Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mad Men's Joan and the construction/erasure of beautiful fat women [Television Tuesday]

When was the last time you saw a woman who was fat* and made no attempt to appear to be thin shown as highly attractive - praised for her looks frequently and without significant remarks to the contrary - on television?

No, Ugly Betty does not count (yet). While she is not shown exclusively as a tragic fattie, her looks are usually the butt of the joke. And while Roseanne was not vilified or seen as non-sexual, her looks were more of an aside than a point of praise.

Joan on Mad Men, played by Christina Hendricks, the only lead female character on television - now or in recent memory** - popularly understood to be both fat and attractive in the context of the show and in media coverage. Joan's body, with its large hips, ass, and breasts, is subject to frequent commentary on the show:

It's also a hallmark of media coverage of the show: an interview with Hendricks is titled "Dangerous Curves" and is framed by discussion of body at the start and end of the article. In her Esquire shoot (above), her breasts are positioned as the focus of attention - three out of five pictures in the set are of the boobs up. Her thighs and stomach are covered, in stark contrast to shoots (what is with that sort of violent word, anyway?) with thinner women, who are usually placed in a bikini at the most.

Now, none of this strictly on its own is a terrible awful no good thing. Mad Men is an awesome show that gives a great deal of consideration to women's issues, and Joan is an amazing character. She is sexual, confident, agent, and beautiful; Matthew Weiner deserves to be commended for going outside the typical narrative and positioning a fat woman as highly sexually attractive and beautiful.

The show also deserves kudos in its construction of Joan for the complete lack of othering within the world of Mad Men. Joan's body is a tremendous asset that fits into the standard of beauty without a need to make her some "special exception", assegregation. There's no fanfare or self-congratulation - just the fact that Joan is sexy. As a woman with big big hips that I try to accentuate rather than hide (as others have suggested I do), I am empowered by Joan's ownership of her hips and makes sure people see and love them.

But this starkly reveals the absolute and complete dearth of fat women who are popularly seen as highly attractive. As Sady says:
I am also on the record as someone who does not get the crazy fetishization of Joan and/or Christina Hendricks. In fact, I am annoyed by it, mostly because the public discussion around Joan tends to take one of three forms: (1) OMG BOOBIES, (2) wow, she is just super fat and I must be really open-minded for liking her OMG BOOBIES, or (3) see? Women could get ahead in the 1960s! By being sexy! In related news, BOOBIES, OMG.

The fact that there aren't a lot of lovely fat ladies in the media isn't a news flash to most of you folks. Fat women are erased and constructed as unattractive, oh noez! Clearly it's good that Joan is constructed as both fat and beautiful, even when it's done with a lot of fanfare and self-congratulation.

But how is her fatness constructed? Yeah, Joan is fat. And beautiful. And treated as such. But in what context does she take up the space she takes up?

Really, really restrictive and constricting clothes. Girdles that shapes her fat in a certain way. Bras that makes sure that her boobs are up and out. Hose that ensures that her ass and hips are without bumps or rolls. Heels that make her wiggle a specific way. Furthermore, the discomfort of these clothes are discussed ad nauseum in coverage of women on the show. While this is certainly true, it's just another way in which the one beautiful fat woman in America is placed out of reach of young fat women who live today.

Fat women who are not so heavily tucked and tied and polished are not so highly praised in the Mad Men. [Spoiler alert] When Peggy got pregnant and thus gained weight, she was immediately desexed and derided for gaining weight in the wrong places and not presenting her body in the right way (a constant battle for that character).

This isn't something I fault the show for - as with The Sopranos, it's an ugly reflection of a truth. This has more to do with the valuation of Joan in popular culture and complete erasure of fat attractive women who are otherwise outfitted.

The only fat lead character on a show who is understood to be highly attractive in media conversation is othered and very very carefully constructed. The era that the show takes place in others the character of Joan. Though her looks are praised, they are constructed as appropriate and "true to the times". It relegates beautiful fat women to the past, to another age, and banishes them from the modern era: an era that devalued women immensely.

