Mad Men Barbies: Glimpse Into Fantasy Worlds Or Stilted Artifacts?

Mad men barbies Barbie's been busy lately with brand extensions. Just a few weeks ago, we met Video Girl Barbie, with her tiny camera that lets girls see the world through Barbie's eyes. Yesterday, the world through Barbie's eyes got a little saucier, when Mattel announced its plans to produce four Barbie dolls based on characters from the TV show Mad Men.

These dolls aren't really designed for kids, of course - they're part of the Barbie Fashion Model Collection and will sell for $74.95 each. But it will be interesting to see if the show's entry into toyland has an effect. Will little girls start dressing their Target-bought Kens and Barbies in natty suits and tiny Betty Draper-style dresses?

In the New York Times article announcing the deal between the show and Mattel, Lionsgate president for television programming and production, Kevin Beggs, comments that Mad Men is tricky to promote, saying, "It's not 'Cougar Town' or 'Desperate Housewives,' where you get it in one line." Beggs says this to explain some of the rationale behind the partnership, which is just one more step in the show's non-traditional branding approach, which has included a line of Mad Men-inspired suits at Brooks Brothers and in-store promotion at Banana Republic.

I wonder, though, if the show's complexity makes it difficult to translate its characters into dolls. When I first saw the dolls, I recognized their characters, but focused on the ways they differ from the "real" people (from left to right in the photo, they are: Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, Don Draper, and Betty Draper). In doll form, Roger looks a bit like Eric Ripert, Joan is a whole lot less Joan, and Don is nowhere near as handsome as Jon Hamm. To be fair, Betty looks pretty good, though her hair is a tad on the poufy side.

In her post about Video Girl Barbie, Ingrid Fetell wrote that girls enjoy playing with Barbie because they can explore glamorous fantasy worlds through the Barbie character. Adults can do the same when they buy a Mad Men suit. I wonder, though, whether the dolls can provide grownups any of the same type of satisfaction. Do they offer a glimpse into a fantasy world? Or are they just slightly stilted artifacts of that fantasy?

Carrie Underwood Knows The Secret To Great Christmas Variety Shows

Back in the olden days, before cable gave us entire networks for children's shows, we kiddos were pretty darn bored during primetime TV. Except, of course, during those extra special Christmas programming hours.

Mandrell_sisters_21There were the sparkly Mandrell Sisters, a sparkly A Very Dolly Christmas (see also: A Smoky Mountain Christmas), the sparkly boys of N'Sync Christmas special. And, of course, the annual Bob Hope Christmas Special. (Yes, another Dolly clip. What can I say? I love her. So much.) 

Now, I know what you're thinking: “But Paige! The Mandrell Sisters wasn't a show on just during the holidays, it actually had a two-year run!  And Paige, besides the Mandrell sisters, IMDB says that the stars were also Truck Shackley & the Texas Critters, a group of Krofft puppets that included five musicians and a dog!” Yes, yes, sure. OK, but for some reason all I can remember are the holiday specials. The hair, the costumes, the terrible skits with long pauses in between canned laughter. *Sigh.* Those were the days. (BTW, apparently Louise Mandrell is playing the Gaylord Opryland with her "Joy to the World: Christmas Dinner & Show" through Dec. 25) 

And then, after years without this country truly embracing a blonde country singer with mediocre comic timing and a penchant for sparkly gowns, what do my wondering eyes see?

Underwood-parton_320 Carrie Underwood and her very own Christmas Special right there on Fox TV!  Carrie tells E! Online: “This was kinda my first real experience with acting at all and I honestly don't think I'm very good, but I think it totally works for what we're doing because, I don't know, it's probably more funny if you're not the best actor in the world.”


And, of course, Dolly Parton.

Merry Christmas, ya'll.

MadMen Contest: Where Were The Secretaries?

Mad-men01 Banana Republic sponsored a photo competition for people dressed in the style of the TV show MadMen. The prize is a walk-on role for an episode of the show, and the semifinalists and now the winner have been announced. Among the semifinalist photos we see portraits of wives and airline stewardesses, but secretaries (now titled “administrative assistants”) and interns seem underrepresented.

In imagining a walk-on role, a temporary secretary or someone interviewing to be an intern would seem to have great potential. Such a walk-on role could be little or no dialogue, and a lovely young woman could provide eye candy for the show’s viewers. Surely a lot of contestants felt this would be the case and submitted photos of themselves as secretaries. One of these is shown at right.

