Caution: this post contains Mad Men spoilers.
Recently, a video of Dustin Hoffman describing his reason to take on Tootsie went viral. In it, he gets teary describing his first experience in full make-up as Tootsie, when he realized that he wasn’t an attractive woman. He asked the make-up artists to beauty-him-up, to which they responded, “That’s about the best we can do with you.” Suddenly, he felt the impact of what women can go through every day, and wanted this female character’s voice to be heard.
Dustin Hoffman’s epiphany about modern-day sexism reminded me very much of Mad Men (perhaps because I’m in the throes of extreme Mad Men withdrawal). Mad Men does a better job than any TV show on today at depicting the physical disregard women often experience – and they’re only able to do it because it’s a period drama. Dustin Hoffman’s video reminds us that the kind of discrimination women experience isn’t just a fantasy or a drama we watch on TV, but a reality.
Mad Men does a great job highlighting how sexism and beauty can affect a career. Consider Peggy, who was told in Season One to stop dressing like a little girl. It is a constant question in Peggy’s mind whether she was given this opportunity in advertising because she’s not as attractive as other secretaries. She started as Don’s secretary, and yet unlike her two successors, Don never makes a pass at her and instead treats her as his protégé. As they sit in the diner opening up to each other in Season Four, Peggy remarks to Don that she must not be as attractive as some of his secretaries, implying her embarrassment that Don never tried to woo her. She feels shamed despite the opportunity to be heard as a professional.
Or Joan. Joan is my favorite character this past season, and part of that has to do with the end of Season Five. In exchange for sleeping with a corrupt Jaguar dealer, she gets made a full partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. She uses her co-workers inability to get over the fact that she is a woman to her career advantage. And YET, Season Six shows us that things are never that simple. People hijack her power throughout the season, and her move to partner throws Joan into the ring with Peggy as “one of the guys,” despite having spent years using her femininity to carve out a particular role for herself.
Television can often be the mirror that viewers need to think critically about social issues. For Dustin Hoffman, attempting to play a woman was his wake-up call to the complicated relationship between the “gentler sex” and beauty. Mad Men, on the other hand, is far more aware of the agonies women face, and highlights it. In both instances, we are reminded of the role beauty plays in how women are treated, everyday, even today, and on a fundamental basis.