Monday, April 20, 2015

Beauty Didn't Birth the Beast

Sally Draper, preachin' truth.

I swear I will one day blog about something other than Mad Men. But until that time comes! This episode was interesting in that two separate characters referred to Don's good looks as a liability. One of the creatives at the agency says to him in anger after Don suggests he might want to work on some character-building, "You don't have any character, you're just handsome—stop kidding yourself." And then toward the episode's end, his daughter says that both he and first-wife Betty are exactly alike, in that "anyone pays attention to either of you—and they always do—you just ooze everywhere." (Two of Sally's friends, totally separate from one another, had each attempted some amateur seduction on both of Sally's parents in this episode, so this wasn't out of nowhere.)

The first one was interesting, but mostly just in the context of Mad Men: Don has plenty of character, but we know that indeed a chunk of it has been formed around his incredible looks. The second reference is what's really juicy here. In fiction, if someone's good looks are referred to as a liability, it's usually used to mean a fairly limited set of options. Maybe the character hasn't had to develop other facets of herself because she's relied on her beauty. (Which—I mean, has anyone ever met someone like that, for real? In my experience dullness and beauty have exactly zero correlation, let alone causation; the dullards I know are plain and pretty in equal amounts.) Maybe a character been taught her looks are her greatest asset so she's used them to manipulate others, or his handsomeness has pushed him toward con artistry. If it's a feminist-minded creator maybe we've seen how beautiful women aren't taken seriously (i.e. the genesis of many a Joan plot line in this very series). Or maybe women don't trust her, or men don't trust him, or whatever. (Of course, the #1 way we see a character's looks work against her is that Her Beauty Drives Men to Madness, but that's such an ugggh cliché I'm not even counting it here.)

But here you have a character's attractiveness being referenced not as a liability in and of itself, but as an amplification of an already-existing tendency: the inability to turn away sexual attention. Don and Betty are two people who are starved for attention, and that would be true even if they weren't played by actors as good-looking as Jon Hamm and January Jones. But their beauty allows the quality Sally refers to as "ooze" to be read by others as charm or graciousness, or as a stream of reciprocal attention. And in turn, both of these characters have learned to trust that that's how their highly sensitive attention-radars will be seen. The fact that their looks garner each of them a generous amount of attention becomes almost secondary; it just lets them get away with absorbing the gaze of others in a way that doesn't seem desperate.*

I've interviewed lots of people, mostly women, in-depth about their relationship with their looks, and when I first started doing formal interviews I was initially surprised that I wasn't finding any sort of parallel between a woman's experiences or attitude and how conventionally attractive she was. Asking a professional beauty about her experiences as a model is one thing, but asking her about how her looks had shaped, say, her love life was a different story. I never thought that meant a person's looks were irrelevant to how she viewed the world, but I sort of chalked it up to beauty not being as important as other factors in shaping one's worldview, or chirpily shook it off as "Well, everyone's different!" But I think Sally's quip crystallizes an important factor: A person's looks can shape already existing tendencies. It does not create them. Nor does it shape tendencies in the same way for everyone. But I like the idea of looks functioning as a filter—as one of many filters—that determine how we walk through the world. There are so many oppositional ideas about how beauty affects people out there: You've got men who are genuinely surprised when they meet a woman who manages to be both beautiful and brilliant, you've got people who assume beautiful people have it easy because "everything is handed to them," you've got people shaking their heads about how hard gorgeous women have it because other women supposedly hate them so much. If we come to see appearance as one of many forces that distinctly shape our lives, we might have a more genuine understanding of how the lives of extraordinarily beautiful people are affected by their looks—and of how the rest of us have our lives affected by the same.

*Asterisked because this will mean absolutely nothing to people who don't watch the show: Rather, Don's and Betty's ways don't seem desperate until it's seen by someone who knows better, which in this case is Sally. Or the viewer, who is supposed to be thoroughly horrified when Betty gives 18-year-old Glen the eye. When the two of them had a creepy encounter years before, we were supposed to read it as a sign of Betty's yearning to connect with someone—anyone—even if it's a prepubescent boy down the block who has an enormous crush on her. Now that Glen's gone and grown up, that same need of hers goes from being pathetic-as-in-pathos to being pathetic as in...pathetic. 

Okay, you got me, I just wanted to find a way to work in GLEN.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

70 Years Ago Today

Seventy years ago today, British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. In the days and weeks following the liberation, British and American soldiers took to treating and relocating the thousands of desperately ill prisoners. One of those soldiers, Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, among other recordings of that time, wrote the following in his diary:

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

This story has stuck with me since I first read it, even as part of me doubted whether the lieutenant colonel had read the women’s reactions correctly. He was an outsider who, despite having seen firsthand the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, had not experienced them. And, to be blunt, he was a man; what could he truly know about the transformative powers of lipstick?

It wasn’t until I read Linda Grant’s wonderful book The Thoughtful Dresser—which, as it happens, quotes the same passage I’ve quoted here—that I read an account that satisfies those rather academic quibblings. (Eternal thanks to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for pointing me toward Grant’s work.) The story of Catherine Hill, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is central to Grant’s book, and I don’t want to take away its remarkable narrative arc by saying too much here. What I will say is that at one point in the prison camp, Hill creates an ersatz fascinator out of the hem of her uniform’s dress in order to cover her ears, which were starkly exposed because of her forcibly shaved head. And when an SS officer asked her during roll call what exactly she thought she was doing, her response was simply that she wanted to look pretty. He laughed. But it was the truth: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine, and a woman. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation…”

The entirely human wish to appear pretty is hardly the central meaning of what today symbolizes for Bergen-Belsen’s survivors, liberators, and descendants. And I’m wary of “excusing” my own investment in my beauty work by saying, Well, women in the worst imaginable circumstances still cared, so…. The circumstances are not remotely equatable. Still, the heart of these stories remains true: Vestiges of beauty can be powerful. They can be talismans of routine, of dignity, of what it means to be a woman. Of what it means to be human, and of what happens when the things that make us individuals are erased. And today, in remembering or learning about what happened in those camps (these oral histories are a good start) that’s one of the most important things we can remember.

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.