An attractive, unattached female is inevitably the focus of considerable male attention in an office, even if it is limited to looking and fantasizing. The image at right captures such a moment marvelously. The woman who is the subject of her boss’s admiring appraisal no doubt realizes that he will study her figure as she walks away, and she accepts it, though from her expression we can’t tell whether she welcomes it or not.

Back before issues of sexual harassment made office relationships more hazardous, secretaries were often involved in affairs with their bosses or other men in the office. So I find it surprising that photos of secretaries didn’t turn up in the semi-finalists. However, the semi-finalists and winners were determined by public voting, which always make the outcome of a contest unpredictable.  A long-standing issue for the TV show Dancing with the Stars has been how its predominately female viewers vote. After the first few seasons the producers feared that no woman contestant would ever win because so many women viewers seemed to simply vote for the man they would most like to have as their dance partner.

Porter Hovey Mad Men The winning MadMen photo is shown at left, and an interview with winner Porter Hovey can be found here. Hovey is a freelance photographer, and she and her sister staged the photo. She portrays a well-dressed suburban mom, sunglasses and all, who is sitting on the steps next to her vintage stroller. One of the questions her interviewer asks is whether she sees herself as a Marilyn or a Jackie, though there doesn’t seem much doubt which one she emulates in the photo.

Contests in which the winner is whoever crosses the line first are easy to understand. The same with sports like basketball where points are scored when the ball goes through the hoop, and the team with the most points wins.

Contests involving subjective judgments are often puzzling. Looking at the photos of the men who are semi-finalists, only the first had a suggestion of narrative. The rest seem like straightforward photos—no feeling of story. Some of the women’s photos are more interesting in a narrative sense, particularly the first, the last, and the winner. In these, the women are seen in staged action. Surely that made a difference in how voters were able to relate to photos.

Perhaps the majority of voters in this contest were women, and if so I can imagine them relating to a wife with responsibilities who is forced to wait for someone, perhaps her late-as-usual husband. A scene like this invites us to imagine what the story is. The photo looks like it could be a genuine street shot, and people were actually stopping and peeking in to see the baby (which turned out to be camera gear).

It would be interesting to know the demographics of the voters. Did women vote for images of women that they identified with? Returning to the lack of secretary photos among the semifinalists, were women voters  less inclined to vote for images of women who look as if they might put a married man’s fidelity to the test? I didn’t vote, but as a male I confess that I understood why the man in the first photo was mesmerized.

[Photo of the woman in blue is from Suchacyn’s Flicker Photostream, and is used by permission.]


Glamour Flashback: Nixon-Kennedy Televison Debates

This Saturday is the 49th anniversary of the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debate marks a turning point in American political history—the point when television caught up with (and surpassed) newspapers and the radio as the most influential element media through which to campaign.

Nixon famously underestimated the visual power of TV. He refused makeup, against the advice of his television advisor, Ted Rogers, even though he'd just regained health after a two-week illness. As a result, he appeared tired and run-down.

Kennedy, on the other hand, was the picture of health, tanned and ready after campaigning in California—a "bronze warrior," as Rogers described him. The perfect picture of mid-century strength, youth, and masculine glamour.

The radio audience considered Nixon the winner, but unfortunately for Nixon, that moment coincided with a shift in the public's behavior. Kennedy's youth and vigor appealed to the television audience, who thought he won the debate.

The momentum Kennedy picked up at that first debate proved too much for Nixon, in 1960, anyway. The lesson Nixon learned the hard way - never underestimate the visual impact of health and glamour—was burned in every rising politico's brain.

In recent years, we've seen another shift in media and glamour, as the particular charms of the Internet force candidates to learn how to respond quickly and effectively to a constituent base made up of citizen journalists. Being able to adeptly manage messages is even more difficult now than it was in 1960. But the importance of glamour is still there—just ask Even today, politicians hope to capture the healthy, young, exciting energy that Kennedy so effortlessly projected back in September 1960.

A look at the Nixon/Kennedy debates and the impact they had on the election:

Mad Men Yourself


They didn't have Diet Coke back then, but I still imagined myself as a boss. Create your own Mad Men persona here.

From The Archives: North Of 60 With Sarah--New Reality Show?

Editor's note: Kate originally published this post on October 16, 2008, but recent events make it worth a new look.

