out of the EU. Until that happens, it will be largely and politiely ignored.

May’s moment to shine didn’t come until 1am. She spoke on Brexit for “five minutes maximum” and said “nothing revolutionary”, EU sources briefed later.

May basically did that break-up talk. The one where someone says they are leaving but “we can still be friends”. The one where you get a divorce but refuse to leave the house. 

It was greeted in the way such moments often are – with stony silence. Brexit won’t be seriously discussed until article 50 is triggered, and then the negotiations will be overseen by the European Commission, not the member states.

As became rapidly clear after the vote to leave and in sharp contrast to the UK government, the EU-27 was coordinated and prepared in its response to Brexit. That unity, as yet, shows no sign of cracking.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel later damned May with faint praise. She hadn’t said anything new but it was nice to hear it in person, she told reporters.

Merkel, as she often does, had a successful summit. She needed Council conclusions on migration that would reassure her skittish voters that the doors to Germany are no longer thrown wide open to migrants. Germany is one of the member states to have temporarily reintroduced border checks in the passport-free Schengen zone

The conclusions said that part of returning to Schengen as normal was “adjusting the temporary border controls to reflect the current needs”.

This code allows Merkel and her Danish allies to claim victory back home, while allowing Slovakia, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, enough of an excuse to insist it has not overseen the effective end of Schengen.

But Merkel’s migration worries did not provide hope for the British push for immigration controls with access to the single market. The Chancellor, and EU chiefs, have consistently said single market access is conditional on the free movement of people. So far this is a red line.

Everyone had discussed the EU’s latest responses to the migration crisis at a summit in Bratislava. Everyone apart from May. She was not invited to the post-Brexit meeting of the EU-27.

She tried to set down a marker, telling her counterparts that the UK wouldn’t just rubberstamp everything the EU-27 cooked up.

This was greeted with a polite, friendly silence. The EU-27 will continue to meet without Britain.

Francois Hollande told reporters that if May wanted a hard Brexit, she should expect hard negotiations.

Just the day before Alain Juppe, his likely rival in next year’s presidential election, had called for the UK border to be moved from Calais to Kent.

Hollande had to respond in kind and the Brussels summit gave him the handy platform to do so. But once inside the inner sanctum of the Justus Lipsius building, it was Syria he cared about. He’s enjoyed far more foreign than domestic policy success.

May had called for a “unified European response” to the Russian bombing of Aleppo. It was a break in style from David Cameron, who is not fondly remembered in Brussels for his habit of boasting to the news cameras he was ready to fight all night for Britain and striding purposefully into the European Council. 

Once safely behind closed doors, he would be far more conciliatory, before later claiming another triumph over the Eurocrats at a pumped-up press conference.

May could point to Council conclusions saying that all measures, including sanctions, were on the table if the Russian outrages continue. But her victory over countries such as Italy and Greece was only achieved thanks to support from France and Germany. 

The national success was also somewhat undermined by the news Russian warships were in the Channel, and that the Brexit talks might be in French.

But even warships couldn’t stop the British being upstaged by the Belgian French-speaking region of Wallonia. Its parliament had wielded an effective veto on Ceta, the EU-Canada trade deal.

Everyone had skin in this game. All the leaders, including May, had backed CETA, arguing the removal of almost all custom duties would boost trade the economy. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tell exasperated leaders he could not force one of Belgium’s seven parliaments to back CETA, or stop it wrecking seven years of painstaking work.

As the news broke that Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland had burst into tears as she declared the deal dead, everyone – not the first time during the summit – completely forgot about Britain and its referendum.

Even as the British PM may be enjoying a power trip in her own domestic union of nations, on the international stage, she is increasingly becoming irrelevant. 

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.