The advent of Joan makes tiny inroads to the valuation of fat women, but they are indeed tiny. Yes, fat women are beautiful and confident: but only in a certain era, in specific attire, when they are otherwise disempowered and degraded, when they are other.

Further reading: Mad Men

*Fat, for the purposes of this entry, means a woman who does not fit into the popular bodily ideal. Hendricks and America Ferrera (see below) both benefit significantly from thin privilege, but do experience size discrimination.

**Excluding the occasional reality show - ANTM etc. Also, I could be wrong here - there may be other fat women constructed as beautiful in a lead role on television. But they haven't made a significant impact on pop culture.


  1. If you're calling Christina Hendricks fat, this must be some new meaning of the word fat with which I was previously unfamiliar. I've never seen "mad men", but judging by the link'd photoshoot, she falls well short of the standard objectification of women taught to us as young boys by Sir Mix-a-lot, nevermind being actually fat.

    But then it comes back to your question, and I ask: "Do I even know of any fat women on TV?" (The answer turns out to be yes, but only because FoodTV is the main channel that I watch) Certainly I'm totally at a loss to name any who're represented as being fearsome hot. That fails to address the whole thing, I think, since there're also not really any incidentally fat women with "neutral" beauty, while they're a lot of fat men presented as "not attractive, but not objectionable", while there's a dearth of women like this. (I can't think of any men who're actually fat that're supposed to be attractive in show, except maybe Randy on Trailer Park Boys, and that's well mixed with comments about him being pregnant with cheeseburgers and whatnot.)

    As a woman with big big hips that I try to accentuate rather than hide (as others have suggested I do) is probably worth a whole separate discussion, but I'm not sure how to say "good job." without coming off as creepy or objectifying? It's a sentence worthy of notice, anyhow.

  2. Brian - See the asterisks for an explanation on why I refer to Joan as fat, and why I'm not including reality television (Oprah, Rachael Ray, some ANTM models).

    Additionally, I usually use fat as descriptive rather than perjorative. In most contexts, Joan is not fat, but in the context of television, she is.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Well, fair point, I did miss your footnotes. I'm not really sure how to figure out whether someone's "supposed to be" attractive or not in reality TV or any other "non-fiction" show (okay, that's a lie. Obviously, say, Vanna White is supposed to be attractive. But say, how can I tell if any of the contestants on Hell's Kitchen are "supposed to be" attractive?)

    I'm still not sure I can buy into "breats + hips = fat", even in television context. The interview does kinda allude to "curvy", but ... ugh, usual problems with euphamism concealing what we're talking about, but I don't think they'd say or mean "fat". I'm not saying "fat" is a pejorative either (although the problematic implications are clear from the fact that I'll only ever refer to men as being fat), just that only by really over-emphasizing the thin-fat dichotomy, rather than it being more like a continuum, can we really (probably) say she's fat. (Certainly you allude to America Ferrera, and (presumably) Ugly Betty, where she's not really construed as "fat", at least as I understood the show when I watched it.) Ah, maybe my (metaphorical) dick is showing, and I'm thinking about this (and talking about it) far more from a man's point of view than a neutral one, or a female one. Back to my drawing board.

  4. I'm not debating whether or not she's fat or should be seen as fat. Christina Hendricks is a lot bigger than most women on television. That's a cold hard fact. And as to how someone can be shown as attractive or unattractive - you clearly have not seen mad men. Watch the clip above for one instance of many, many, many, in which Joan's percieved pulchritude is referred to in the show.

    It's not about the linguistic choice of fat. That's my language, not the media's.

    As for how Christina Hendricks is treated in the media - it's not about Christina Hendrick's specific treatment. I think that Christina Hendricks is treated fine in the media - she's consistently constructed as attractive, as would be appropriate with her presentation, level of beauty, and character on the show. It's done without shame as well, which is good.