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic speculated about a Sarah Palin reality show, but you can tell he's not really familiar with the parameters of the genre. (Ophelia Swims came closer.) For a really successful series, you need an attractive protagonist (because they come into your home, every week), a lively and diverse supporting cast, and a location or situation in which conflict, resolution, and emotion can bloom.

Spreality_2 North of 60 with Sarah

In this new reality series, former candidate for Vice-President, Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin, a forty-ish, flirty mother of 5 (!), juggles affairs of state, lost homework, disgruntled constituents, injunction-waving lawyers, wedding planning, and putting meat on the table. Think docu-drama meets C-Span, shot on location in the wilds of the frozen north.

In the first episode, spunky Sarah vetos anti-gill net legislation and an extended curfew for Willow with equal aplomb. Piper stows away on a float plane, but a quick thinking state trooper has her home for dinner.

Future episodes include a show-down between Sarah and Putin over fishing rights that's soon eclipsed by the furor raised by Bristol's determination to have a vegan wedding buffet.

Later, French premier Sarkozy shows up for a fly-fishing lesson--without his wife! Thanks to an emergency international call, the First Dude saves the day.

Sounds almost real, doesn't it? Have your people call my people. (Looks like cameras are rolling!)

(Apologies to the CBC.)

Guest Blogger Sean Kinsell: Farah Fawcett And The All-American Illusion

Of course, reality was different. Fawcett wore make-up. Her clothes were altered to hug her body by the costume department rather than being bought off the rack at Nordstrom’s. Her best takes were selected so she seemed to have no bad angles on film. None of that makes her different from other actresses, but other actresses weren’t nearly as good at coming out at the end of the process seeming fresh and spontaneous.

All this may sound like a back-handed compliment: Fawcett was good at being a sexy, dumb blonde object. But I don’t think that was really how she came across, even on Charlie’s Angels. For one thing, part of the joke of that show—which the lead characters were explicitly in on—was that they were good detectives because the male (or butch female) criminals they were investigating underestimated them. Their assumption was that women beautiful enough to be new showgirls or models or what have you might naively "ask too many questions" but couldn’t possibly be working purposefully to solve their crimes.

And for another, lead roles in action series (as opposed to police procedurals) are rarely cerebral even if they’re men. The whole point is to see them going risky places and using their intuition to unravel things as they go along. What do you do when Charlie asks you to go undercover as some sort of self-displaying tart? You find a self-displaying-tart get-up in your size and get to work. What do you do when some spooked person seems to know something important? You question her then and there. What do you do when you’re looking for information on the malefactor? You walk politely up to his office, break in, and start riffling through his papers. The whole point of the Townsend Agency was to hire out detectives who went into the field and did something hands-on about the client’s problem.

But as the Charlie’s Angels brain trust realized, these things can read differently when female characters are involved, so in order to avoid the condescending "women’s intuition" trap, they assigned Kate Jackson’s Sabrina Duncan character the role of the "smart one." Unfortunately, they fell into a different trap, giving Sabrina a generic "braininess" that was frankly unbelievable. Her big thunderclaps of realization at 50 minutes past the hour were almost always both laughably obvious and contrived. By contrast, Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith were—yes, I’m dead serious—very plausible, even if the plots they were put through rarely were. They felt their way forward by hunches. Their risks often got them into hot water, but taking risks was the whole point of their job. And when they found themselves held at gunpoint by a gangster-flunkie in a leisure suit, it was precisely because their instincts had accurately led them to the source of the trouble. Jackson was most enjoyable to watch when she was undercover along with the others; she was her most annoying when she was back at the office with Bosley, fake-cogitating while Fawcett and Smith were out getting the actual work done.

While Smith and Fawcett had similar characters—confidently athletic when they needed to give chase and confidently sensual when they needed to flirt—they embodied them differently. With that smoky voice, that tangle of darkly lustrous hair, and those dark pools of shadow cast by her perfect features, Smith definitely seems like someone whose personality could have hidden spaces. The writers, with typically coarse excess, exploited that by giving her a preposterous back story. (She was damaged by being an orphan with an abusive foster mother who locked her in a closet and took away her dolly.) As for Fawcett, she had the sort of blonde beauty that was summery rather than springy: ash-blonde and dusty pastels rather than golden blonde and porcelain-clear peachiness. She looked as if she belonged outdoors—delicate and feminine but not fragile. All that sun, wind, and water appeared to have swept away anything dark.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t true. Fawcett had the same sorts of troubles anyone in her position would have, and she didn’t always handle them well. We found out about her darker self then, as she made misjudgment after misjudgment. That didn’t make her ’70s can-do, open Americanness a lie in and of itself; it just revealed that its apparent effortlessness had always been a fantasy. To her immense credit, Fawcett ultimately had the mettle to stay positive and forward-thinking when it wasn’t so easy. Just about every American family has a member who’s soldiered gamely through cancer treatments and eventually died with dignity among loved ones. Fawcett’s willingness to be part of that more everyday narrative is a sad but pleasing end to a public life that started by casting her as an icon.

