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'Mad Men', Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s

Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, Robert A. Rushing, eds.

Scholars across the humanities consider Mad Men from a fascinating array of perspectives, including fashion, history, civil rights, feminism, consumerism, and art, as well as through theoretical frames such as critical race theory, gender, queer theory, and psychoanalysis.

Excerpted from Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (footnotes omitted), Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, Robert A. Rushing, eds.© Copyright Duke University Press, 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

"Maidenform": Masculinity as Masquerade

by Lilya Kaganovsky

In his book Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger observed: “In the average European oil painting of the nude, the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there. It is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger with his clothes still on” (54). Addressing the gendered nature of spectatorship, this passage anticipates by a few years Laura Mulvey’s pronouncement in 1975 on the male gaze in classic Hollywood cinema (“Visual Pleasure”). The structure of the “invisible” male spectator for whom the female nude obligingly exhibits herself has haunted the discourse of representation, opening up questions concerning the construction of gender, the limits of identification, and the uses of pleasure (whether voyeuristic, scopophilic, fetishistic, or other).

For Mulvey, the position of the cinematic spectator was gendered male in relation to the “feminized” visual image. The woman herself, when she appeared on the screen, displayed the quality of what Mulvey called “to-be-looked-at-ness”: she was made up, dressed, and photographed in such a way as to put herself on visual display, to exhibit herself to our gaze. Indeed, cinema itself has often been referred to as the meeting of the “voyeur” and the “exhibitionist.” No matter what their gender, the spectators’ pleasure comes from sneaking a peak into the “private world” of the characters, while everything about the moviegoing experience is meant to heighten the feeling of the spectator–as–Peeping Tom. We look, but we cannot be seen; we are “outside” in the dark, while they are inside with all the lights turned on.

More vitally, as Berger and Mulvey both argued, the gaze of the ideal spectator was firmly aligned with the male subject. In other words, the classic cinematic apparatus seemed to produce a “hegemonic, masculine, Oedipal bourgeois spectator, who gained illusory power and coherence in his alignment with the camera eye on the one hand, and the male protagonist on the other” (L. Williams, “Introduction,” 2). The male look was conflated with the “gaze,” and power seemed to be entirely on the side of the one doing all the looking. Looking at women, it seemed, was fairly “straightforward.”

I have started with Berger and Mulvey because I am interested in our spectatorial relationship to the character/image of Don Draper (played by the very handsome Jon Hamm), offered by the show as an ideal male subject: autonomous, daring, masterful—but in free fall. Many of the show’s scenes are framed lower than eye line to incorporate the ceilings into the composition of the frame. This composition reflects the photography, graphic design, and architecture of the 1960s, but it also speaks to a certain placement of the spectator vis-à-vis the visual image. We are always looking up at the characters on the screen, always looking up at Don, and watching him is one of the show’s strongest “visual pleasures.” Yet in trying to see how Don is constructed by our gaze (and here I am including actual spectators of the show, the ideal spectator imagined by the show, and the eye of the camera), we can see the ways in which this construct is troubled by the show’s own awareness of itself as fiction. In its depiction of the American 1960s as a moment of the disintegration of white male privilege and dominance, Mad Men produces a rather complex staging of gender relations and gender construction, troubling our normative identification not only with its male lead, but with the masculine gaze.

