Women or Objects? A “Mad Men” Salon

Welcome to our RH Reality Check roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff
writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicked
off our salon yesterday
, and Amanda adds her thoughts below. After the premiere (August 16),
we’ll start a second round of conversation!

with Sarah
that the mostly-female writing staff of "Mad Men"
somehow manages to make the uber-patriarchy of the 60s feel fresh and
I don’t know how they do it; it could easily have slipped into, "They
were bad then, but it’s all better now," but instead we’re forced
to contend with the fact that all these happenings are related to our
culture now.

I think the moment for me on
"Mad Men" that made me realize the strong feminist bent of the show
was far from accidental was the opening sequence of the masterful episode
"Maidenform."  You see the three main female characters Peggy,
Joan, and Betty getting dressed and see how even Peggy, who is low maintenance
by 60s standards, has to go through intense amounts of work just to
be considered worthy of stepping out the front door.  You also
see Joan rubbing her skin where her bra strap cuts into it. True, second wave
feminists didn’t burn their bras
their girdles or their garters–but the show argues with this visual
imagery, that they probably should have.  As the actresses on the
show have complained repeatedly, underwear for women then was a potent
symbol of how painfully restrained women were, how their personalities,
ambitions, desires, and very flesh and to be pinched and molded to fit
male demands.   

Indeed, for the rest of the
episode, female copywriter Peggy Olson fights to have her male colleagues
take her opinions on bra advertising seriously.  You’d think
that a woman’s input on how to sell women’s personal items to women
would be considered valuable, if your main priority is actually selling
bras.  But as the show demonstrates, with surprising subtlety,
the men especially don’t want to hear from women on the issue of how
women should dress.  They can feel their control over female bodies
slipping, and want to hang on just a little longer.   

The male copywriters come up
with a campaign to sell bras that basically posits that all women are
either Jackies or Marilyns–that is, male sexual fantasies, complete
objects.  Peggy quietly protests, asking which one she is, and
the men are baffled, because they have to admit that Peggy is not an
object, because she’s a colleague and for some, even a friend. 
It’s only after you flick off the TV that you realize that Jackie
Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe weren’t Jackies or Marilyns, either, but
real people with careers, tragedies, and lives.  That’s
the power of the show’s deft turn at storytelling.

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  • invalid-0

    My impression was not that the “Jackie vs. Marilyn” dichotomy was just two competing sexual fantasies of different hair color and temperament (like Mary Ann and Ginger), but that they represented the Madonna/whore complex. Marilyn was obviously a symbol of sexual availability, and Jackie was the perfect wife and mother. The behavior of JFK arguably fits both of them into that pattern. Peggy didn’t fit into either mold because the men had stopped viewing her as a sexual plaything, but they didn’t see her as an ideal of virtue and maternal love either since she was a budding career woman rather than someone pursuing a husband and children.

    • invalid-0

      I think the episode in question and the conceits it raises are even more complex than that. If you’ll remember the end of that particular show, Peggy is seated on the lap of the Playtex Rep. in a fetching blue evening dress with her hair swept in a “grown-up” do. After being exhorted by Joan and Bobbi to use her feminine wiles to get where she wants to go, she tries two new tactics to be taken seriously. The first is that she calls her boss Don. The second is that she slips into the aforementioned outfit and heads into the stripper bar where the Playtex fellas are entertaining the Sterling Cooper account guys. The most compelling aspect of the episode is in the final moment when Pete Campbell, the unknowing father of Peggy’s “stop, drop and go” baby, gives her a look that could remove paint off a wall. In turn, she exchanges a glance with him from her perch on the Playtex Reps lap, before awkwardly averting her eyes. These are women using all kinds of coping mechanisms to deal with the ill-fitting set of circumstances that they must live under. Circumstances more complex and more confining than even their underwear, however wonderfully emblematic it happens to be. Peggy i still trying to figure it all out.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I agree with you, but don’t really see that as an interpretation that precludes mine.  The Madonna/whore complex is about men reducing women to objects.  Some men find both arousing, but the Madonna/whore complex also cripples some men sexually, because they can’t enjoy sex with wives or girlfriends.  But both are fantasies, not real people.


    But good point, I agree.  

  • invalid-0

    Jacqueline Kennedy? Wasn’t it?

  • invalid-0

    The Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy is absolutely a constructed binary for objectifying women.

    Think of it as a symbolic costume you put on. A role, which also fits with the idea of needs, both male and female. Women need to be seen as more than one-dimensional, and madonna/whore is an easy (if cliche) script. It’s about how you desire to be perceived, but more specifically how you will be perceived (whether you like it or not) by the male gaze.

  • invalid-0

    I wasn’t trying to dispute the substance of the post. I agree with you that the most interesting thing about Mad Men is the way that it sheds light on the construction of gender roles during a period before (most of) the viewers were born, and that the focus on bras was a poignant example of this. My reservation was about the description of both Marilyn and Jackie as sexual fantasies. Now, I wasn’t around at the time, so I’m basing this only on my impressions and the memories of relatives, but it seemed as if Jackie was not viewed as a sexual fantasy by most men at the time. The word that came up most often was ‘refined’.

    If that was representative, and she was seen as an exemplar of a certain kind of virtue or a certain kind of femininity, then it likely would have been a kind of femininity that was at odds with the more lascivious pose struck by Marilyn (or Jayne Mansfield). Maybe men were lusting for Jackie too, but the guys I asked don’t seem to think so. She seems to have been an epitome of ‘respectability’ at a time when that was incompatible with being sexualized.

