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Mad Men and Misogyny
by Anthony Levin
2011-02-16 09:18:31
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As Season 5 of Mad Men approaches with the promise of more excoriating social commentary, it's fitting to reflect on the media, gender roles and misogyny. Especially when we have Sky Sports (UK) commentators making sexist gaffs about female referees. But good thing those mad men, Andy Gray and Richard Keys did, or else we wouldn't know we were still living in the decade of Don Drapers.

If you’re unfamiliar, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the central character of Mad Men – a series about Madison Avenue’s elite 1960s admen. Draper, creative director of fictional Ad agency Sterling Cooper, is a figure of philandering, pinstriped machismo. In short, he is the epi- to Mad Men’s phenomenon.

The title of a recent op-ed by magazine jezebel.com said it all: ‘The Don Draper Effect: Why Do Feminists Still Love Assholes?’

The operative word, some might argue, is still.

As a form of commentary, Mad Men should show us how far we’ve come. According to AMCTV, the series depicts the roles of men and women “while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional family values”. ‘Beneath the guise’, gender roles were violently shifting. Today, we spectate on the shift in comfort, as if it were merely archival footage. We permit ourselves the luxury of loving Don Draper (who dispatches his secretary Lois by telling her “Stick to the switchboard”) because we consider him a ghost. In serial land, being an asshole is no obstacle to being loved.

But when Keys and Gray were recorded and broadcast on-air talking off-air, for a moment, the archive came to life, and reality shimmered like a 60s hair commercial. “Urrgh. The game’s gone mad,” Richard Keys is heard saying as he finishes his rant.

Upon reflection, the guise of Stepford values was never shattered at all - only retouched.

For reasons that aren’t relevant here, I recently joined a Mad Men discussion group. Its membership includes Professor Stevi Jackson, Director of the Centre for Women's Studies at the University of York. Her Wikipedia profile states her idea of utopia is “an egalitarian world without gender where ‘your genitals matter as little as your hair colour’”.

It’s a statement that would sound flippant were it not for the fact that Jackson was founding co-editor of the journal Feminist Theory.

The sentiment, applied here, needs little elaboration. Football’s ‘linesmen’ includes women. No, they don’t have penises. What the f*ck do they know about the offside rule? As much as any drunken yob shouting at the big screen - if that yob had been ref’ing for ten years, had done hard time with affiliated partner leagues, had been progressed through academy and semi-professional football, had turned pro two years ago and had taken the night off to act like a lout.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in utopia. No one discriminates on the basis of hair colour but they do on the basis of genitals.

The latest gaff reminds us that sexism persists. We need a leaked recording, not a cult serial, to see that it has been repressed and recycled into ‘off-air’ forms, like studio banter (the locker room, minus the jock straps) and - no great revelation - advertising.

Advertising has created a litany of corporate cosmetic imperatives. Skin must be smooth; lips, glossy; legs, hairless, breasts, large etc. The former tends to reflect these.

The media is full of crude cosmetic standards. It’s a useful prism because it conflates locker rooms and commercials. Women are told that unless you’re pretty, you can’t be a newsreader; female politicians offer airbrushed photo-ops for women’s magazines. Meanwhile, female celebrities offer up an itinerant commerce of changing looks.

Women enter intellectual and sporting life in violation of a social norm that inscribes the female body as reproductive. To referee football, as much as to present the weather, is to transgress. As a result, they must be erotically feminised, or completely excluded - just like the women of Mad Men.

And yet here we are debating hard about whether the chador should be banned in public. On account of what? Cultural oppression of women by men? Pfff. Western women can do whatever they like. Western women can wear skirts short or long, they have the right to choose – to self-determine - they can even dye their hair any colour they please.

Under the cosmetic rule of law, hair colour holds special status. It appears innocuous, but the trend towards dyeing/bleaching reveals a distorted female body image built on learned-discontent. Natural is not pretty enough, say the Admen, not shiny enough, not bright enough. A dye job says ‘I have improved on Nature’, even as its roots confess the crowning lie.

Some defend changes in hair colour as ‘creative self-expression’, like tattooing. They say that any attempt to graft onto hair discussions of gender, is akin to a two-day rinse. But what they miss is that body image is mediated from head to toe; there is little self in the expression and much mass. Peak into an inner city bar on a Friday night and witness the sea of bleach.

Others, even those who eschew the label ‘feminist’, may object to a man claiming that women who dye their hair are unhappy. I acknowledge how constructions of sex and gender delegitimise my argument. Further, men are targets of cosmetic tyranny too (the equivalent: ‘Bigorexia’).

The point is, a defence of the right to dye takes as its premise the same principle that divides the debate on the veil – a debate on which Western feminists are quick to opine. It is an implicit defence of agency. Recall that after Iranian monarch, Reza Pahlavi tried to modernise Iran in 1935 by banning the veil, women wore it during the revolution as a symbol of liberation. According to Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks, this paralleled the denim overalls worn by militant feminists of the same era.

Agency is not as straightforward as we think. Taken alone, it ignores the culture of influence.

But why single out this augmentation as an index of sexism? What about implants, collagen, vagazzling – aren’t there more serious lies warranting critique? Probably, yes. Hair colour, however, is off-the-shelf change. It doesn’t require piles of money. Dyeing is an act of physical air-brushing that begins at the supermarket and ends with your head in the tub, matching your hair to a picture.

Take Mad Men’s redhead bombshell, Christina Hendricks, who has spawned a forest-fire of red heads: a real blonde, it turns out. She’s been dyeing since she was 10.

Maybe Hendricks holds the key to Mad Men’s raging success. At once funny and cringeworthy, we watch because we see figures of ourselves. MM is magical realism – but the magic isn’t being transported to a soda commercial advertising sex (ie the 1960s), it’s being struck by the social realism of gender relations in 2011.

Far from being archived, sexism is real, and it’s not simply the province of belt-loosening misogynists at Sky. Women bear responsibility too - responsibility-in-complicity – through daily choices. The first step towards a sexism-free society is to acknowledge complicity in the social structure. Opposition begins when we realise we have all been conditioned by the dominant culture.

So before we rush to decry the oppression of women by Islam, before we smile too smugly at TV - we might watch an episode of Mad Men, and then look in the mirror. It may just spawn a generation of women who wave bottles in the streets instead of bras.

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judy brown2011-02-17 02:12:21
Yes, I agree we need Don Draper to remind us that we haven't traveled far enough away from sexism.

However, AMC and Lionsgate continue to futz around with the negotiations that might push the next Mad Men season to 2012!



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