    It's the fact that she's the only woman to be constructed as attractive in both the TV show in which she stars and in media coverage of her and her show, and how her specific construction in terms of her dress is reflective of larger themes of erasure and shaming of fat women.

  5. Hmm, well, okay. I still don't really buy that she can be construed as "fat" in any meaningful way. (Of course, the flipside is that there hasn't been a fat lead actress in a TV show since Roseanne, but that seems to be where the evidence leads us.)]

    The more I ponder it, the more I wonder about our gendered expectations, and feel the need to link to http://contexts.org/socimages/2008/10/26/mens-and-womens-ideal-female-body/ without really knowing what to say about it. Christina Hendricks doesn't look larger than J. Random Actress to me; on Firefly she presented as petite, if anything.

  6. I wrote about Christina last year! (scroll down)

    I have a terrible crush on her! ;)

    BTW, I hope you fellas know that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14--and that is considered fat now? They even have their own stores for women that size. Size 14 is regarded as "tubby" on the Bravo network. Elizabeth Hurley once famously said that if she was the size of Marilyn Monroe, she would never even leave her house.

    "Mad Men" is set in 1962 and it is perfect that Joan is 'Marilyn-sized'--who after all, was having even an affair with the president himself at the time...

  7. Wasn't MM a 14 in "old" sizes? I've read that she would actually be around an 8 now - still bigger than many still though.

    I don't mean that Christina is actually fat. Though I embrace the term fat, she's actually average/normal size - not bigger or smaller than your average bear, and she definitely benefits from size privilege. She is fat for TV though - and that's a little more what I'm talking about?

    IDK - Fat is clearly cconfusing word choice, but I want to reclaim it as descriptive. There's such a dichotomy...maybe I'll post on this.


    (Completely necessary. Completely.)

  9. Wait... a size 8 is big?

    I'm a size 8 and I've never gotten any static from people about being big or fat. I'm usually regarded as slim or normal, actually.


  10. Oh wow, now I know why she looks so familiar.

    She played Saffron in Firefly. o_o

  11. @Diesel: I'm about a size 12/14, and I would say I benefit from thin privilege in a major way. This is more about not fitting into the construction of bodies on television than real life.

  12. I have to admit I was taken aback by calling Christina Hendricks "fat," too. I'm trying to work out why it bothers me, and I think it's just because it seems to play into TV's own framing of any women over size 6 as fat. I know that definitely wasn't your intention, and I see your point. But I would tend to argue that the fact that she's NOT fat is crucial -- I think misogynist popular culture always allows for a handful of women who are at the margins of what's considered conventionally attractive in terms of weight, skin color, age, disability status, etc. etc. etc. to be considered sexy, as long as they don't cross a certain line, and as long as their proximity to the line can be fetishized. I guess that's exactly what you're saying... so I guess I'm just not sure that I agree that Joan's sexiness demonstrates any progress. If her body weren't so obsessively fetishized, I'd definitely agree with you. For instance, I think Dollhouse casting Miracle Laurie -- another gorgeous woman who would typically be considered too "fat" for TV -- as a sexy character without any comment on her size at all is demonstrating the kind of progress you're talking about here... but Hendricks/Joan, I'm just skeptical about. :)

  13. @drymock - Thanks for the thoughtful comment! While I think that Joan demonstrates some very small inroads, the larger point of my post is about the fetishzation and larger erasure - I think we're in agreement for the most part.

    Thanks for letting me know about Miracle Laurie - here's a post from amptoons on the topic:


  14. @RMJ:

    But isn't using the word fat or big to describe unconventional television bodies (that still have thin privilege) enabling to such a labeling system within the context of television?

    Or am I a bit too paranoid? XD

  15. But what's wrong with the label? Fat is good. Fat is beautiful. And in the context of TV, and to a certain extent the real world, she is fat.

