Is Joan Holloway’s Body a Feminist Act?


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?


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?