Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Go Mad-Men Yourself!

Too awesome! If you can't wait for Season Three to arrive mid-August, then check out AMC's sweet new app to create your own swanky cartoon doppelganger as you would look in the world of Mad Men. Be sure not to miss the orange, circular tabs at the bottom-right of the page, where you can customize everything from the shape of your head to your accessories. Then you get to download your image and use it for your Facebook profile picture, not that I would do that or anything...

Besides my deep and undying love for the way that Janie Bryant dresses Betty and Joan and all of the other Mad Women, I am super-psyched for Mad Men to start up again to see what else Matt Weiner has got up his sleeve for Don, Betty, and their secretly sordid friends at Sterling Cooper. It is comfortable to view the extremity of the sexism portrayed in this late 1950s-early 1960s advertising office as a historical relic of how working women had it in the bad old days, with the same detachment that we admire and are inspired by the aesthetics of dressing and self-presentation of that time. Although overt gestures common in Mad Men world, like slapping a secretary's ass, are now (rightfully) the subject of lawsuits and other protections, the attitudes that engender these behaviors still rumble beneath the surface, cloaked in innuendo, thinly veiled threats, and stunted opportunities for advancement.

Most troublingly, the dissonance between how the characters feel and how they present themselves to the world resonates strikingly with the psychotic state of modern-day gender affairs. One of the most tragic aspects of the Mad Men and Women is their isolation from one another, paralyzed by shame or fear against exposing an inner life that would destroy their perfect veneers. The rigidity of the familial and social roles perscribed keeps every character in his or her place, separate and alone.

Although their specific constructs have adapted to fit the times, the gender roles are no less constrictive now. The young age at which people are absorbed in media culture fifty years after Mad Men means that kids are exposed to stereotyped concepts of "boy" and "girl" even before they start to have contact with actual children of their own age in school. The ideas of what it means to be a "real man" and a "hot girl" seep in at a steady drip, infecting how we encounter real people and decipher what our potential partners are interested in. For example, when I was anorexic, I had convinced myself that what guys really wanted in a girl was someone who looked like a model based on who was on the magazines that guys read, rather than trying to figure out what an individual guy found sexy. The images mediated and sold by the Masters of the Universe distort the way we see each other, warping us into caricatures and interfering with our ability to directly relate to the individual spirit, regardless of gender/appearance. So while the costumes have changed since those mad days, the confines of the gender roles they evoke that alienate us from each other continue to tighten around our hearts.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Don't Fear the Knee-per!

The always-enlightening Daily Mail Femail section is not satisfied with making you feel bad about the pre-wrinkles that you should be protecting your 20-year-old face against, how your nipples should look through mesh tops, and how much your 16-year-old should spend on beauty maintenance (12,000 pounds a year sounds about right). Those body obsessions were so last month! Now, the Daily Mail's body-snarking has devolved to consider those pesky joints, the knees, whose sins up to this point had only included presenting an annoying obstacle to leg-shaving.

Presuming to speak for the Everywoman, writer Claudia Connell zooms in on the knees of over-40 celebs like Elle McPherson, Courtney Cox, and Nicollette Sheridan to make us all feel a bit less inadequate (italics mine) next to those skinny bitches: "As a curvy woman in my 40s, it gives me considerable pleasure to point out that saggy knees will strike skinny women a long time before us more rounded ones. The 40s are the decade when a woman carrying a few extra pounds can come into her own: the wrinkles are fleshed out, the knees hold up and you tend to look a good few years younger than your more slender counterparts. It's payback time and, yes, a chubby knee looks a lot more youthful than a skinny one."

Connell makes sure to point out that the sufficiently wealthy and shamed by her haggard joints, like Demi Moore, can shell out 5,000 pounds for a surgery to strip skin from the kneecap, pull it tight, and stitch the skin in place like a facelift - there's always a surgical solution to your most outlandish body-image issues - but advises those of a certain age and lesser means to permanently send those disgusting gnarled knees into exile under the cover of longer skirts and tights, with a proper sense of guilt.

Disturbing not only for the author's unabashed glee in toppling the "otherwise ridiculously perfect body" of McPherson and her body-shaming advice for all other would-be knee-bearers, this article also serves as an example of the even more horrifyingly commonplace practice of body-snarking celebrities and strangers as if women's bodies are subject to debate in the public sphere. Any psychologist or therapist worth their perscription pad will tell you that commenting on another person's body or eating habits constitutes an invasions of her emotional boundaries. "The Body," as McPherson is known in modelling circles, has a right to inhabit her body in public without engendering back-handed compliments or overt put-downs (or catcalls, for that matter) as every woman does. Although the paps and pop culture apologists claim that there are different rules for celebrity women who make a career of their public personae, the pervasive tendency to comment on and criticize women of all walks of life for daring to show their bodies in public recognizes no such distinction. If we participate in body-snarking celebrities' appearances, then we practice and normalize the behavior when it is directed at our own bodies, from within or without, or those of women we encounter in the world. Now, there's a boundary I'd like to see each of us protect.