    Part of the problem here is that there's no way to describe bodies that are neither fat nor thin. It's a dichotomy, and it's limiting. Expect a post later today on this...

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  18. Thanks for removing my incoherent garblings above...here's an actual articulate response:

    Great points about how the framing of Joan's (and Christina's) body is marginalizing to women who are truly fat, through the creation of an idealized fat body which is actually a highly controlled body which is only viewed as acceptable because it's “true to the times.” The thing that I find troubling about the framing of Joan as “fat” is that it allows people to fetishize an attractive woman, think that she's fat, and pat themselves on the back for being so progressive. And it sets up a standard of “acceptable” levels of fatness, so someone can say “well, I find Christina Hendricks sexy, and she's fat, but not like those other fatties over there, the gross superfat ones.”

    The obsession over her body is something I find pretty repulsive, and troubling, because I think it's going to make it that much harder to get a truly fat woman accepted as a sexy, powerful character in her own right in the future, because she's going to be the wrong kind of fat. I hope I'm wrong.

    I see that you've addressed this in your post talking about terminology above, but I think it's worth stressing here, since so many people reacted so violently to your reference to Hendricks as “fat.” I probably would have said “Hollywood fat,” referring to the fact that she is popularly perceived and treated as fat, but isn't really, but either way: fat isn't a bad word. It's not an insult. It's not a pejorative. It's just an adjective, and it's time that people started using it like one.

  19. Thanks for the amptoons link, RMJ. I had to laugh, because that post plays so well into the discussion happening here: one person points out that Miracle Laurie/Christina Hendricks are fat-for-TV and says it's good that larger women are getting parts, another person points out that the actresses in question are not actually fat, and off we go... it's a semantic discussion, I think, not a substantive one. And I definitely agree that "fat" shouldn't be an insult.

    Also, thank you, meloukhia, for saying what I was trying to say, but much more articulately!

  20. I'm a couple of days late, here, but I have to agree with thedrymock about Miracle Laurie. I read the post you linked to, and agree that the idea that a woman with a 21 BMI being considered heavy is a little ridiculous.

    However, for a woman of her height, that makes her around 145 lbs and a size 10. That is HUGE in Hollywood. She definitely looks like a normal woman and she is defined as beautiful and attractive within the confines of the show WITH Man Men's added construction as being "different". She simply is beautiful, her weight isn't played up or down.

    To give you a better idea, here is Miracle with several castmates: http://tvmedia.ign.com/tv/image/article/973/973719/dollhouse-20090416031853605.jpg
    Even turned at an angle, she takes up more physical space than either of her fellow female cast members.

  21. hmmm...I just thought of Joan as the normative ideal for the 60s. I love that a curvier woman is idealized on TV, but I hardly think that has anything to do with the word fat. I actually don't think fat is a good descriptor for her here, even if she is larger than average for tv. I don't think it should be described it such dichotomous terms -- either thin or fat. Doesn't make sense to me at all.

    In any case, Joan has a tiny waist, IMO. She also has a long thin neck, thin, long legs, and thin arms. I don't think her larger hips make her less ideal, maybe just slightly. But if she had this bum and Peggy's stomach, well, then I would see your argument a bit more clearly.

    And ultimately, she is ideal for the 60s. It's the ideals that are damaging, in my view, not the specificity of the body type that is ideal at the time, but the fact that ideals exist for women at all.

  22. @RMJ I see what you mean by calling Christina Hendricks fat, because really, the ideal woman of the 60s (compared to the ideal woman of today) is fat. Those women in the strip club scenes on Mad Men? Definitely not the strippers of today.

    I also see the point that applauding ourselves for thinking Christina Hendricks is fat and sexy rings false, because of those other attractive qualities about her body, "long thin neck, thin, long legs, and thin arms". (Never mind the lips and gorgeous red hair) However, I would rather congratulate the trend to show beautiful women who are less than "perfect" on TV and therefore bolster its progress, than complain about why we can't all love size-18s right away.

