women – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Exploring Iyanla Vanzant’s Toolkit for Fix My Life http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/10/11/the-enterprise-of-black-female-discipline-part-ii-exploring-iyanla-vanzants-toolkit-for-fix-my-life/ Thu, 11 Oct 2012 13:00:02 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=15648 “Well you know Steve, so many people, you know they having issues; you get them Strawberry Letters…Somewhere down the line, we were never taught how to be people.” — Vanzant on the Steve Harvey Morning Show.

Teaching people to be human sounds like an impossible task, but Iyanla Vanzant and Steve Harvey agree that for them, it is all part of a day’s work. While Vanzant emerged as a seemingly more qualified therapeutic voice in the 1990s having been ordained as a minister and earned a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology, Harvey has only recently (within the past 5 years) become an authority. Despite different beginnings, Harvey and Vanzant have both encountered mid-career valleys and have leveraged the appeal of in-your-face rebukes of women with problems to restore their media positions.

In Part I of this piece, I outlined Harvey’s career climb and offered that it was black women who made the difference for him. While the racially mixed guests appearing on his new talk show receive a much milder flavor of advice—Harvey-lite—his most aggressive critiques are reserved for his first audience: the black women who made his radio show number one among women ages 25-34 in urban markets and who continue to undergird the success of his self-help enterprise (Premiere Radio Networks, Inc.). In the remainder of this piece I will consider the complexity of the enterprise of black female discipline as I focus on a black woman as disciplinarian.

Before her return to television in the fall of 2012, Iyanla Vanzant spent nearly a decade in despair dealing with the cancellation of her first show and subsequent bankruptcy, a divorce, and the death of her daughter. For the 2-part premiere of her new show, Iyanla Fix My Life, Vanzant took on someone who can easily be described as a princess of pathology to demonstrate that despite her public failures to adhere to her own life strategies, she still has the skills to assist people in correcting the roots of their deviance. Scenes of Evelyn Lozada—whose infamous television role on reality show Basketball Wives has characterized her as a self-centered, materialistic, violent Jezebel type—tear-stained and humble by the end of the show are the miraculous proof that Vanzant has maintained her spiritual authority. Although Lozada is of Puerto-Rican descent, her position as wife-mother in a black household, and a cohort of black female co-stars, establish her as a stand-in for other racially marginalized women (Black and Latina).

From what we have seen of Iyanla Fix My Life thus far, a couple of things seem clear about her toolbox.

(1) The toolbox is probably pink.—In addition to largely featuring female guests on her show, Vanzant consistently focuses on shared behaviors among women that harm other women (i.e. gossip) and that harm the self; and distinguishes these acts as more damaging than those perpetrated by men. For example when Vanzant discusses domestic abuse experienced by Lozada, she insists the situation “is so not about your husband. It’s about you, and the choices you made, and the choices you didn’t make” (Vanzant). The estranged husband is characterized, not as an abuser, but as a teacher that “loved her enough to come into her life and show her that she needed to change” (Vanzant). Furthermore it is suggested that Lozada’s delinquent behavior, resulting from a poor example of womanhood modeled by her mother, granted others the permission to wreak havoc in her life.

(2) The tools are just as useful for demolition, as they are for construction.—No show seems complete without tears. Through physical exacts like wading through a pool of water, Vanzant facilitates emotional breakdowns. When guests resist, Vanzant will abruptly clench their head in her hands, or force their bodies into infantile positions in her own bosom. Until women endure the painful process of destroying the old self, they will not be capable of assimilating to the new self as prescribed by Vanzant.

