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?