“Maidenform” (2.6) is an episode that begins with men looking at women and ends with women looking at men. Structured exactly like Mulvey’s version of a classic Hollywood film, the episode opens with a montage of our three main female protagonists in their undergarments, and closes (with about five minutes left to spare) with a striptease at the Tom Tom Club. The central story line concerns a Playtex bra campaign. About ten minutes in, we see girls modeling bikinis during the annual Memorial Day “ribs and fashion show” at the Country Club. And even Peggy’s office–cum–copy room has a prominent ad on the wall of two women wearing corsets. Practically quoting Berger’s formulation a decade later, Paul Kinsey says: “Bras are for men. Women want to see themselves the way men see them.” (“Men look at women,” wrote Berger; “Women watch themselves being looked at” [47].) “You want to be ogled?” Don asks Betty when she suggests going to the pool in her new bikini. “Has your wife seen that yet?” asks Roger Sterling admiring Don’s new secretary, the very sunburned Jane Siegel. “If we were to take you to see some girls in their underwear, would you feel like you’re at work?” Freddy Rumsen asks the Playtex clients, underscoring once again the episode’s focus on the male gaze. Indeed, every element of the episode suggests that if Don and the ad men have not yet read Berger and Mulvey, Matthew Weiner certainly has. As though to epitomize the gaze Mulvey describes, Don explains halfway through the episode: “Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe—women have feelings about these women because men do. Because we want both, they want to be both. It’s about how they want to be seen, by us—their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.” He adds, “It’s a very flattering mirror.”

The episode opens to the tune of the Decemberists’ “The Infanta,” as we watch Betty, Joan, and Peggy get ready for their day (figs. 12.1–12.3). Probably one of the first things to note about this sequence (besides the music, which goes against the show’s usual fetish for period accuracy) is its attention to clothing as costume. Betty and Joan both dress in front of the mirror, focusing our attention not only on their double enframing but also on their relationship to the specular image. Each in her own way, Betty and Joan perform ideal femininity for the gaze of the other, and their relationship to their image is mediated through the mirror, in which, like Jacques Lacan’s infans (or Infanta), they see an ideal I reflected back at them. (Notice the smile on Betty’s lips and Joanie’s pout. One blogger remarked, “I like how Joan does that fake-pouty Marilyn mouth thing even when she’s alone” [Robertson].)

Figures 12.1–12.3. Betty, Joan, and Peggy get ready for
their day (“Maidenform,” 2.6)

This ideal image is shaped, on the one hand, by the undergarments that the women put on, and on the other, by the forces of style, fashion, beauty, race, class, and gender that create the subject (whether onscreen or offscreen). In fashion, a “foundation garment,” also known as “shapewear” or “shaping underwear,” is an undergarment designed to temporarily alter the wearer’s body shape to achieve a more fashionable figure. The function of a foundation garment is not to enhance a bodily feature (as would, for example, a padded bra) but to smooth or control the display of one. Corsets, brassieres, girdles, and corselettes—all these are designed primarily to alter the shape of the body, to give it a form that, although it might exaggerate certain natural features, is far from “natural.” A corset is a garment worn to mold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect), while the corselet was originally a piece of armor, covering the torso (the origin of the English word comes from cors, an Old French word meaning “bodice”). In other words, the foundation garment temporarily does for the body what the “mirror stage” permanently does for the ego: it provides an “armor” that, as Lacan tells us, “will mark [the subject’s] entire mental development with its rigid structure” (78).

It is worthwhile to recall Lacan’s famous discussion of the baby in front of the mirror here in some detail, to see the ways in which “Maidenform” plays with the by now familiar text of the “mirror stage.” Lacan writes: “It suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image—an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect at this phase, as witnessed by the use in analytic theory of antiquity’s term, ‘imago’” (76). For the subject “caught up in the lure of spatial identification,” the mirror stage turns out fantasies that proceed “from a fragmented image of the body” to an “orthopedic” form of its totality—and finally, to the “donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development with its rigid structure” (78). Caught up in the “lure of spatial identification,” Betty and Joan collect themselves, putting on the foundation garments that will shape the body even as they assume the imago that will shape their subjectivity. “Maidenform” seems determined to teach us this basic Lacanian lesson, to insist on revealing the ways in which we are shaped, ordered, and framed by our identifications. But it is also interested in destroying those identifications, in undermining the “spatial captation,” both for the characters and for the viewers.

