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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Commodity of Being a Woman

This will be one of many blogs and articles written about last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman.”  I’ve been thinking about it all night. It cruelly and brilliantly laid bare the burden of being a woman in 1966, something to be bought and sold and owned.

There’s a school of thought that anyone other than white men has to work twice as hard for half the recognition. I'm black and female; I’ve felt this my whole life. I’ve felt that “You’re representing the whole race” burden at my private high school, at Columbia, and in business school. I’ve felt it being the only woman in the room; I’ve felt it being the only person of color in the room. And for me, that burden has meant that I expect to have to work harder to prove myself and to be taken seriously. It’s unfair, but it’s the world I live in. In 1966, I’d have had far, far fewer choices than I have now. I wouldn’t have the luxury of being a copywriter whose work is overlooked; I’d be Don’s not-seen-in-many-episodes secretary Dawn, if I were lucky.

If I were white, like Peggy and Joan, I’d be faced with more, but tough, choices. If I were Joan, I’d have to face being literally pimped out by my colleagues – expensively pimped out, but pimped out nonetheless. I’d have to live with the burden that my colleagues see me as a whore, and then with the burden of whoring myself out, as Joan does. If I were Peggy, I’d have to deal with not getting the recognition I deserve, having my underlings recognized over me, having money literally thrown in my face by my boss, and being a pawn in my new boss’s quest to stick it to my old boss (although I’m not sure Peggy realizes the latter yet, and if she does, I’m not convinced she should care. Business is rarely altruistic, after all).

Peggy refuses to put a price on her dignity. Humiliated and overlooked by Don for the last time, when she gives notice and he tells her he’ll beat her offer if she just gives the number, she tells him there IS no number. She’s going. She tearfully tells Don not to be a stranger, holds her head high, and walks away. She liked the people at work, but … it’s work, and she has the chance to do more and better work at a new agency, so she’s going. It’s the move she has to make at this point in her career. This is common even now – to “move on to move up” and then later, to become a “win-back.”

Contrast her with Joan, who actually DOES put a price on her dignity – a 5% not-silent partnership in the agency. Her colleagues clearly don’t respect her if they’re willing to inform her that Jaguar Guy wants to sleep with her, take a meeting about whether or not they should pimp her out, and tell her that such a meeting took place. In doing this, it’s clear that they see her as a whore – if they didn’t, they’d know better than to bring it up to her. They’ve also changed her job title without telling her or adjusting her compensation and gave her the task of reviewing TV scripts, praised the way she did it, and then gave the job to a man and paid him more. Crude drawings of her have circulated the office. They’ve all said they can’t live without her, that she runs the office … but they don’t respect her. She’s a woman doing woman’s work, and she has a place.

Peggy’s new boss noted that Don still sees her as “a secretary who’s willing to help out” (that’s how she got noticed in the first place). They clearly see Joan the same way, with the added bonus of being conventionally beautiful.

I don’t think women can watch an episode like “The Other Woman” and not wonder “How far would I go?”

Would I prostitute myself to get ahead in business? (I can't say "sell myself" because we all, regardless of gender, sell ourselves in business all the time - we sell our abilities, our connections, our attitudes, particularly in advertising. The men of Sterling Cooper Draper Price are always selling.) No. Knowing how hard I already have to work to be taken seriously, I could not undermine myself like that – I couldn’t allow myself to become That Woman who slept her way to the top. It’s hard enough out here, and the person who sleeps her way to the top is rarely respected. But I’d like to think I’ve earned enough respect and carry myself in such a way that my co-workers wouldn’t even think to suggest it.

If they did (and I think how you see this episode depends on whether you can believe that the men of SCDP would go so far as to pimp Joan out – and I have no trouble believing it, especially re: Pete, who is disgusting, and Lane, who is between a rock and a hard place since he just embezzled $8K from the company and has to keep from being found out), I have options that Joan doesn’t have. I’ve been blessed with excellent educational opportunities. I have degrees. I have family I can lean on in hard times (Joan has her mother but she’s not particularly happy about it and she doesn't appear to have anyone else). LinkedIn exists. My ultimate "prize" isn't to snag a rich husband. It’s 2012, not 1966. 

We’re meant to see Joan’s situation as semi-desperate, I think – a single mother without a ton of money, raised “to be admired” but with the admiration window closing (Roger Sterling, her former lover, married a woman younger than she, as did Don, and both women are unencumbered by children). So I guess I’m paraphrasing Chris Rock: I'm not saying she should have done it, but I understand. I understand how a woman who has always traded on her sexuality and who knows that the men who employ her don’t hold her as their equal would trade on her sexuality one last time to ensure that she doesn’t have to do it again.

