Monday, April 6, 2015

"Mad Men" Beauty Musings: Envy, Similarity, and "Modesty"

There’s much to say about Mad Men in general, and about last night’s last-season kickoff, and about the relationship between Joan and Peggy, and even about their conversation in the elevator (burn it down, Joan!). But what’s most relevant in this particular wheelhouse is one exchange that comes between Peggy and Joan after a business meeting in which a group of male colleagues make lewd jokes at the expense of Joan, specifically at the expense of her generous bustline: 

Peggy: Should we get lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know, they were awful, but at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: [With demonstrated doubt] Joan, you’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know—you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect—
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously either.
Joan: So what you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

(That last line, of course, is more cutting than Peggy could know, given how Joan became partner.)

A few things:

1) I don’t like to focus on the jealousy/competition aspect of beauty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and we see it here on both sides. The thing is, research shows that we tend to feel competitive with people who are similar to us, not people who are different. It’s fun enough for fans to construct the Mad Men ladies as opposites—are you a Peggy or a Joan? a Betty or a Megan? a riding lawnmower or a rifle?—but they’re not. In particular, Peggy and Joan have far more similarities than differences. They’re both hard workers, they’re both whip-smart, they’re both vulnerable, they both have their secrets, and the personality summation that Peggy’s date delivers to her over dinner could well apply to Joan, if not as consistently: “Johnny said you were the kind of girl who doesn’t put up with things. ... He said you were funny, and that you were fearless.”

There might be some cattiness, pain, or simple retaliation behind Joan’s cutting remark; none of us are above that. But I’d like to think that there’s more to her comment than that: Underneath the snipe is an acknowledgement that part of the difference in the ways they’ve each handled their careers stems from genetic fate (or rather, from the ways women were treated because of their bodies). Joan is saying, If you looked like me you’d dress like me—and if I looked like you I might well have your wardrobe too. She’s taking what Peggy posits as a duality and makes it clear that it’s anything but. And Peggy, in a different way, does the same, by pointing out that the men didn’t take either of them seriously, even though the crude comments at the meeting were aimed almost entirely at Joan. The women are clawing at each other on the surface, but the way in which they do it says that they know full well they’re in the same position.

2) One of my viewing companions last night, a busty lady herself, pointed out that when you’re built like Joan, it can be hard to wear anything that will safely ensure nobody will accuse you of dressing provocatively. Peggy can accuse Joan of dressing sexily even when, as in this scene, she’s wearing a tailored blouse that shows no cleavage because Joan’s build proves how judgmental the idea of “modesty” is. Joan’s body puts her in a position of being accused of immodesty no matter what she wears, so why not wear what she looks good in? Peggy, on the other hand, with her slighter, more “modest” build, is put in the position of keeping the meeting as on track as she can—a task Joan herself is fully capable of but is barred from doing so because of her body. 

It reminded me of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s assertion in a guest post here that “style and build have a way of getting mixed up, as though a woman chooses to have ‘curves’ on account of preferring to look sexy, or somehow magically scraps them if her preferred look is understated chic.” (To wit: this photo series of Debrahlee Lorenzana—who was fired from Citibank because she dressed too sexily—wearing various office outfits of hers. Like, you know, a turtleneck and slacks.) It’s tempting to say that the moral here is that Joan can’t win. But as Maltz Bovy points out, the construct actually serves as a reminder of just how ridiculous beauty standards are. Burn the place down already, Joan.

3) What to say about Joan’s clothes-shopping binge toward the episode’s end? Instead of shrinking herself down after that awful meeting, she goes out and spends loads of money on fabulous new clothes. It’s a consumerist balm to being treated as a product for consumption, and I’d be misled to applaud this particular move as a you-go-girl proof of Joan’s resilience. But it’s interesting that we see Joan assert her buying power while wearing what is undoubtedly a provocative dress—it’s her way of saying that she has no intention of taking Peggy’s tack to the workplace (which, as we’ve seen, would be a loser’s proposition for her anyway). 

But there’s also something sadly hollow about it, magnified by her refusal to admit that she once worked there as a shopgirl. It reminds me of the first time I went shopping as “retail therapy”: I was 19 years old and had somehow landed a part-time concierge gig at a mid-level hotel, working the VIP lounge. A client there had actually pulled a move straight out of a bad movie: He put his hand on mine and gave me his room number, the implication being that I should pay him a visit once my shift ended. Part of me was thrilled by this—this happened to people in bad movies!—but I was also nauseated by it. It was my second job ever besides babysitting, and I was proud of the fact that I’d gotten it, and I knew I’d been assigned the VIP lounge because I had an accommodating nature. But it was also the first time I’d felt the flipside of what others might assume of me because of that accommodating nature—until then it had just earned me accolades as a “good girl.”

Anyway, the next day I felt possessed to buy a dress. It was a specific desire: I wanted to buy not just clothes, but a dress, and I uncharacteristically skipped the sales rack and perused the new offerings with intent. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the impulse: I didn’t just want a dress, I wanted to spend money on myself. I wanted to spend something relatively intangible to get something tangible in return; I wanted proof of my power, and since I’d just felt my meager power slip in a professionalized context, it made sense that I wanted that proof in the form of something that context rewarded me with. 

We know that Joan is a bit of a clothes horse (she did, after all, go to retail when she had to get a new job), which I wasn’t when I wandered into the mall Gap in 1995 the morning after a being the target of a sleazy episode. But just as my desire for a new dress had nothing to do with why I bought it, that’s not why we saw Joan buying up the store: It’s her clutch at power, rendered in a language she can speak without breaking a sweat. We’ve seen Joan work and grow and prosper in a variety of ways, but going back to this lesson—looking your best will get you the best—is always going to be a place of comfort for her. The irony is that it’s a lesson that, for Joan, also leaves scratches long and deep.


