Friday, April 9, 2010

Feminist Mad Men?

Mad Men is one of the shows that I follow and, most of the time, enjoy. This past season was also covered regularly and extensively by one of my favourite blogs, Feministing. For those who have never seen this show, it follows the lives of employees, and their families and friends, of an advertising company in the early 1960s. Much focus is given to how the women, predominantly secretaries, are treated and harassed in the workplace as well as how the men treat their wives and other women outside of the workplace. Don Draper, the male lead, regularly cheats on his wife, talks down to her, and when she confides in her psychiatrist, Draper calls him to hear how she is doing, as if she were a child that needed his supervision. The show deals primarily with gender roles and expectations, but is also careful never to show its characters as only two-dimensional based on their genders. Specifically, the female characters are revealed to have many layers and are actually quite strong. While many of them do not fight against how they are treated, and at times seem to accept it with little or no thought, their displeasure and unhappiness are revealed in several ways throughout the series.
Mad Men Women
Jezebel has an interesting piece on 15 Feminist Moments from Mad Men, including a variety of sexual issues such as self-enjoyment and birth control.

Initially I thought that understanding this show as a feminist tool had only two sides: positive and negative. The first, positive, side was that people would watch this and recognize that much of what happened to women in this series was abuse and harassment. Some of these scenes are intended to shock the viewers so even the least critical audience member would react with disgust to such moments of abuse. This recognition that something has occurred that should not happen to anyone could serve as a feminist awakening. At the same time, however, it must also be considered that there are those who regard this show with no criticism. Some may watch it with a sense of nostalgia for a time when men were allowed to smoke and drink in the office - when "men were men" as some have worded it. An example of this in my own life is when one friend suggested a group of us should have a Mad Men themed party and a guy friend responded with, "Great, we get to drink and treat the girls like shit." Even more problematic is when the values of this particular period are commercially endorsed. Last summer when I was in the US, the Banana Republic was participating in a marketing campaign using the Don Draper character to sell business suits. The outfits resembled those on the show, and men were essentially told that they could be Draper if they wore Banana Republic suits. While Draper may dress fashionably, his personality is not something any man should aspire to.

Upon closer consideration, however, I realized that this show could not be divided only into these two possible interpretations. While there are many of those who will watch this show and acknowledge that no woman or man should be treated how these women are, there is also the problem of seeing this only as a history. The series strives for historical accuracy both in gender expectations and costumes, and this is well known to those who watch the show. Therefore the audience might interpret this treatment only to be something in the past, something that called for feminist interventions then, but have since been solved. They fail to recognize that sexual harassment and assault still occur in many workplaces, even though there are now laws against this. This abuse is just less explicit. Similar to how in the 1960s, slapping a woman's butt was not considered abuse at the time, much of what occurs today is accepted as common practice or hidden from coworkers' eyes. Not wishing to minimize the violence in the past, workplace violence, in a society that declares sexual harassment unconstitutional, has culminated in death at times, such as in the case of Lori Dupont.

My hope, although potentially naive, is that viewers will not only watch this show and recognize what occurs as abuse, but that they also look to their own lives and the lives of their friends in the workplace to recognize that while there have been significant improvements in harassment laws and expectations, there is still much work to be done to eradicate it entirely.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tampons, Periods, and Dancing

I don't have cable when I am in London at school. I can't afford it. Because of this I have been out of the loop, so to speak, of current commercials. I don't really miss them, but tonight, when I actually tried to be healthy and went to the gym, the treadmill I was on had a mini television screen and 40 whole channels. As I was flipping through stations I came across this:

At first I was not aware this actually a commercial for tampons but it makes sense. Advertising techniques are getting old and periods aren't fun. Those buying products for periods are aware of this.For once, the company almost frankly, or at least more so than other advertisements, states what exactly tampons and pads are for. The commercial acknowledges that women do not believe the advertising that certain products will make them want to dance in white clothing during their periods. At the same time, this advertisement reminds me of one for one product or another, that I really wish I remembered, that was marketed along the lines of "You are too smart to believe advertising," and then goes on to say that their product is meant especially for these kinds of people. While I believe it is great that such companies are getting closer to the truth about the reason for their products, it is not because they actually have respect for their consumers, but rather, they recognize that more and more people are becoming aware of common advertising techniques.

Other product advertising that I believe need critical examinations are birth control and pubic area shaving devices.

Really?? Not only does this follow similar advertising techniques of tampon companies by making shaving look fun and worthy of singing and dancing, it also fails entirely to say straightforward what their product is for. Yes, most people will understand what this is for, but why can they not even use other socially acceptable terminology like "bikini line" rather than mowing the lawn.

(Some of the text in the video has been added...the lines that use improper grammar such as "your" instead of "you're." Sorry, I wish I could find a better version of this).
I am having a tough time finding birth control commercials that I remember. At one point, there was a company that played their commercials before movies at the theatre and never explicitly said what it was for. Birth control was never mentioned. One that I remember contained only young females going on a camping trip. There were no men with them and one girl was talking about the importance of remember to pack "it" (a package of pills). While I do recognize that some girls are prescribed the pill for acne and reducing period cramps but it appeared that the entire group of girls was on the pill, with no males in sight. Another company had a campaign of advertisements in which girls whispered and passed notes to one another in high school and photo booths and giggled when boys asked what they were talking about. Is there some law I am unaware of that did not allow for birth control or contraception to be explicitly mentioned in public? This ad that I have linked to, while it does finally mention what exactly they are discussing, the women still have problem saying the terms "period" or "menstruation," and refer only to it as "that time of month." What is so horrible about speaking frank terms?

Emira Mears, writing for the blog Scarleteen, has an interesting post regarding the Eight Myths About Washable Menstrual Pads. She writes, "I've lost my patience with trying to pussyfoot around the issue until women are willing to talk about their own blood."
Menstruation is something natural. It happens whether women wish to acknowledge it or not. It's not fun (at least I have never spoken to someone who found it fun) but it happens. Why do women (and men for that matter) not discuss it as such? Although the first commercial I posted tries to make it clear that periods are not times when women wish to dance and dress up, the very product it's advertising is one that attempts to make menstruation cute or pretty by dying tampons different colours. What the hell is the point of this? Are women too embarrassed to see the colour of their own menstrual blood? How does combining it with blue make it any more attractive or pretty? Is this dye even healthy for you? Mears discusses this very point:

"So why then, you may correctly ask, does the disposable product industry rely so heavily on their 'sanitary' image? Same reason that toilet paper is white, because it has become normal. There's a complex historical argument behind this, but basically somewhere after the second world war, white became a symbol of sanitation. In actual fact, the tampon and disposable pad industry operates under no regulations that ensure sanitation and they aren' t really all that sanitary. They're just white."

I believe that these topics are not ones that need to be coded and hidden. Similar to how I believe people should use the word "vagina" rather than "vajayay" or any other childish term, people should simply come to terms with the fact that women bleed every month. Sometimes we shave our pubic hair and quite a few of us take various forms of birth control. If we cannot talk about these using real words there will always be a sense of shame around normal female bodily functions such as menstruation which is something entirely out of our control unless we wish to suppress them with birth control that prevents it from happening so often.