For sure, one cannot consider these productions testaments to the host’s character. Their shows are mediated performances. Yet, it is from the vantage point of fan-critic that I challenge these privileged voices and their handling of black female subjects. In an attempt to offer solutions to the emotional issues that plague women, Harvey and Vanzant have lost sight of structural factors. By highlighting a female-specific pathology passed from mother to daughter as the most important factor in women’s trials (including domestic violence) Vanzant models a scornful and reductive practice of looking (see: Struken and Cartwright). This shaming gaze is just as subversive as that modeled in the Steve Harvey Morning Show. Since Vanzant is herself a black woman who takes ownership of the behavioral deficiencies mapped onto women as a collective, she genders the discourse in a way that Harvey cannot. Ultimately this gaze functions as a tool in the collective policing of black women’s lifestyles. It operates under the mask of feminist care because women are the agents and the objects of the gaze. Thus, the patriarchal order is not actually challenged, merely re-organized.

I call attention to this disciplinary enterprise because it is still yet growing. Vanzant and Harvey will combine forces this season when Vanzant is featured on Harvey’s talk show. One has to wonder, when we make demands for more “authentic” representations of black women in popular culture, is this what we have in mind?


The Face (and Laugh) that Launched a Thousand Bits http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/08/27/the-face-and-laugh-that-launched-a-thousand-bits/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/08/27/the-face-and-laugh-that-launched-a-thousand-bits/#comments Mon, 27 Aug 2012 13:00:16 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=15114

I was very pleased when contacted to write a post in honor of the passing of Phyllis Diller. In grade school, I stumbled upon the 1962 Phyllis Diller album, Phyllis Diller Laughs. Although I already knew Diller from her Scooby Doo episode and Gong Show appearances, my burgeoning “unruly woman” (props to Kathleen Rowe) found her recorded irreverence, visual chaos, and uncontrolled laughter intoxicating. In the early eighties, an age of sexualized teenage gross-out romcoms, a pixie-ish post-SNL Gilda Radner, and the fleeting hopes for an Equal Right Amendment, Diller’s comedy provided me an unhinged and complicated vision of American femininity. She both reflected the cultural primacy of marriage, motherhood, and feminine appearance a growing Midwestern girl was absorbing by osmosis, and rejected the notion that women—and perhaps I—must just sit back and accept it. At age 10 I was hooked and integrating Diller bits into grade school puppet shows. At 15 I saw her live in a St. Louis area club, was rendered speechless when I wheedled my way backstage to meet her, and (as a birthday gift) procured a most awesome airbrushed Phyllis Diller t-shirt. By 20 I had most of her albums, books, etc., including a recording of her singing The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Now, at 40, I revisit my love for Diller and realize that for many, Phyllis had become synonymous with Kelly Kessler (based on the Facebook condolences I received from folks met over the past 30 years). I can think of much worse folks and things to which I could be linked.

What was it about Diller that entranced me? Although 55 years earlier, she too was born into a traditional Midwestern existence. Born in Lima, Ohio (perhaps the original “Lima Loser” for Glee fans) in 1917, by 22 she had achieved her “destiny” and married her first husband, Sherwood Diller. Her destiny would change. In the early to mid 1950s, she honed her stand-up act in the clubs of San Francisco and St. Louis. She was truly the mother of stand-up comediennes, a group largely nonexistent prior to Diller’s club tenure. (I’ve always said that Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Joan Rivers are the pyramid of female comedic power.) Although preceded by female comedic entertainers and quasi-stand-ups like Belle Barth, Martha Raye, and Moms Mabley, Diller entrenched herself in the male realm of the night club.

In the era of Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials and two years prior to the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Diller’s first album (the one I found in 1980)—and overall act—reconfigured the terms “funny” and “women.” Phyllis Diller Laughs flaunted her poor housekeeping skills, disdain for her amalgam of a husband “Fang,” and her less-than-good looks. If the audience was going to laugh at her figure, she was going to call the shots. With fright wigs, colorful and gaudy clothing, and a freakishly long cigarette holder, she joked about her concave breasts and lack of sex appeal. She would continue performing a version of her act into the new millennium, featured in the documentary Good Night, We Love You (2004).

