A casual observer of American popular culture in the past 10 days would find it awash in contradictions, more specifically, mired in mixed messages about what we want and expect from successful women.
During the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, a skit about Senator Hillary Clinton and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin skewered the public impressions of both women as it ostensibly took on the matter of sexism in the campaign. Palin (played by the awesome Tina Fey) was lampooned as a flighty, dim-witted former beauty pageant contestant who’s called a MILF and who mock-pleaded with folks to stop PhotoShopping her face onto bikini-clad images. Clinton (spot-on work by Amy Poehler) was satirized for being a more masculine, violently ambitious woman who some people called a “harpy,” who possessed a hot temper and was derided for supposedly having kankles.
Given that the skit was said by many pundits to ring true regarding the media’s perception of Palin and Clinton, what message did it send? If you’re a woman who’s perceived as too tough, too smart and too masculine, you’ll scare people? And if you’re sexy yet lipsticky-tough you’ll go farther?
The following night, I watched a new episode of Mad Men, a 1960s period program that centers on one surficially idyllic American family as it tackles issues of class, race, gender and casual substance abuse. The episode focused on two unmarried women who work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency: Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in her 20s and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) in her 30s.
In the first season, Olson gave birth to a baby she didn’t realize she was carrying but kept it quiet and gave the baby away on the same day she was promoted from secretary to become the only female copywriter at the firm. Olson dresses in very prim and proper clothing which sets her apart from her male peers who are dapper in their suits, drink copiously in their offices and take clients out to strip clubs. Two older professional women, both of whom exude sex appeal, advised her that in order to get ahead in business she needed to “act like a woman” not like a man which included wearing more appealing attire. While Olson rebuffed that advice and tried to be treated as an equal based on her talent, she continued to be left on the outside looking in.
Holloway, meanwhile has been portrayed as the vixen-like office manager who oversees the secretarial staff and openly uses her voluptuous sexuality (accentuated by her form fitting clothing) as a career advancement tool. However now that she’s engaged to be married, her sexual allure seems to have lost its power. She was recently undermined by a principal in the firm, with whom she used to have an affair (he “unfired” a younger, attractive secretary Holloway terminated), then, after contributing valuable insight and top-notch work on a project involving client ad placement, Holloway was surprised to be unceremoniously replaced by a (higher paid) man without even being considered for a new post instead of being sent back to oversee the steno pool.