In the 1980s a monumental movement took place within the realm of feminist studies when the idea of post-structuralist feminism was created. Post-structuralist feminism is based upon the principal that we as a society must look closer at the language order that teaches us to be what culture labels as “women.” It is only through viewing the cultural constructions that constitute women as different from men that beneficial change can be brought about to women. Unlike previous feminist theories, post-structuralism doesn’t believe that the difference between genders is biological, but rather that it is cultural. Society has created definitions for what is man and what is women, not our metaphysical bodies as the other feminist theories believe. This classifies post-structuralism as a form of non-essentialist feminism. They believe that everything that defines a women as a women is purely cultural. There is no essential femininity behind this social construction. Post-structuralists aim to look carefully at the relationship between a given gender identity and the patriarchal order that rules society. They want to analyze the ways through which sexuality and subjectivity are created concurrently.
In 1975 Laura Mulvey published a post-structuralist feminist based essay entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that detailed the passive role of women in cinema and how women are placed in film for the sake of scopophilia, or pleasure from looking. The essay comes to the conclusion that in traditional Hollywood films women are simply eye candy there either to be punished for their actions through the act of voyeurism or there to be fetishized. They never are the ones who move the narrative forward. The camera often lingers on the female body, slowing the pace of the film down just to show off what a spectacle women are. While many things have changed in cinema and television since the golden age of Hollywood, this treatment of women is still prevalent throughout the media. Despite being a politically correct, “never offend anyone” society, women continue to often be simply window dressing; there to be viewed and ogled, but never touched.
Perhaps the best example of this today is the official poster for the new fifth season of AMC’s Mad Men. The 1960s set period drama tells the tale of advertiser Don Draper and his struggle to find and define himself in a radically changing America. The poster in question literally shows Don looking through a store window that contains a male mannequin dressed in fancy robes sitting comfortably in a chair as a female mannequin stands naked next to him with her dress fallen on the ground. This single photo expertly depicts the role of women in almost all media and follows Mulvey’s theories to a tee.
When it comes to the gaze used in cinema Mulvey concludes that there are three types of looks being used. The first is the camera’s look, the second is the male character’s look, and the third is the audience’s look. All three looks are viewed as male, even if the audience member is female they are encouraged to view through a male’s eyes. In the Mad Men poster the camera is positioned to view the mannequins almost straight on. The female mannequin is positioned as the centermost object in the frame and is the only item in the photo that isn’t cut off at any point. Part of both Don and the male mannequin are cut off at the edges of the photo, but the female mannequin is seen in its entirety with nothing cut.
The male character’s view is perhaps the most obvious in the picture as his full face is viewed in the reflection of the window. If his line of eyesight were to be followed it passes through the female mannequin. The male mannequin is off to the right aside and has no little interaction with Don as his reflection is caught between the two mannequins, but his eye sight particularly focuses on the female. The most ingenious viewpoint in the poster comes from how it makes the audience position their point of view directly into Don’s eyes as we see the back of his head peering into the glass window. Once the audience looks at the back of Don their eyes follow his viewpoint directly to him in the reflection and then to the female mannequin on the left that his reflection is facing. It tricks the audience into making sure they see the poster through Don’s male point of view.
Not unlike the camera’s treatment of women in the heydays of Hollywood, Don himself appears to have stopped and slowed down to take in the image of the mannequin’s female form. Judging from his briefcase and hat he’s most likely on his way to work, but has taken time out to halt his walk and stare at this haunting image of gender relationships. As a well known lothario, Don expresses obvious scopophilia from the women image, something Mulvey theorizes Hollywood often works to get out of women on screen.
The naked female mannequin appears to work as both a case of voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia. The woman is simultaneously oppressed and obsessed over. Her nakedness is an obvious case of fetishism, while the voyeurism comes out of said nakedness being so publicly on display. The way the male mannequin is comfortably clothed and siting in a relaxed manner gives off the impression that he is in full control of the situation while she is at his every will. She has absolutely no power. Her clothes have been striped off her and she stands in front for the whole world to see, while the male mannequin sits down staring at her in pleasure.
And yet despite the fact that the image places a large emphasis on the naked female mannequin, she is not the main narrative of the poster. Rather it is how Don Draper is viewing the situation between the two mannequins. Once again the woman has little impact on the movement of the narrative, but rather is there to simply be stared at. The representation in the poster is directly akin to the women in old Hollywood that Mulvey focused her theory on; neither are the gender in power but rather they are window dressing to the narrative. There to be looked at and stared, which happens to be the very function of a store mannequin.
Mad Men is a series that confronts the shifting positions of gender roles that occurred during the 1960s head on with its various empowered female characters. But in crafting a poster to advertise its fifth season the marketing follows the traditional sexist point of view that cinema has always conformed to. The men hold all the power in the narrative and the women are simply, and literally in this particular example, objects to be viewed.