Why does any of this matter? Diller’s fingerprints are all over the last half century of female performers: Joan Rivers (Diller’s kindred spirit in plastic surgery), Bette Midler, Roseanne, Brett Butler, Rita Rudner, Diane Ford, Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, and the list goes on. Diller’s comedy, while surely self-deprecating, questioned the equation of funny women with hyper-sexuality and/or air-headedness (e.g. the amazing Gracie Allen, Goldie Hawn, etc.). Her act, while still reliant on a recognition of social gendered norms, was smart, sassy, and rebellious. While many comediennes’ acts turned bluer than Diller’s, one cannot deny her trailblazing power. Her successful leap into the male world of stand-up paved the way for a never-ending crop of funny women, unfettered (okay, less fettered) by the stigma of comedic masculinization or dimwittedness.

Since her passing, I have been repeatedly struck by two bits from my first Diller album. In it she stated two desires: (1) She wanted to be a sweet little old lady, “with a cane full of gin” and (2) She really wanted to live to be 100. She felt at that point she could look people straight in the eye and say “I’m pooped.” Well, at 95 she just fell shy of the latter desire; however, a half century of comedy surely provided her the right to officially be pooped. Wherever she is, I hope her cane full of gin is self-replenishing. In closing, thanks for helping to form this once aspiring comic, now gender scholar, and forever hopeless fan. May her piercing and wild laugh further lighten the great beyond.


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Grimm and the Monstrous Feminine http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/05/22/grimm-and-the-monstrous-feminine/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/05/22/grimm-and-the-monstrous-feminine/#comments Tue, 22 May 2012 13:00:33 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=13097 Once upon a time, a new genre of fairy-tale-based American media emerged. Instead of Disney’s dancing teapots and talking birds, thrillers like Red Riding Hood, The Brothers Grimm, and Hanna point out that “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White” are actually stories about young girls devoured by wild animals and ordered gutted by monstrous queens, respectively. This darker side of fairy tale culture is the spirit of NBC’s newly renewed Grimm. I initially shared Kyra Hunting’s skepticism about the series, but the gorgeous cinematography and cleverly adapted fairy tale plotlines hooked me (and the other 5.3 million viewers who tuned in for Friday night’s season finale), despite a nagging feeling that Grimm’s monstrous women told a politically problematic tale.

Grimm’s weekly plotlines, developed around Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, follow the modern crime genre format. The series follows Detective Nick Burkhardt, a Portland police officer dismayed by his great aunt’s revelation that he is a “Grimm” – a descendent of the Brothers Grimm whose powers allow him to see pseudo-shape-shifting Wesen whose otherwise human faces transform into grotesque configurations reminiscent of big bad wolves, evil witches, giants, and the like. What’s worse, these creatures-in-disguise often partake in inter-species violence, resulting in many of Portland PD’s murder cases. The series is as much police drama as fairy tale, featuring—like CSI, Criminal Minds, and NCISdimly lit camera shots, stealthy detectives with guns and flashlights, and, of course, women’s bloody and broken bodies.

Dead women are standard set dressing on most crime dramas, so I wasn’t surprised by the ill-fated red-hooded coed in Grimm’s pilot. But the more I watched, the more I realized the women in this series aren’t usually homicide victims – they’re monsters. The first morphing face belongs to a beautiful Hexenbiest (loosely translated “witch bitch”) named Adalind whose Barbie-esque blond exterior hideously contorts to reveal that Grimm’s beauty is only skin deep. Adalind makes consistently dangerous choices, using her beauty—and the monstrous truth beneath it—to ruin men. Not only does she cast a love spell on Nick’s partner Hank, she also kills an elderly cancer patient and unleashes an impressive physical attack on Nick – she uses her beauty, NBC muses, to “put any man completely at her mercy.” Adalind is the monstrous feminine who seduces men before castrating them, at least figuratively, with her power.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by Grimm’s monstrous femininity. Fairy tales (and crime dramas, for that matter) are morally instructive, recycling cultural fears into cautionary tales, and Grimm funnels the mythos of women’s irresponsibility and cold indifference into a crime drama. “Tarantella,” for example, features a Spinnetod (or “black widow”) – a mother who seduces men before sucking out their internal organs through their abdomen – and the Cinderella-turned-Murciélago (“hideous bat-like creature”) in “Happily Ever Aftermath” emits a shrieking sound that explodes her entire family’s eyeballs, leaving herself heir to her father’s fortune. It is from these stories that we learn what a “good mother” looks like, and she certainly wouldn’t seduce men in the name of eternal youth. And “good women” like Cinderella are rewarded through quiet suffering, not monstrous murder.

