Body Image / Fantasy / Gender / media

The Female Bodies of Mad Men

“Jesus, Megan has no ass.” Was the  inarguable point my good friend made during last night’s season 5 premiere of Mad Men.

And while I often try stop myself from getting pulled into the game of assessing actresses’ looks during a show, he was right.

And I’d been distracted all episode long by the dramatic and entirely unnecessary weight loss of Don Draper’s new wife, Megan.  Her cheekbones protruded to the kind of jarring degree that Karl Lagerfeld would love. She looked skeletal under her amazingly awesome 60s outfits and it was all the more apparent during a scene where she stripped down to her skivvies.

She was joining the long line of Mad Men‘s female characters getting down to their underthings. Betty Draper was chided by Don for her attention-grabbing yellow bikini, Peggy Olson dropped trou (and everything else) while trapped in a hotel for a work assignment with her meathead art director, all of Don’s paramours remove at least some clothing, as do the secretaries on their respective jaunts, Sal Romano’s wife Kitty shows off her lingerie (which he loves in the way all gay best friends love your sexy underwear), Pete Campbell’s wife Trudy lounges in bed in a negligee (while he rocks his little boy pajamas), we meet Lane Pryce’s girlfriend Toni in season 4 while she’s dressed as a Playboy bunny, and while Joan has only revealed her bra and hosiery, while never letting us gawk at her fully, the camera’s relationship with her body is nothing short of the male gaze manifest.

The show is notably not as generous with screen time for male bodies. Aside from Roger Sterling’s bare post-heart attack chest, and Duck Phillips learning of the Kennedy assassination in his drawers, and a quick glance at Pete Campbell changing into his dad-jamas, we are not treated to glimpses of anyone but Don. Male characters have sex regularly on this show without even doffing their shirts or pants. Beyond the implications that no one ever gets any foreplay in the 60s, this lack of male nude parity also reinforces the message that only certain bodies are attractive or good to be seen.

Very few of the male characters in Mad Men are depicted as sexy, generally just as pursuers of female sexiness. Other than Don’s notorious looks and charm, it’s never really clear why any woman is opting to sleep with any man on the show if it’s not about obtaining his money.  Roger Sterling pulls high caliber tail, despite being one of the oldest characters in the show, but it’s because of both his conspicuous wealth and riotous wit. Sal Romano garnered female attention, but we can chalk that up to the cliche that only gay men are that good looking.

And there’s also plenty to discuss about the show’s treatment of weight loss. Peggy Olson’s weight gain in season 1 was a significant plot point given lots of attention by the men in the office. Female weight gain and fear of losing one’s figure play prominent parts in the lives of both the housewives and the Manhattan women and that outlook plays a considerable element of the advertising work they do. Only Joan Harris’s husband, Greg, tells her not to worry about such things… of course, he says it while she’s pregnant and reassures her he’ll whip her back into shape soon enough when he returns.

Male weight gain is often referred to as “filling out” and evidence that the man is happy in his marriage. Take the case of Carlton, the neighbor who is married to Betty Draper’s good friend Francine. The actor is wearing a fat suit to demonstrate this point. But as he reveals in his conversation with Don after cards, his weight gain is due to unhappiness after having been caught cheating and put on lockdown. Harry Crane, head of the television department, has slimmed down dramatically between seasons 4 and 5. It’s never discussed, but the assumption can be made that it is part of his transition from accounts nerd to sleazy LA guy, due to the increasing power of television in their world.

So are we to assume this is simply the most realistic depiction of male and female gender roles at the time? That women are to be sexual objects over which our eyes linger and men are sexual beings who seek pleasure but are not, in themselves, attractive? I’m truly curious to see how this continues to evolve as the characters move into the later 60s and we may be able to start differentiating out what is “of the time” and what the show is trying to tell us.

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