    I’m not trying to pick on the Catholic church, but there does seem to be reason to believe that for men who grew up in the church, the constant reverence for the ‘virgin Mary’ makes it more likely that they will develop an attitude toward their wife that interferes with sexual intimacy. That may have been a factor in the President’s relationship to both Marilyn and his wife.

    I agree that the ‘Jackie ideal’ was a fantasy and that applying it to a women would be a way to objectify her. I just didn’t think that it was a ‘sexual fantasy’. Even though it is distinctly female and (emotionally) maternal, there is a sense in which the Madonna archetype is very asexual. I may be guilty of misreading if by ‘sexual fantasy’ you merely meant ‘a fantasy related to gender’- which would have confused me since that isn’t usually how the term is used.

    Personally, I don’t think that (with the possible exceptions of Don and Paul) any of the men are beginning to see Peggy as a ‘complete individual’ with whom they can have a real friendship in the way that they can with their heterosexual WASP male colleagues. I think that she is just a curiosity- a woman who doesn’t fit into the ‘sexual’ or ‘domestic’ categories, and for whom they will construct a new category: ‘professional’.

    From their point of view, Jackies and Marilyns both have something to offer them. Peggys don’t provide excitement and sexual release; they don’t provide nurturing and a stable home life. Eventually Peggys will become merely competitors and a threat. Unless Mad Men’s storyline extends for another 15 or 20 years, I don’t think the men will get around to adding a fourth category of women to their mental menagerie.

  • invalid-0

    Humorous aside- I was talking to a friend once about ways that one (intentionally or not) tries to subvert the gaze, and she said, “Why do you think that the gays would care?”

  • invalid-0

    Okay- I guess that what she actually said was that…

    She didn’t see why gay men or gays generally were at all responsible for peoples’ feelings of objectification and being judged based on physical desirability. Why would anyone blame gay people for the development of poor body image and eating disorders in straight people?

    Even with that correction, I still think it is funny- especially since she is the one who was in the Women & Gender Studies program when we were in college.

  • http://www.norwick.net invalid-0

    Unfortunately, I think the only people who can truly appreciate a blog entry like, “Cambodia was paradise for me” or “I love London” are your parents… If your officemate, who never travelled read it,

  • http://www.warren.net invalid-0

    Really wish I could roll back time a few days. This film is simply gorgeous.

  • http://recaptcha.com invalid-0

    Gumbleys News is a 3D stop-motion animation made using newspaper and animator Louise Lockharts dad. She describes her project as a sweet surreal pastiche of a Frankenstein style tale, lonely newsagent Mr Gumbley creates his ideal woman from the products in his shop.

  • http://www.kenworthy.com invalid-0

    I am Canadian and I want to move to Chicago in the end of september. I need a work Visa for the U.S, I have no idea where to start. I have read a lot about different options for a work visa, but I am totally lost right now.

  • invalid-0

    Or get turned on by them? Or find them sexy?

    Yes, the Madonna/whore complex is, on the one hand, a fantasy about what might be considered “overtly sexy” women– women who show their bodies, flirt, have features that turn men on. Nevertheless, the point is that men don’t just want the “whore”, they also feel turned on by women who are the opposite of that, who fill the role that they think a “proper” woman should fill. Her refinement, her propriety, her “cleanliness” (not literally, figuratively) can be arousing, just as the opposite of all of this can be. Furthermore, by being with that woman, they are achieving the “quality” of woman they are entitled to, much like driving a fancy car. Why wouldn’t the “Madonna” be a turn-on, just as the “whore” is?

    If it’s hard for you to think of Jacqueline Kennedy getting a guy all hot and bothered, consider January Jones’ character Betty. She embodies the Madonna (with a major deviation toward the end of season 2! Hello, how many of us were cheering her on in the bar????), and I think many men would find her sexually arousing in the extreme.

    • invalid-0

      Sure, there were no doubt men who found Jackie sexy- but the point of a “madonna/whore” dichotomy is that the former is asexual. The archetype is of a virgin who became a mother and bypassed sex altogether. The psychological problems arise from men who create an association with a woman who has ‘madonna’ characteristics to one for whom it would be socially inappropriate to fantasize about sexually (like a mother or sister).
      Of course one man’s ‘madonna’ may be another’s ‘sexy girl next door’ or ‘prim and proper until the lights go out’- but that’s not two different views of one woman. The ‘madonna’ view isn’t really compatible with the other two.
      I think Betty falls into the ‘sexy girl next door’ category. She is outwardly proper, but she overtly courts men’s sexual attention as well. Perhaps, that’s why I don’t think that Jackie was a sex symbol. I don’t think that she conveyed a sense of wanting to be an object of desire. She wanted to be fashionable and glamorous- but those are status signifiers, and not tied directly to sexuality.
      Don’t you think that Betty and Marilyn both give the messages that they want to be desired, whereas Jackie only wanted to be attractive (as opposed to wanting to attract men)?
      I felt bad for Betty in the bar. She didn’t desire the man she was with. She just wanted to hurt Don, and was using her body (which is her currency) as a means to an end. What is there to celebrate in that? If she’d given into a long standing infatuation, then sure- but that isn’t what she did. I don’t think that she wants anyone but Don, and I think that she will always feel that she degraded herself. I’m not saying that she SHOULD feel that way- but what difference does it make if she should or not if that’s how she feels? It was a sad episode.