  1. I don't watch Mad Men (keep meaning to start but haven't gotten to it yet!) so I don't have anything to say about it, but I wanted to say hi and how happy I am to see a post from you! I was just wondering how you were!! :D

    1. My hunch is you'd like the show! (If you ever give it a go, don't judge either way until you've gotten through a few episodes—NOTHING happens at the beginning.)

      And thank you for the welcome! I'm hoping to creep back in with at least weekly blogging.

  2. Eagerly awaited the premiere of the end of "Mad Men". Was not disappointed. Loved your take on Joan. You were so right on in your comments!

  3. Basically the beginning of my comment will be a copy of MM Curator's comment: haven't watched Mad Men (keep postponing it) & very, very happy to see you writing here. Hope this long silence means that your book is to be expected soon. :)

    In regards to bodies (similarities, differences and related judgement and envy) I can only offer a slight off-topic. Recently, I participated in a body-confidence related event in which I was truly touched to finally see and experience different kinds and ages of beautiful. The most wonderful part was that I felt no judgement or envy, at all. This was a very freeing experience, and I can't remember (maybe only in childhood) another time when I had felt so comfortable being in my own skin, and so comfortable with others being how they are as well. Of course, I know that this feeling was orchestrated through activities and environment, but still. Now I know that such high level of acceptance (for myself and others) and simultaneous non-existent envy/judgement is possible, and I do not want to let this state of mind (or feeling) go. I wholeheartedly want women to stop competing - with each other or with an imaginary perfect version of themselves. There IS a power in being at peace with your body and bodies of others. I honestly cannot say where I was going with all this. Maybe I just wanted to share my experience and say that it is possible to not feel judgmental and envious, no matter how similar or different our bodies may be.

    1. Hi! And thank you! Like I told MM Curator, if you do give "Mad Men" a go wait it out a few episodes...VERY slow-moving up-front. And I'm finishing up the (hopefully) last revisions of the book now, yay! finally!

      What a great experience you had! There really is something powerful about seeing women of all ages in a situation where bodies are to be accepted. The first time I went to an all-woman spa, where nudity was de rigueur, I was enchanted by the nonchalance of older women around their "imperfect" bodies. Inspiring—and just as inspiring was dropping any expectation of "competing." I think we're getting closer there as a culture, but we'll see.

      (Hey, when you have a sec could you shoot me an email at at I just want your permission to quote something you said in comments here a ways back.)

    2. Done! Sent an email few minutes ago.

      About the competing part. I sincerely hope we really are moving closer towards acceptance. That would be amazing. Although I have had enough exerience of being naked around other people (male and female, friends, for the most part) from time to time (for example, in Finnish-type saunas and spontaneous swimming in summer), I must admit that I wasn't able to shake off some kind of tension and maybe even shame during those times of nakedness. I just acted confident and encouraged the shy ones in hopes that good old "fake it till you make it" will work for me as well. But it never did. At least not 100%. This body-confidence event changed something in me, and I am at peace right now. Hope this feeling holds till summer so I could ty it out - will I really feel as different few months from now as I feel now, just 2 weeks after this event. Will see.

  4. "But just as my desire for a new dress had nothing to do with why I bought it, that’s not why we saw Joan buying up the store: It’s her clutch at power, rendered in a language she can speak without breaking a sweat."

    Didn't think of that, AND forgot she'd ever been a shopgirl.

    I only recently saw a blogger boasting that her leggy build is (gist quote) "basically the classy version of being busty." I didn't ACTUALLY punch a hole in the nearest wall, but the temptation was strong. The myths and assumptions live on!
    It's so nice to have you back!

    1. !!! Oh wow, that is so shortsighted (or maybe just gross)—as if once you're larger than a C cup, sorry, lady, klass is beyond you! (Of course, the word "classy" is troublesome in its own right...)

      Are you a "Game of Thrones" fan? This piece on Sansa Stark is somewhat related to what we're talking about here:

      (And thank you! Goal is to blog weekly to get back into it, now that I'm almost done with the [hopefully] final revisions of the book.)

    2. Maybe I'm missing something (no link), but I don't take the blogger as endorsing the idea that it's not classy to be busty but, rather, making the completely valid point that being leggy **is regarded** in an entirely different way--as "classy" and youthful rather than overtly sexual. Busty=too much flesh.

    3. Virginia, I certainly hope that reading of the idea of "leggy is the classy busty" is accurate—we as a culture do regard legginess more in that way as compared with bustiness. Particularly when amounts of flesh come into play—easier to maintain "classiness" with a shorter skirt than with a lower neckline?

      Now I'm wondering if that shifts along with fashion, both sartorially and in regards to women's bodies—I remember a friend's mother saying that her future parents-in-law were horrified at the short length of her 1960s miniskirt when they first met.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I take "leggy" and "busty" to refer to build, not what clothes reveal. Leggy doesn't mean a short skirt; it means the kinds of long, toned legs that look good in a short skirt but that might, in fact, be wearing trousers (as many classically "leggy" models in the 1970s were shown doing). One reason leggy stays "classy" is that toned legs that connote discipline, not out-of-control flesh. Since our modern version of corsetry is exercise, breasts remain out of control, subject only to the constraints of external garments, not the more socially sanctioned willpower.

    6. I take "leggy" and "busty" to refer to build, not what clothes reveal. Leggy doesn't mean a short skirt; it means the kinds of long, toned legs that look good in a short skirt but that might, in fact, be wearing trousers (as many classically "leggy" models in the 1970s were shown doing). One reason leggy stays "classy" is that toned legs that connote discipline, not out-of-control flesh. Since our modern version of corsetry is exercise, breasts remain out of control, subject only to the constraints of external garments, not the more socially sanctioned willpower.

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