There’s always a line in business, a boundary you won’t cross. The staff at SCDP has fairly well erased that line. My question is how they’ll treat Joan in the aftermath – is she just that woman who whored her way into the partnership, or has she earned their respect? In the present day it would be the former.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Actor Brand Loyalty and Marketing Efforts

Last night during a bout of insomnia, I was reading my Zite app on my iPad and learned two wonderful things: that Connie Britton, AKA Friday Night Lights’  Tami Taylor, will be starring in a show in the fall called Nashville, and that Jesse Plemons, AKA FNL’s Landry Clarke, will be joining Breaking Bad in season 5. (Zach Gilford, AKA Matt Saracen, AKA my FAVORITE character on FNL, was at the Fox upfronts but I haven’t been able to find out what show he’s on. If he’s on The Mindy Project, I will die happy.) All the alums are doing well: Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons will both be in Battleship this summer and Kitsch will also be in Savages with Blake Lively; Adrianne Palicki will be in G.I. Joe; Kyle “Coach Taylor” Chandler has a number of movies in production, including the highly anticipated Martin Scorsese movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

Friday Night Lights is one of those shows that just gets to you and hangs on. Season 1 was a perfect arc of television. “The Son,” an episode in season 4 in which Matt Saracen’s soldier father dies, was the best episode of television – not of that season; of television – I watched that year. So I’m always happy when alums from the cast get work, and I usually support them. (Same goes for The Wire. When Michael B. Jordan, AKA Wallace, turned up ON FNL and proceeded to do great work, it was a great time in my life.) I watched American Horror Story entirely because of Britton (and then stayed for Jessica Lange). I fully intend to see Battleship (don’t judge me!), I will watch Nashville, I saw Super 8 because of Chandler (and then stayed for the cast of kids), I can see myself seeing G.I. Joe. I already watch Breaking Bad so Plemons’s casting is just icing.

But my loyalty is not blind. Kitsch starred in John Carter, which I knew right away I was not about to see (that was a terribly-marketed movie). I don’t think I’ll be in the theater for Savages either; I saw the trailer when I saw The Cabin in the Woods and was unmoved. I didn’t watch Gilford’s most recent (now-dead) show Off the Map, nor did I watch Charlie’s Angels with Minka Kelly.

There was an article in The Wall Street Journal years ago called “Brand Loyalty is Rarely Blind Loyalty” that highlighted this concept, that most consumers switch brands for some items without giving much thought to loyalty. And while actors, movies, and TV shows aren’t brands in the traditional sense like Starbucks coffee or Crest toothpaste, they ARE brands. Simply put? If an actor I like from a show I love takes a part in a movie or show that looks like crap, I will not watch it. The “looks like crap” part outweighs the “but she was on FNL!” part.

In this economy, where money is tight for many, I think people are even less inclined to blindly support brands, and that includes actors. In 2011, movie revenue was the lowest it’s been since 1995. People aren’t flocking to the movies in droves anymore (The Hunger Games, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises are going to bump those numbers up considerably, though), so actors don’t have that loyalty to bank on. The media world (especially the film industry, because it’s more expensive and time-consuming to see a movie than it is to watch TV) really needs to bring it when it comes to its marketing efforts in order to put butts in the seats. Complacency and coasting simply won’t cut it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ashton Kutcher and the PopChips Controversy

Ashton Kutcher did an ad for PopChips in which he plays a bunch of different characters looking for love. That’s the whole ad. For potato chips. One of those characters is “Raj,” a Bollywood producer, complete with stereotyped accent and brownface. Sigh. I think Anil Dash said it best: " … if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad 'funny' accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course.”

The ad has since been pulled from the PopChips site amidst cries of racism. I actually wish they hadn’t done that, because I think in order to make an effort to eradicate racism (in all forms, and I think this ad was a result of the casual racism so prevalent in our society, rather than what is commonly thought of as the only form of racism: Klansmen actively plotting harm to people of color), we need to talk about it. Pulling it down and issuing an apology (which the CEO did, and it’s a pretty pat apology) means we don’t really have to talk about it anymore, and I think that’s antithetical to what’s helpful when it comes to improving race relations. I don’t think the ad should remain in play (more on this in a sec), but I DO think it would be more helpful to offer the thought process behind the ad, and to explain where, why, and how that thought process failed.

Also, and I freely admit I’m not an Ashton Kutcher fan, the ad is really not funny, nor is it particularly clever. That's a huge part of why it should come down. People doing funny voices? Feh, seen it. If the intention was to generate buzz about PopChips through a controversial ad … I mean, do better. Yes, it succeeded (there’s been a ton of discussion online and in social media spaces), but is that really how you want your product, which is fairly innocuous and not controversial on its own, to be known? And what’s the link between dating and PopChips? It’s like the Wheat Thins ad with Tracy Morgan – it feels very much like both companies just wanted celebrity endorsements (there’s another Wheat Thins ad with Alex Trebek that's not good; the message seems to be “Wheat Thins make you annoying at parties") and didn’t care about much else.

I doubt very much that Ashton Kutcher and the PR and ad teams behind this ad are actively working toward the oppression of people of color. I think it’s just a bad ad. I think it’s a bad ad that could maybe spark some dialogue about how prevalent casual racism is, but I think that’s pretty unlikely.