Is Joan Holloway’s Body a Feminist Act?

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Wait, what?

I’ve bounced back and forth over this one. And this is going to annoy some of you because, well, I just don’t do feminism very well. It’s not for lack of trying, mind you. It’s just that, even when I try not to, I end up being an asshole anyway.

Still, you gotta’ try, right?

So.

On one side you have people who argue that by showing the voluptuous, zaftig Hendricks/Holloway as so unabashedly sexy – so remarkably in control of her sexuality – Mad Men challenges contemporary notions of attractiveness that idealise thinness. In fetishising both the fashion of the 60s and Joan Holloway’s decidedly ‘not-skinny’ body, Mad Men projects a differing model of the female desirability. Similar attempts to portray a more inclusive visions of (it must be said, white, typically attractive) women can feel so counter to the norm, that it makes some women want ‘to shout from the rooftops’.

On the other, you have people who argue that in presenting a specific ‘feminine ideal’ through the lens of the male gaze – the idea that representations of women always conform to the whims of an implied straight male viewer – isn’t a helpful move at all, but instead is simply a repetition of the objectification of women. In fact, even worse is that by explicitly making Joan an object of male desire, the show fetishises the act of fetishisation itself: it makes a hot woman being gawked at seem like an act of empowerment. And like Marilyn Monroe before her, Hendricks is ‘blessed’ with almost cartoonish hourglass proportions. It’s an expansion of an ideal only if you too can look like a skinny woman hiding two well-placed tires under her dress. (Look, I told you this was going to be bad.)

I haven’t really linked to any other opinions above, so what’s clear is that there are a lot of people with opinions floating around in my head –  one of whom is probably a bit of a misogynist twit who likes to say stupid things like “man, Joan Holloway is really fucking hot”, particularly after a couple of G&T’s.

But as I roamed the streets late at night a couple of days ago, thinking  – this is just something I do – what bothered me about the latter option is that it relies on the possibility of an alternative. It suggests there’s a better way to do things. And in an abstract sense there is. But when you consider audiences and economics and the entrenchment of gender norms – is there?

See, trouble is, we get mired in the same never-ending questions that have plagued feminism for decades: can you broadly change the idea of attractiveness without presenting a new vision of attractiveness in the public space?; is there any way to re-frame notions of attractiveness without asking individuals to aspire to some kind of ideal?; and is the entire notion of visually recognisable attractiveness that is about body types – rather than the things that bodies do  – tenable from a feminist perspective?

These questions are too hard. For me, anyway. So let’s go to a better one.

Does seeing Hendricks/Holloway on screen make people feel better – especially women? My anecdotal evidence – based on a large, representative sampling of 2 or 3 women who, for reasons unknown, are still willing to speak to me – says yes.

But like I said, I do feminism badly.

So whaddya’ think?

Apparently, Jon Hamm Agrees With Me

Hey, remember my whole schtick about how I love Mad Men so much because it’s like witnessing the birth of ‘late-capitalist’ culture? Listen to what Jon Hamm has to say on the topic at a recent press event:

A reporter followed up with an observation about “Mad Men” reflecting the classy ’60s. Hamm had plenty to say about that.

“Buddy, I don’t know if they had class back then. I can send you a couple of links of stuff where guys are berating their wives for making their coffee badly. What I think happened in the ’60s is I think irony happened. And the idea of selling non-earnestly became cool. And obviously that’s not a mistake that that’s when the baby boomers started getting 18. We’re seeing a lot of it now, we’re seeing these cool hipsters, man …

“You can’t tell 18-year-olds anything. …  That’s what happens. The irony happens. And it’s cool to be in a not-cool place. Get it man? And so that’s what the big shift was that our guys are trying to figure out.”

I mean, it’s a little clumsy and unclear, but… has Jon Hamm been reading contemporary cultural critic Frederic Jameson?

The Hipster Elitists Were Right: The Failure of Irony as Satire

To say the contemporary North American hipster has an ambivalent relationship with mainstream culture would be a mild understatement. How much – and how ironically – the self-identified hipster engages popular culture is an issue on which cred is staked and cultural capital gained and lost, often, one assumes, over pints of microbrewery beer or glasses of obscure Chilean wine.

While I acknowledge ‘the hipster’ is hardly a scientific category, as someone inclined to make crass generalisations, let me make another here. I’d say there are two general hipster approaches to the mainstream, both of which are quite familiar. The first is elitist disdain for the popular, the immediate dismissal of the idea that anything in mass culture has many, if any, redeeming qualities. The other is something like ironic detachment, an engagement with popular culture that isn’t about fully immersing oneself in a TV show or music act, but instead, enjoying the pulpy nature of it while simultaneously maintaining a critical, ironic distance. It’s populism of a sort, but one that maintains the safety of an emergency exit, the comfort of obscure literature and snarky blogs always ready to rescue one from Gossip Girl or Ashlee Simpson. And while it isn’t clearly elitist, neither is it value-neutral.