Contrasting Glamour: Halston Vs. Yves Saint Laurent

This week's Fashion Show challenged contestants to design an outfit based on the work of one of eight fashion icons: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Gianni Versace, Madame Grès, Emilio Pucci, Halston, or Yves Saint-Laurent. It was surprising to see how little fashion history many of these designers have absorbed, since a little web surfing or the occasional visit to a museum or bookstore is enough to give you a basic education—no formal schooling required. The episode also demonstrated how much the show could be improved by a tie-in with FIT (a rival to Project Runway’s Parsons or FIDM), especially its outstanding museum. It would be great to see the brainy Valerie Steele replace deadwood host Kelly Rowland.

The contestants who wound up in the bottom two, Haven and Reco, were assigned Yves Saint Laurent and Halston, respectively. Although Haven professed a great admiration for YSL’s work, she failed to capture its feel, while Reco knew nothing about Halston. Unfortunately, as judge Fern Mallis noted on her blog, the samples provided by the vintage shop—just one per design icon—"were not in all instances great representations of those iconic designers' most important or influential looks." Better than a poor vintage selection would have been a tour of the Met’s current Model as Muse exhibit (see earlier post here). Haven and Reco in particular might have learned from this recreation of a Studio 54-era “VIP Room.”

23.VIP Room with Yves Saint Laurent and Halston 1970s Gallery View sm

In the Either/Or section of DG Q&A interviews, we ask, “Armani or Versace?” In the 1990s, those two designers represented contrasting aesthetics, both associated with but not the same as glamour: the elegant, understated luxury of Giorgio Armani (who, unlike Fashion Show's icons, is still living) and the flash and sexuality of Gianni Versace. Each is glamorous in the eyes of some audiences, not so to others. The Met’s ’70s tableau offers another contrasting choice: Yves Saint Laurent or Halston. It’s a great demonstration that glamour can take many different stylistic forms, even in the same historical context. (The tableau also reminds people like me, who tend to think of ’70s fashion as a glamour-free zone, that those who associate the decade with glamour aren’t entirely nuts.)

Here we see two contrasting, but equally glamorous, visions, both offering escape and transformation. YSL’s plays with exoticism, ornamentation, and idealized peasant forms—mythical historicism. Halston, by contrast, promises to make the wearer streamlined and modern. Both aim at seduction, YSL with flowing fabrics that brush the body but don’t display it, Halston with elegant but body-conscious fit. In keeping with the times, both styles appear to require few undergarments and permit easy removal. (The bizarre head gear is part of the museum display.)

Dear Publicist: Real Housewives Of New Jersey Are NOT Models Of Glamour


I received the following unironic pitch from a publicist who shall remain nameless:

New York is out, and New Jersey is in—or so the viewers seem to say. Bravo has hit ratings gold with its latest reality show Real Housewives of New Jersey, garnering more than 3.5 million viewers for the show’s season finale—the highest-rated finale in the Housewives franchise history. The popularity of the show has sparked a national interest in New Jersey, and has succeeded in re-branding the state as a place in America that can be undoubtedly filled with glitz and glamour.

From the opulent mansions to the housewives’ toned, tanned bodies, this latest installment of Housewives has made Jersey hot again. And with help from [client's name omitted], a New Jersey-based plastic surgeon, anyone can get a Housewives body. Dr. [omitted] offers a full selection of services, from the minimally-invasive Jersey Mini Tummy Tuck to breast augmentation to thigh lifts.

I would love to set up a time for you to speak with [client] to further discuss his New Jersey-based services, as well as other trends in plastic surgery. I look forward to hearing from you.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think the popularity of Real Housewives is based on a longing to be like them. Alessandra Stanley's description, “a buzzkill for viewers hooked on the free-floating vulgarity,” is more apt. These women are ridiculous, not glamorous. A plastic surgeon who thinks they’re role models is a plastic surgeon to stay away from.

Real Housewives of New Jersey drinking game here.