Grimm emerged from a cultural climate particularly interested in moral instruction, as evidenced by recent legislative fervor over women’s choice. Last week, Kansas legally allowed pharmacists to withhold prescriptions they “reasonably believe” could terminate pregnancy, the “Protect Life Act” allows hospitals to “let women die” rather than perform life-saving abortions, and of course, transvaginal ultrasound legislation requires women to be probed vaginally before terminating a pregnancy. These bills are just as terrifying as, say, tales of fire-breathing lady-Dämonfeuer, which also come from the assumption that women’s free (and presumed irresponsible) choice destroys American morality in a fury of fire and brimstone. Just as Grimm’s monstrous women threaten men, GOP politics frames women’s rights as a threat to family values, “fetal rights,” and men’s sovereignty. Grimm naturally channels this milieu, borrowing from traditional anxiety about strong, independent women encapsulated by the Brothers Grimm.

As Grimm’s first season wrapped up, the monstrous women were back. Adalind sicked her cat on Nick’s fiancé, turning her into a modern-day (comatose) sleeping beauty, and the mysterious “woman in black” unleashed a flurry of ninja-like moves before revealing her identity as (spoiler alert) Nick’s mother, long thought dead. Missing mothers are common in fairy tales, but Grimm’s finale raises the question: if Nick’s mother has been alive all of these years, why hasn’t she been mothering him? Even though the woman in black may not be the archetypal “evil stepmother,” I’m not holding my breath for a “happily ever after” moment in Grimm’s second season – what kind of a boring fairy tale leaves a “good mother” alive? We’ll have to wait until fall to see if her crime was drinking children’s blood or simply disappearing from her child’s life. Or maybe Grimm will give us a truly updated fairy tale – you know, one with progressive female characters.


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Feminist Game Studies http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/03/20/feminist-game-studies/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/03/20/feminist-game-studies/#comments Tue, 20 Mar 2012 15:00:34 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=12504 It isn’t difficult to find feminist game studies, or feminist gamers. The reputation of misogyny in video game culture, lack of women and racial minorities in the industry, the perpetuation of player stereotypes in games marketing and the popular press, and the dearth of non-white, female, or queer characters in games has provided plenty of fodder for feminist analysis and criticism. But over the past five years or so, we have seen significant changes in video games, and many of the “truths” I just listed are no longer so. In light of this and prompted by Elana Levine’s inaugural post for Antenna’s feminist media studies series, I offer a few thoughts on what is feminist game studies.

Feminist game studies examines how gender, and its intersections with race, class, sexuality, etc., is produced, represented, consumed and practiced in and through digital games. Analyses of the representation of gender in games constitutes a significant portion of feminist work, a sub-field of which could be called Croft-studies. Like critical analysis surrounding Madonna in the 90s, Lara Croft from the hit series Tomb Raider attracted much popular and scholarly press when introduced in 1996. At the time, Tomb Raider was one among a few games featuring a lead female character. Like Madonna, Lara’s 34D-cup breasts and double-fisted guns sparked a similar debate about female sexual empowerment, the male gaze and objectification.

While still under-represented in the game world, leading female characters are far more prevalent today, and offer gamers a wider variety of play experiences. Male characters are (relatively) more complex, and offer more diverse depictions of masculinity. These contemporary representations require as much feminist analysis as Croft, if not more so, because so many more people engage with and create systems of meaning for negotiating this symbolic material. Furthermore, feminist game studies can offer a corrective to the seductive discourse of postfeminism, which has often dominated critiques of gender in the post-Croft era.