  23. "shoots (what is with that sort of violent word, anyway?)" -- Are you serious? Shoot = photographic terminology replicating the way that when you capture something with a click of a shutter, you are suspending a moment in time, as a bullet may suspend an animal in time, also regards the manner in which there is an aim with an implement to freeze a target....hardly a "violent" connotation, more of a poetic metaphor. If you would like to be taken seriously, I would suggest reconsidering such silly asides like this that debase your intention. Signed, a female photographer of plus-sized models (no lie!)

  24. Anon - as a secondary mod I agree that it isn't really a necessary aside to this piece, although I don't think your first analogy works well to persuade that of that.

    I think it's more compelling that "shoot" is the word used for any kind of photo being taken, eg, "this camera only shoots 35mm", or "point-and-shoot digital camera" or whatnot. It's not purely a shortening of the word "photoshoots", referring to the sets of pictures taken of something, frequently models -- it could be referring to what the camera does as well, and even in context with "a shoot", it's not just referring to women.

    I also think you're derailing yourself a bit by insisting that it's no lie that you're a female photographer of plus size women. That's really cool! Please don't make yourself out to be exotic, a superhero, or someone who must be fictional, though. Next time add your website and name so we can see your work!

  25. Christina Hendrickson is certainly "fat" by Hollywood standards, but her character Joan is never treated as "fat" in Mad Men. Joan behaves and is treated as the epitome of female beauty in the show.

    Although Joan/Christina may even be medically overweight (I don't know, I've never seen her without a girdle), I think a major reason that she's considered attractive is her body proportions. As someone pointed out, Mad Men's Peggy was treated as fat when she gained weight in the middle. Hourglass shapes are highly preferred for all sizes. Just look at any plus-size model. Maybe the use of corsets and girdles is one reason that heavier women used to be considered more attractive than they are today?

  26. Rachelle, that is exactly what I said in this paragraph from this very piece:

    "Really, really restrictive and constricting clothes. Girdles that shapes her fat in a certain way. Bras that makes sure that her boobs are up and out. Hose that ensures that her ass and hips are without bumps or rolls. Heels that make her wiggle a specific way. Furthermore, the discomfort of these clothes are discussed ad nauseum in coverage of women on the show. While this is certainly true, it's just another way in which the one beautiful fat woman in America is placed out of reach of young fat women who live today."

  27. @RMJ, yeah, I was agreeing with that part but not with your contention that Joan is viewed as fat on the show. I think she is portrayed as one type of perfect woman.

    I was also trying to extend what you said in the sense that fatter women can be considered attractive only if their bodies are smooth and hourglass shaped. Today, that's even more limiting because it has to be accomplished without the obvious use of girdles (think Dove commercials). BUT, women do squeeze themselves into 'shapers' and 'smoothers' of all sorts, so maybe there's less change than I think . . .

    Interesting discussion & blog, thanks.

  28. Maybe we need to consider a finer distinction - that someone can be seen as 'fatter than average' or even 'too fat' in a particular context - like the world of tv - yet be not at all fat in the larger political sense of being a member of the group of people who are constructed as sub-human within fat oppression. My problem with you calling Christina Hendricks 'fat' is not that you insult her - I think that 'fat' is a fabulous political word - my problem is that you actually depoliticize the term when you use it this way, and in doing so you make it a LOT harder for me to talk about the experience of being seen as fat in every context, and you obscure the reality of non-fat privilege, something that Christina Hendricks has plenty of.

  29. Kudos for saying "fat" as a descriptor. We spend WAAAY too much time trying to come up with ways to avoid saying "fat" when that's what we mean to say. And yeah, Christina Hendricks is not normal people fat, but she is fat for TV. isn't an 8 or 10 considered "plus size" for models when regular plus size starts at 14 or 16?


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