Of the two perspectives, I’d argue it’s the latter that has become more dominant. While those of us who grew up in the nineties were initially more familiar with the first, the ‘one foot in, one foot out’ approach has become more common now, and indeed, there are good reasons for that. Many will argue that irony is the only fitting approach in a culture in which distinctions between high and low, and even good and bad have started to become markedly fuzzy and that, furthermore, to condescendingly dismiss popular culture is to be an elitist and a classist. Given that so many urban hipsters are at least superficially left-leaning, this is frequently seen to be untenable.

At stake in the division between the two is a starkly divergent view of popular culture. One side views it as an aberration, a collection of media produced by shallow consumerism and an appeal to the lowest common denominator. The other sees popular culture as, simply, ‘the human’. ‘Whatever it is, it is’, they say, but the standard postmodern refrain that “high is low and low is high” is complicated by the acknowledgement of larger cultural and economic forces, not of all which are inherently ‘good’. Given the right context, a woman in a bikini may be highly ironic; given the wrong, it may merely be a repetition of sexism.

But if we are now free to revel in ‘low culture’ and the mainstream, while we are also aware that much of what drives it is suspect, what does this mean for satire, the genre that is meant to take existing forms and tweak them in order to critique? Well, one could argue that it has produced a generation of satire that has taken up that ubiquitous question – “Can you dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools?” – and answered with a resounding, deafening yes. From Starship Troopers and Natural Born Killers, to South Park and The Simpsons, to Mad Men and Gossip Girl, we have a spate of media that uses the very ideas, images, forms and dialects that are being satirised in order to criticise. Even when – say in the case of Gossip Girl – the satire is not ‘there explicitly’ irony saves us, giving us the critical distance to make what academics call ‘recuperative readings’, interpretations that save media from itself. Relax, my hipster friend, let that tightness leave your chest: when you sit down in front of the TV and immerse yourself in pop, you are still cleverly rising above it.

But the question to be asked is to what extent the ironic engagement of popular culture allows for critical distance. Put another way, at what point in immersing oneself in popular media does irony disappear and assimilation begin? And I’d argue that the entire premise of critical distance is – fatally – predicated on the idea of a conscious critical distance. To wit, I can watch Gossip Girl but remain unaffected by it because I know better; because I am smart, I can hover over this, untouched.

But does it actually work that way? Do images and the desire through which they function operate in a clear, conscious manner? I don’t think so. Mad Men may be a brilliant critique of the crass excess and prejudice of sixties Madison Avenue, but I have yet to meet someone not desperate for a scotch and cigarette by the show’s end, no-one neither straight nor gay who isn’t already in love with Joan Holloway. Until he was shown to be a brazen liar and womanizer, I know I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be Don Draper. Mad Men’s fastidious attention to glamorous aesthetics, its use of impossibly attractive leads, and its saturation in the late-capitalist fervour of postmodern America does far more to reaffirm those values than condemn them. In your waking hours you might hate Don Draper, but when you dream, you want to be reborn as him.

I can ironically critique Gossip Girl all I want; the images will still be burned into my brain. I will still walk down the street and think “oh, that girl’s hot, she looks just like that chick on that show”. I will perform postcolonial, anti-racist critique by day, and every night I will find myself believing that glamour and wealth are the purviews of the white, blonde and skinny.

The point – that I am now stating rather melodramatically – is that there is a disconnect between conscious hipster irony and the way in which images work to produce desire in us. Images never work alone, and while it is easy to consciously erect a wall between the sincere image and the satirical one – say between Jack Bauer as a model of masculinity and Don Draper as a critique of it – the way in which unconscious desire separates these two things is much more fuzzy, particularly when the satirical images themselves have desirable traits like attractiveness or wit or success.

The upside of the now old-fashioned hipster elitism is that a complete disavowal of the aesthetic and ideology of mainstream culture means that one is not subjected to its libidinal economy. Ironic distance works through false hope, offering up a vision of a purely conscious mind devoid of desire, somehow immune to the value-laden, sexually-charged imagery that pulses across our screens. Satire cannot work through reproducing the things it critiques because the unconscious cannot construct a division between the image that reinforces and the one that undercuts. When you see a billboard with an attractive person on it, you desire them or you desire to be them. Whether the billboard is for Adbusters or Guess is irrelevant; the effect is the same because of the network of images that pre-dated both of them.

