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

Getty
Show Hide image

Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.