The popularity of gaming on mobile and other portable devices has broadened where and when people game. It is no longer accurate (if it ever was) or useful to think of games and game spaces as primarily male domains. Those spaces are far more fluid, literally traveling between devices and between home, public, work and back again. How are gamers navigating leisure and work time when they play Words with Friends at the office on their iPhone or Uncharted 3 on their PS Vita in between child care and household chores?

Related to the above, the rise of so-called “casual” gaming has significantly expanded both the market for games and the industrial practices of game production. During the casual games revolution, the traits associated with casual games – who played them, what constituted casual, and how the games were made – were defined against the masculine “hardcore” world of games, and thus became (like soap operas for television) the feminized version of video games. Nintendo’s Wii, also a technology feminized through popular and industrial discourse, contributed to this bifurcation between hardcore and casual.

One area of feminist research I think is particularly interesting focuses on how gamer behavior online performs homophobic, sexist and racist hate speech. The virtual spaces where this behavior thrives exists on privately owned servers that operate as quasi-public social gathering spaces and are occupied by hundreds of thousands of players. How is behavior regulated (or not), what are the ethics of online spaces, and who is defining the rules of behavior in these public/private domains? How can online spaces be created that are safe and inviting for racial minorities, women, and GLBTQ gamers?

Feminist perspectives on video game production are a small, but growing area of research; most of it is focused on the lack of women in the industry. Mia Consalvo has written about the industry phenomenon “crunch time” – mandated extended workday hours for weeks or months on end. Through interviews with women game designers, Consalvo provides a rare look at quality of life issues that deter many women from staying in or even entering the industry. Crunch time controversies like the Rockstar and EA Spouse incidents, expose the quality of life issues vexing the industry and how these industrial practices affect the familial sphere. Feminist production and organizational ethnographies can shed light on these internal dynamics, providing strategies and policies for creating family-friendly workplaces and healthy work-life balance.

Thus far the small amount of production studies has focused on North American, white-collar creative labor, and further investigation is needed there in order to deepen our understanding of how gender, race and sexuality, etc. are produced, marketed and distributed via games. But other, less glamorous areas of labor should not be ignored, such as the hardware manufacturing and assembly of the platforms and peripherals upon which games are played. Feminist game studies scholars can build upon existing feminist perspectives about ICTs, particularly in the global South, where the majority of video game hardware is manufactured, in order to understand the role of globalization in production.

These musings are far from a comprehensive collection of all the past and current work in feminist game studies. There is much happening and much to be done, some of which you can hear at the various games studies panels on the program at SCMS this week. I hope that the feminist media studies series at Antenna is a place where we can continue to find and encourage feminist game studies as well.


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An Incomplete History: “Women Who Rock” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/03/01/an-incomplete-history-women-who-rock-at-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame/ Thu, 01 Mar 2012 14:20:15 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=12349 I found myself in Cleveland last week.  My friend Amy Rigby, a musician who plies her trade in one of the parallel music industries that I talked about in my recent post about the Grammy Awards, had things to do in Cleveland.  I’d been threatening for months to take advantage of being on sabbatical to see the “Women Who Rock” exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few hours from where I live, before it closed on February 26, although the thought of it made me queasy.  A road trip was born and Amy and I visited the exhibit.  It was all that I expected, which is to say, not much.

Critiquing it is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s just too easy.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflects the worldview of Rolling Stone magazine and major players in the commercial music industry.  The “meta” issue at play is how to put rock and roll, or any type of music, in a museum.  What good is looking and reading about music when you haven’t heard it?  Posting individual listening stations at each display would make progress through any exhibit impossibly slow, compromising an institution’s ability to remain financially solvent.  Curators have to assume that we know what the music, at least some of it, sounds like.  The cultural authorization that results from exhibits of this type is also problematic, as are issues of inclusion and exclusion.  Who gets recognized, who doesn’t, and why?