The irony at the core of hipster-ism began with good intentions: break down the walls between high and low, embrace everything, and you understand culture and its inhabitants. But it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of human desire and its basis in the unconscious. The faux-populist, ironic core of hipster, bloggy culture is predicated on an optimism that has no reason, a resignation rather than an overcoming, a constant reproduction of the values we claim to critique but actually reaffirm.  And while I, red-faced, cannot claim that I will not tonight, beer in hand, watch the latest episode of Man Men, I think I might, despite the internet’s protestations, never start watching Gossip Girl. For I would, as always, be affected the same way: claiming to float lightly above it, all the while writhing in the mud and lust of the id.

Note: In the interests of quoting my sources, I feel I should note that, like half the posts on the blog, the ideas here stemmed from a drunken conversation with my friend ‘M’ who refuses to write a guest post.

Mad Men, The Creative Urge and Why We All Abandon Our Tumblrs

The thing is, we all sit in front of our screens and create. This, after all, is the grand mantra of internet proselytisers: no longer is creativity the sole domain of an elite class; the barriers of entry to the new public space have become so low and so open that anyone can blog, post photos and videos, create art and share it with everyone. You’ve heard this all a million times I’m sure – this bubbling, bursting excitement, about our new shared space, the breakdown of the barriers between what we once neatly called the private and the public, the democratisation of the creative act. “Me, I’m a Creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar”. This line now applies to everyone – though which rules are broken and which adhered to is perhaps more fuzzy than it was before.

In this new era of ‘the universal accessibility to creativity’, bloggers are on the cusp of something, in the thick of the new. I admit, the term ‘blogger’ is starting to lose any coherence it may have once had: given the multiplicity of not only topics but forms, any stability to be found in a definition would have to be remarkably abstract. Yet, what is blogging if not creation?; it may not often be ‘art’ as such, but it certainly falls into the catch-all new media term ‘content’. This is what we are constantly doing, is it not? Sitting around, producing content, stretching our brains to write insightful posts, argue our case, produce new forms or find intriguing, funny, arcane bits of culture? If, as I’ve argued recently, the internet is a blank screen for projecting the self, then it is also a blank canvas for the creation of art and culture. It waits there. We simply have to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was all this that was going through my mind as I raced through season one of Mad Men. Though there is much that fascinates me about the show, one thing that has lingered in my mind is the creative push that  runs like an undercurrent in the office of Sterling-Cooper. Ad execs are creators. Like bloggers, what they do on a day-to-day basis is to produce content. True, it may not always be what they might want to do, what ‘their heart desires’ – but it is creativity nonetheless, and as anyone will tell you, some creativity is always better for the soul than none. Yet, like many tech bloggers, the creative urge extends beyond work. When it comes out that Ken Cosgrove has had a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly, it sends veritable shockwaves through the office. While Pete Campbell‘s seething, petulant jealousy is expected, everyone else’s is less so. It later comes out that bohemian Paul Kinsey is a budding, if struggling, playwright. These ‘Mad Men’ (including Peggy) are desperate to create, to make something that means something to people, that extends beyond their solitude to connect with the wider world. It’s the same urge that we all now tap into through the ‘net, in our democratised and newly public creative process.

So what do we tech and internet-culture bloggers do when the analysis, snark and commenting just doesn’t cut it? Where are our short stories? Where is our sudden creative outlet, our desperate attempt to connect? I suppose I mean this somewhat metaphorically, but we all start Tumblrs. We begin them in a rush of optimism – finally, we think, here is a simple, easy place for the art that I stumble across, the random thoughts I have, the snippets of conversation I was so desperate for someone else to hear. The blog – I can’t gush on my blog! – but Tumblr… I can put my brain on my blog and my heart on Tumblr and, neatly demarcated, things will finally make sense. And in a flurry, we post for the first week, maybe the first month, possibly even the first six months. But like annual flowers, we plant them excitedly only to watch them die. Who has the time? The desire to keep it up? We’re searching for something, for the social core that we keep hearing about, the connection we so crave, but somehow, when we find it, it suddenly seems too futile, like too much work to throw ourselves into wholeheartedly.

We create. This post, this blog, all our posts, all our blogs, are creations, outpourings, are like a moment in history expressing itself through us. But is it enough? While we make our ads, we want our short stories. We want something else, something less snarky, something more sincere, something where we are more concerned with being gut-wrenching than disemvoweling. So we start our Tumblrs.