Betty and Joan’s superior adult femininity is contrasted to Peggy’s awkward and childish gestures, as she jumps up and down, pulling up her pantyhose. As Joan insists to her later in the episode, “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl.” The concern of the episode seems to be precisely with the notion of woman and masquerade; with the under-clothes that shape the woman. The choice is given as one between Playtex and Maidenform, with Playtex, a company known for making solid and comfortable bras for women, hoping to branch out into the decidedly sexier Maidenform territory.

Figure 12.4. Jackie, Marilyn, Jackie, Marilyn... (“Maidenform,” 2.6)

As we see from several close-ups of the ads, in contrast to Maidenform’s “dreams,” “fantasies,” and “reveries,” Playtex advertises itself as a “living” bra. One Playtex ad, for example, is a medium shot of a woman, half-turned, her face entirely obscured by her arm holding a camera. The ad emphasizes the possibility of an active lifestyle and one not necessarily aimed at the gaze of the other, unlike the Maidenform copy that reads “I dreamed I stopped them in their tracks in my Maidenform bra” and “I dreamed I was wanted in my Maidenform bra.” Hearing that Playtex is jealous of a ten-year-old Maidenform campaign, Don is dismissive: “Maidenform is a dream,” he says; “Playtex is a bra.”

The ad campaign for Playtex turns on the moment of revelation. Every woman, Paul Kinsey tells Don, is either a Marilyn or a Jackie: “We went out the other night, after the meeting, y’know, a little extra hours after hours. And, I looked around the bar. [Ken affirms: “We all did.”] Women right now already have a fantasy, and it’s not going up the Nile, it’s right here in America: Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Every single woman is one of them.” (Speaking about JFK, Jimmy Barrett tells Betty a few episodes earlier, “You’re not Jackie, but you’re his type, I know” [“The Benefactor,” 2.3].) When Peggy seems dubious about this observation, the men do a quick sweep of the steno pool, identifying every woman as one or the other (fig. 12.4). “Well, Marilyn’s really a Joan, not the other way around,” Paul notes, admiringly. “You’re a Jackie or a Marilyn; a line or a curve; nothing goes better together,” explains Sal. Yet, while Paul’s observation is that every woman is either a Marilyn or a Jackie, Don’s point is that every woman is actually both: “Two sides of one woman—Jackie by day, Marilyn by night.” Thus the final ad campaign pictures the same model twice, once in black, once in white (fig. 12.5).

Figure 12.5. “Nothing fits both sides of a woman, better
than Playtex” (“Maidenform,” 2.6)

As I have suggested, however, this episode is not merely about men looking at women. After all, the Maidenform/Playtex story line is distanced from us. We watch the men looking at the women and are thereby denied that same kind of relationship of pure, uncontaminated voyeurism on which the episode is premised. We have read Laura Mulvey, even if they have not. More-over, the Playtex campaign is complicated from the start by the presence of Peggy, who fails to fit into either of the two feminine positions allowed by the pitch (and occupied by Betty and Joan in the opening sequence). When she complains to Joan that “there’s business going on after hours” and she “is not invited,” she is told, “You’re in their country, learn to speak the language.” (“You’re just the man for the job,” Freddy tells her.) Asked by Ken which bra she wears, Peggy hedges her bets by saying that she chooses Playtex because she agrees with the ninety-five women they surveyed about how it fits (we know that Joan too is asked about her bra, but we never learn the answer). Neither a Marilyn nor a Jackie, Peggy is told that she is Gertrude Stein—a comment immediately softened by Don, who suggests Irene Dunne.

Indeed, at the end of the episode, Peggy tries to negotiate her uncharted position by attempting to fill the place of the male spectator, as she joins the men at the Tom Tom Club to watch the striptease. The position is clearly uncomfortable; perched on the lap of the Playtex client, watched disapprovingly by Pete, Peggy occupies precisely that in between position she has been assigned throughout the episode (figs. 12.6–12.8). She is neither Marilyn nor Jackie. Neither adult woman nor little girl. Neither spectator nor exhibit.

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