These problems are especially germane to an exhibit about women and rock.  I imagine that although some of the people who saw the exhibit were music nerds like me and Amy, most were not.  Those of us who are already familiar with the music could “play” it in our heads.  What would everyone else do? We were there on the President’s Day holiday, and the majority of visitors in the galleries were either middle-aged couples or moms with their pre- or just-teen daughters.  The solution proffered by the Rock Hall was to focus on performers who visitors might be familiar with.  Hence a couple of displays devoted to Lady Gaga (the meat dress!), pop stars from the 80s on, the most well-known punk, new wave and “alternative” acts, several rap, hip-hop, and nouveau girl group artists, and some appropriately reverential educational videos about early blueswomen and R&B singers from the 50s and 60s.  Emphasis was on singers.  “Wait,” you may say, “I thought you were talking about rock?” Indeed.  “Rock” here is stretched so thin as to be a meaningless term – a common discursive move.  “Rock,” the exhibit claimed, is an attitude, and apparently these selected artists all have it.

We were a bit amazed by some of the performers who were barely recognized, or left out entirely. Wither the Slits? The Raincoats? Poly Styrene?  Patsy Cline? Emmylou Harris? Exene? Mo Tucker?  Oh yeah, listed in a paragraph on a small sign, maybe.  Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, and Liz Phair were there, but where were the rest of the women from the 70s to the 90s and beyond who made or continue to toil in the rock trenches? Where were the non-Americans? (Joni Mitchell was included, but she’s lived south of the 49th parallel for a long time.) Pioneering female rock group Fanny was represented with a group photo on a swinging door that led to a side exhibit; Amy and I were relieved that it was not the entrance to the restroom, which is what it looked like.

After a while, it seemed that artists who were able to donate “stuff,” usually in the form of stage attire identified by the name of the designer, were the de facto focal points of the exhibit.  That wasn’t necessarily the case, as it turns out.  Upon my return, I asked June Millington of Fanny whether she’d been contacted about the exhibit. She hadn’t, although she knew that her photo was being used and that the curatorial staff had her contact information.  Too bad, as Millington has plenty of stuff, in the way of guitars, other instruments, and memorabilia that I’m sure she’d have been happy to lend and that could have formed part of more interesting exhibits. (I also emailed one of the Raincoats with the same question; if I get a response I’ll post her answer in the comments to this piece.)

The exhibit was accompanied by a PBS documentary, so upon my return home I watched that, hoping that it would fill in some blanks.  I’m sorry to say that it did not.  (It streams here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2168854975). Although narrated by leading male and female critics, and hosted by Cindy Lauper, it omitted even more artists in order to create a smooth narrative from Bessie Smith to Janelle Monae, culminating in an implied celebration of “poptimism,” currently a vogue amongst writers, bloggers and some academics who think critically about popular music.  I think that the critical turn to poptimism is well intentioned, as it attempts to break down hackneyed binaries that as much as we don’t want them to continue to inform discussions of popular music (e.g., authentic/commercial, male/female, white/black, rock/pop), but believe it does not deal adequately with other things, for example: the political economy of the industries; entrenched sexism; the tyranny of playlists, Pitchfork, and tightly constructed radio formats that shut down possibilities for artists like Amy, a long-time critical favorite whose music has always fallen between the cracks; the tracking of women away from rock and into softer or more “appropriate” pop listening practices as they age; the myth of the “middle-class musician” who can actually afford things like health care and a guarantee of a decent living; and the politics of representation and identity in their myriad configurations.[1]

Calling it all “rock” does not attenuate or explore these and other issues.  Ultimately, the story of “women who rock” is not all about clothes and good feelings. Writing so much and so many out of what could, because of its institutional status, become the foundation of the sanctioned and commonsense history of women and rock threatens to erase or trivialize their past, present and future contributions.  We scholars and critics have our work cut out for us if we want to capture the more inclusive and nuanced history that the subject deserves.

