Making Me Mad

One of the things in my discussion of Mad Men last week which I deliberately glossed over was the body of Christina Hendricks, which garners so much attention that one might be forgiven for thinking that Christina and her body actually play two totally different roles on the show. In part, it’s because I feel uncomfortable with talking about people’s bodies; a body is a body, and as long as its owner is happy, it’s not really my business, and the same holds true with a Hollywood body, in my opinion. I am of the foolish impression that actresses present themselves to the public to entertain us with their skills, not their bodies, although I realize I’m probably in the minority here. However, Christina Hendricks is kind of a polarizing woman, in terms of her body type, and in fact she often gets reduced to her body, and I suppose that’s something which I need to address.

Here’s the thing about Christina Hendricks. She often gets held up as an example of a curvy, full figured woman on television, and by the definition of the entertainment industry, I guess she is curvy and full figured, although viewed objectively, her body type is still pretty different from the American average. Sadly, people are often so busy focusing on her body that they forget to talk about other things, like, say, her acting: they claim to be celebrating “full figured” women when really they’re just engaging in the rank objectification which plagues smaller women in Hollywood.

The thing about Christina Hendricks is that, subjectively, I think that she has a pretty amazing body. As someone with a finely-honed appreciation for the female form, I would venture to say that she has curves in all the right places, and that her costuming in Mad Men really sets off her body to a T; she’s wearing gorgeous clothing on a gorgeous body and that clothing would not work on another character. As she slinks across the office in one ensemble or another, she’s nothing short of a total sex bomb.

And really, a lot of that feeds into the characterization of Joan Holloway; there’s a reason that casting directors look for a specific “look” instead of just casting any old actor. Keep in mind that I’ve only watched the first season at this point, and I understand that a lot of stuff happens with her in season two. But in season one, we are definitely reminded that Joan is eye candy, to a certain extent, although she’s a pretty sharp secretary. She’s fast, or at least it’s implied, and she is very much aware of the power of her body. I don’t really want to get into a whole debate over evolving size standards, but my understanding is that Joan’s size is a pretty accurate reflection of a highly desirable body in the 1960s, even if she seems “fat” by modern standards.

Joan’s body is also a weapon of torment. She is persistently objectified and harassed by men who are viewing her as an object of public consumption. It’s kind of a key theme of the show; the abuse of the women, the differing standards about the treatment of women, and the fine line which Joan walks. While the first season doesn’t really address diets and the rigors which women undergo to get those bodies (perhaps because the show is written by men?), Joan has to work for that body at the same time that it’s used as a weapon against her.

Which makes it all the more amazing when I see people objectifying Christina Hendricks for her body. Critics seem to feel a need to drag it up, to say “look at me, I’m so accepting of larger bodies that I like Christina Hendricks,” ignoring the fact that she’s probably not the best representative of a large body, and that large bodies come in many types. Sort of how having a black friend doesn’t mean you’re not racist, saying that you think Christina Hendricks is attractive doesn’t mean that you are accepting of large bodies. It simply means that you find Christian Hendricks attractive (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Sometimes people really cross the line into rank objectification, as I kind of did above when I described her body as “amazing.” Some of this may stem from a sense of genuine wonder on the part of reviewers who can’t believe that they are attracted to a “larger” body and are trying to explore of it, but the rest is the same old same old, cataloging a body as something which is public property.

Or I hear the problematic “it’s so refreshing to see a real woman on television,” as though all of the other women on television are actually just robots. Or the producers are patted on the back for casting her, even though she’s ideal in that role, because she’s, you know, not thin. And, of course, people seem to feel a need to emphasize the size of her breasts; wow, what do you know, “curvy” women have boobs! Amazing!

So, here’s the thing. Christina Hendricks is actually a very talented actress. In Firefly, we really got to see her skills on display, and I have been loving her so far in Mad Men. She’s not just a body. She’s a brain. A very talented one, and from what I gather from interviews, a very intelligent, articulate, and perceptive one. And the same holds true for a lot of actresses, yet all we ever hear about is their weight. Their size. The catalogued elements of their bodies. How, exactly, is it progressive to objectify a “full figured” actress in exactly the same way we objectify every other woman in Hollywood?

10 Comments on Making Me Mad

  1. Great post! Your analysis of her body within the context of the show is especially good. Did you read my post yesterday on the fetishization of Joan and how she is indicative of the erasure of larger women on TV?

  2. meloukhia // 12 August, 2009 at 12:23 pm //

    Oooh, I haven’t read it yet and will definitely check it out! Weird, we are clearly thinking alike. (I’m actually working on a post right now about the meat eating/feminism issue, inspired by yours.)

  3. You have to see Season Two – a lot does happen with Joan in that one. I’ll burn you a copy if you’d like.

    Great insights, as always.

  4. meloukhia // 13 August, 2009 at 10:32 am //

    Thanks for the offer, Suzy, but I actually own season two, I just haven’t had time to watch it yet. (Well, ok, I just started watching last night.) Soon, there will be season two-influenced thoughts on the show, rest assured!

  5. I looked up Christina Hendricks, because I couldn’t really remember any major “average-sized” women except Kaylee. Funny, I always considered Saffron to be especially waiflike and stuff.

    Er.

    I didn’t realize the situation was so skewed towards really thin actresses to the point that “waiflike” = “large-bodied”, even in media eyes? Or is my perception machine on the fritz?

  6. meloukhia // 14 August, 2009 at 10:24 am //

    Aoede, you should definitely check out the story I linked to, November and Sarah Haskins, in the sites of interest this morning about the framing of Mellie (who is evidently another “fat” character on television).

  7. Interesting post/site. I must confess though, this is the first time that I have been, literally, completely unable to understand how the actress under discussion could be perceived as fat/heavy/large/yourchoiceoftermhere.

  8. meloukhia // 14 August, 2009 at 2:50 pm //

    Welcome to the grim reality of Hollywood, my friend!

  9. Much the same as Aoede here. From the moment I heard word of Christina Hendricks being considered a larger, full figured woman I have been completely confused by the assertion. If that’s what goes for large in Hollywood these days, how do normal women manage to survive well enough to perform?

  10. meloukhia // 14 August, 2009 at 8:29 pm //

    Well now, “normal” is dangerous language to use. If you mean “women over a size eight,” you will note that they pretty much don’t exist on television, except as rare character actors/tragic fatties. RMJ’s article (which she linked to above) has a really great discussion about the erasure of larger women in television. I really loved the point made in the Alas post about how even Joss Whedon, who has actively expressed an interest in getting larger bodies on television, can’t go too far against the grain; larger women are erased by the will of the networks, whether or not creators want it, because the networks think it’s what we want. I don’t think that’s going to change until society as a collective starts demanding more size diversity on television. In the last year alone there has been a lot more awareness of this issue, so I have high hopes for the future.

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