And then we give up. Can we do both? Can we document the profound epistemological shift we are in the midst of and, at the same time, write a novel about the scene? Can we blog about the infinite fragments of internet culture and then, later that night, put them together into something resembling an aesthetic whole? To be entirely frank, I’m not sure what I’m pushing up against here: is it a Carr/Keen/Birkerts sense that the internet is destroying our capacity to ‘think deeply’, to carry on sustained effort? Is there an aesthetic shift afoot, where what constitutes not only art but its function is changing? Can we still speak of aesthetic wholes? I remember a conversation in which I said someone’s Tumblr was like art. His response was that it was something, certainly, but that it wasn’t the big picture; he wanted the big picture. So do I. But I may have lost faith that such a thing is possible. It’s all too much.

What is the undercurrent that pulses and throbs beneath our Sterling-Cooper? How are we going to find an outlet for our creativity and still keep our heads above water? And, after years of pushing it aside, of decades of not finding a place to speak that feels right, will we recognise it when it rears its head again?

Mad Men: Witnessing the Birth of the Modern Age (Part 1)

Although I initially ignored it, I have become absolutely obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men, watching the entire first season in about a week. But beyond a now insatiable craving to start having scotch and cigarettes with lunch, it was impossible for my mind to stop buzzing throughout each episode. These are some thoughts I’ve collected on the show’s appeal to me and, more specifically, why I think it allows us to ‘witness the birth of contemporary era’ (there may be some minor spoilers).

Don Draper, Ad-Man: producing visions of America, producing visions of himself.

Often, as Don is making ad magic, the camera zooms in on his face and one feels as if one is viewing the creation of poetry. But Draper’s insistent clarity about what is being sold, those ineffable desires that make people want to buy, are as constructed by Don as they are perceived by him. Draper, the man who constitutes the public vision of America for itself, has also entirely created himself, building his life into the image of success that he simultaneously lives and aspires to. His pristine suburban home and Grace Kelly lookalike wife, Betty, only add to the idea that Don’s life is a beautiful fiction – and precisely the same fiction that he sets atop a mythic pedestal for American to strive towards.

Watching the Arrival of Late Capitalism

There are two key ‘advertising moments’ in season one of Mad Men. The first is Don’s mid-meeting realisation that when selling identical products – in this case, cigarettes – what is key is to produce an association between the brand and a desired trait. Lucky Strike smokes are ‘Toasted’ – that’s it. But more to the point is the baffled reaction to a VW ad for the Beetle/Bug that simply reads “Lemon”. The aim of the piece is twofold: to create an image of the brand rather than the product; and to have that image supercede the product in both importance and relevance.

But what is so fascinating about Mad Men is that we can see the struggle to understand this new world. Mired in it as we are, we are often only aware of the oppressive ubiquity of advertising and branding. In Mad Men, it’s almost as if we get a window into those first glimmers of the movement into today, a world in which we mark out our identities with the things we consume.

Retro Aesthetics; or, “Let’s Talk about Christina Hendricks’ Ass”. (Don’t worry – I won’t be as misogynistic as that sounds. )

The first thing most people remark on about Mad Men is its fastidious, obsessive dedication to getting the aesthetic of the sixties right, from the clothing to the hair to the technology. But what struck me was the following scene: Joan Holloway, bending forward in front on a two-way mirror and the men standing behind her in the observation room actually ‘saluting her ass’. The question though is almost one of aesthetics – and I quite deliberately mean to invoke the reduction of the female body to an aesthetic object. We live in an age where skinny women are idolized; what does it do then to watch men watching and ‘approving of’ Hendricks’ body which, as Buzzfeed remarked is, “refreshingly voluptuous”. It’s a strange dynamic – on the one hand, it’s clearly and explicitly sexist; and on the other it stands as an oddly ambiguous challenge to our own, more subtle contemporary forms of sexism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a group of guys ogling a woman is somehow a positive feminist move. But it’s not supposed to be. The question is what the effect of us watching them when the ‘object of affection’ (and the pun is intentional there) doesn’t conform to contemporary standards? Ask yourself: which phrase seems more out of place in the contemporary era, more indicative of a lack of understanding of ‘how things work’? “Wow, that woman has a great ass”; or, “I like bigger women”. Alone it’s worth considering, but in light of Mad Men and its representation of a radically different aesthetic and cultural mode, it’s even more so.

That Theme Song

First, to steal a bit from Adam Lisagor, the way it pares down to the rhythm section just as the shot pulls out to a silhouette of Don is so great it makes me want to take it behind a middle school and quote 30 Rock with it. But the impossibility of distinguishing whether the tune is contemporary or retro is the perfect metaphor for the entire show. Is it about the past or the present? About things that are over or only just beginning? Where exactly is the line between… actually, you know what? You get the point. It’s fucking great.

Part 2 to follow…