[1] Yes, this is a bit of a shameless advertisement for Amy, a woman who most definitely rocks yet is, in my opinion, criminally unknown.  Check out her music and blog at www.amyrigby.com, or legally download her albums from Emusic.com or iTunes.


Peggy’s Social Consciousness: Corporate Culture and Counterculture http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/09/22/peggy%e2%80%99s-social-consciousness-corporate-culture-and-counterculture/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/09/22/peggy%e2%80%99s-social-consciousness-corporate-culture-and-counterculture/#comments Wed, 22 Sep 2010 13:33:34 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=6244 Peggy looking into the distanceThe last shot of “The Beautiful Girls” episode invites interpretation:  three women in an elevator, leaving the office after work.  Joan, Peggy, and Faye:  each negotiating gendered identity and life choices; each alone with her own thoughts.  Yet, the “beautiful girls” in this episode also include girl-powered Sally, free-spirited Miss Blankenship, feminine and maternal Megan, and self-assured Joyce.  All of Mad Men’s women in this episode are beautiful in spirit — desiring, adapting, confident, thoughtful –- all but icy-hearted Betty.

An intersection of civil rights and women’s rights is woven through this episode about women’s voices.  In this post, I would like to follow on from Kristen Warner’s engagement with the previous episode, about Mad Men viewing race relations through white women’s eyes.

In seasons past, Peggy was mentored by women about how to fit into the career path that was opening for her.  Joan Holloway and Bobbi Bartlett advised Peggy on how to attain mental and physical confidence.  Now a copywriter, Peggy continues to trace one woman’s movement through the social and career space of the time.  In “The Beautiful Girls” episode, Peggy is mentored about race relations in corporate culture (via Don) and counterculture (via Abe).

Don reminds Peggy that the agency’s role is to sell products not civil rights, consumer capitalism not social justice.  Abe raises Peggy’s consciousness about racial segregation but is dismissive of the need for women’s rights.  Peggy points out parallels between the exclusion of women and the exclusion of African Americans, but, despite her experiences, does not see that gender can cross barriers more easily than race.

In SCDP’s roundtable of ideas for the autoparts client, the agency struggles to find a strategy that can market to two classes at the same time, professionals and ordinary people:  “for the mechanic in every man.”  Later, Peggy suggests that Harry Belafonte sing the jingle for the ad:  “everyone likes him.”  By the early 1960s, Belafonte was a popular musician and film actor.  He had already made substantial inroads into mainstream entertainment.  Belafonte had significant exchange value.  But, the northern agency cedes without question to the client’s race segregation in its southern stores.  Recall, from an earlier season, Pete’s failed attempt to convince Sterling-Cooper to advertise television sets to an African American market.  Peggy crossed the gender lines at SCDP because brains trump gender.  Harry Belafonte cannot cross the race lines at SCDP because race trumps everything, even business sense.

In this episode’s didactic moments, Mad Men invites the audience to witness the clash of corporate culture and social consciousness.  Intelligent and candid, Peggy is our guide, our familiar – a white woman, newly aware, frustrated and uncomprehending about attitudes towards gender and towards race.  However, in Mad Men’s conceit about historical verisimilitude, the show remains poised at the edge of social progress.  I am reminded of R.W. Fassbinder’s comment about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1956):  everyone in the movie theater cried, because changing the world is so hard.  Peggy asks why the agency is doing business with a company that supports racist practices, even as Joan and Roger are mugged by a black man as they walk through a “bad neighborhood.”  Abe is patronizingly dismissive of women’s rights, even as SCDP’s female professionals demonstrate competence.

Peggy may continue to develop awareness and negotiate corporate culture, but SCDP is not likely to explore the possibilities of progressive business practices.  Yet, the television audience today is not a mute and powerless witness.  In the blogosphere, people are sharing perceptions and lived experiences of the burgeoning civil rights and women’s rights movements that sit at the margins of Mad Men’s storyline and timeline.


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