Hamm Reduction

Here is what you discover when you start reading the latest ode to Jon Hamm from Details magazine:

  1. Hamm swears at bikers.
  2. While wearing madras shorts and a baseball cap.
  3. Because they impede him from going 140 in his borrowed fancy car, a silver Mercedes that is not yet available for purchase by the public
  4. While avoiding parking tickets, apparently by the sheer force of Hamm's manly will
  5. Before returning to the Malibu beach house he's borrowing for the weekend with the girlfriend who likes all the same things he does, and their German shepherd mix.

Let me stop right there.

In The Mommy Myth, Susan J. Douglas spends a chapter outlining the weird formality of the celebrity mom profile. They read identically: the celebrity mom dotes obsessively on her kids, and even though she's hard-working and financially independent and has a very visible career, she still thinks her children are her greatest achievement as a woman and as a human being. It's as though we need to be reassured that when given enough power and money (same thing, really), a woman will 'naturally' choose to become a wife and mother (but most importantly a mother).

With Jon Hamm (and George Clooney, and that one time in Vanity Fair with Shia LaBeouf until he became a target for mockery), we get the men's version: the retro-dude profile. Instead of having adorable children, he is "piecing together his résumé, quietly building a career and a life." Instead of decorating a home, he is "never in danger of taking the easy way." His words have "the weight of a benediction" because his is the voice of authority. But of course, he is also Everyman: "Not self-consciously handsome. Not a dick. A normal guy . . ."The Mercedes-Benz fairy tale

Here is the difference between the celebrity mom profile and the Hamm piece: the former is all about the actress' personal life, her children and her home and her feelings. The latter is about his career, his talent, and his plans for the future. Nevertheless, both the celebrity mom's maternal warmth and Jon Hamm's self-assurance are supposed to be 'natural,' and effortless. In reality, both gender poses require a great deal of time and energy. Yet the reader is encouraged by the celebrity profile to view this effortlessness as the reason for the celebrity's prominence, the base of their fame and fortune. For example, this sentence from the Hamm profile:

What's startling about Draper isn't just the physical man-ness Hamm projects as the chisel-chinned messenger sent from the past to save us from casual Fridays and Twitter. It's also the way Hamm imbues everything Draper does with a sense of complicated, conflicted adult-ness.

Real men, you see, are tortured -- Don Draper by his false identity, Jon Hamm by the loss of both his parents and his knowledge that his chosen industry is fickle, that he will have to keep on his toes and work hard. Good thing that hard work is an acceptably masculine activity.

Real men are also leaders, particularly of women:

"One of the greatest pleasures of the job," Weiner says, "has been to see Jon create the character of Don Draper. He's smart, deep, and a natural leader. I can't imagine making the show without him."

It is ambiguous whether "smart, deep, and a natural leader" refers to Jon or his character. And there's more:

Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, says the whole cast considers Hamm "the leader of our little gang. We do defer to him. If there's something that we need to fix, we go to Jon.

"It's funny," she adds. "There definitely are a lot of similarities between how Jon and I get along and the relationship between Don and Peggy. But Jon doesn't yell at me as much—thank God. That would be a bit rough."

That there is a difference between Jon and Don -- oh god, are the names really that similar? -- the author acknowledges, but only just: "It occurs to me that this is why Weiner keeps journalists off his sets: so nobody will realize that the reason his cast is so good is that the 'actors' are actually split-personality cases who've fully inhabited their roles."

Even while the author takes care to note Hamm's versatility as both a comedic and dramatic talent -- coupled with another gushing quote from a woman, Sarah Silverman this time -- he is eliding the distinction between Jon Hamm and the character he has helped create:

Hamm tends to talk about the collaborative nature, the teamwork, of showing up and being a part of something. "This isn't a very solitary experience," he says. "You can't just go into a room and act by yourself. You need an audience to play off of, you need someone to write the material." On cue, Elisabeth Moss, in full Peggy regalia, joins us on the folding chairs. I ask her if there's a Don Draper School of Acting.

"He doesn't say too much," Elisabeth/Peggy says sheepishly.

"Not since you stopped fucking it up and got it right," Jon/Don says, and they both crack up.

Still laughing, Hamm gets up. As he ambles toward the set, the actors' reserved parking spots come into view. The SLS, its wings tucked primly away, is shining like some golden trophy in the sun.

Despite the majesty rays there, the article goes out of its way to note that Jon Hamm has not yet achieved instant-recognition celebrity status: the folks at the burger joint he and the author eat at fail to make a fuss over his presence, which leads the author to conclude that Hamm has not been recognized. (Though if Hamm eats there frequently, it might be simple politeness on the part of the employees.) The author connects the two personalities of actor and character in such a way that Jon Hamm is the Clark Kent to Don Draper's Superman. Only, instead of leaping a tall building, he comes out of the phone booth and shoves a check into his mistress' cleavage.

The article's reader is encouraged to think of Jon and Don as two aspects of a single personality. It is Jon Hamm who has brought Don Draper out of the sixties to save us.Jekyll and Hyde: who doesn't want to be that/those guy/s?

Save us from what, though? From "casual Fridays and Twitter"? Really? The messianic tone of the article is all the more unsettling because the threat Jon/Don will save us from is never explicitly named. Though we can guess.

Jon Hamm does seem to have a surprising amount of dislike for Twitter, which seems odd. He feels luckier than "the Twilight kids or Miley Cyrus or whoever" presumably because he is older, and manlier, and thus more able to handle the pressures of public scrutiny. Even as Hamm laments the invasive curiosity of the public, in another quote he states that being a porn star is equivalent to selling one's dignity -- without a shred of self-awareness that he is, after all, a man who is paid to do things with his body while other people watch. Has nobody ever mentioned to Jon Hamm that he and Miley Cyrus have essentially the same job?

To go back to the parallel with the celebrity mom profile for a moment, it's probably not a coincidence that we specifically frame actors this way. If gender is a performance, who better to embody its most rigid forms than our most well-known performers?

All images via the Vintage Ad Browser.

Now Put Your Hands Up!

So lately there has been some discussion on the internet about Beyoncé, and whether or not "Single Ladies" is a feminist anthem or a pseudo-feminist anthem or just, you know, a really catchy number with some top-notch choreography and an alluring bionic hand.

A lot of this discussion -- both in the recent AV Club article and in The Sexist -- centers around the word "it" that you are instructed you ought to have put a ring on. From Amanda Hess:

Beyonce uses the dual “its” to objectify herself on two levels: first, as a sex object; second, as a wife. Beyonce asks her man to mark his territory by putting a “ring on it.”

According to the AV Club:

Beyoncé is just a passive “it” that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending. Not to mention the idea that a ring will give the unnamed man in the story sole, permanent possession of “it,” since he’s basically just planting his flag in his claimed territory.

That's a lot of interpretive weight to put on a single flimsy pronoun. If we're going to really lay the hammer down grammar-wise -- oh, do let's! -- there are plenty of other things that support the idea that this song has a feminist slant. Beyoncé spends a lot of time telling her ex what he can and cannot do now that they're split: "Now you wanna trip . . . Don't pay him any attention . . . You can't be mad at me." Note that the ex is not allowed to actually trip -- he no longer has the right. He wants to trip; Beyoncé won't let him.

It does get a little weird in the bridge, with this line: "Say I'm the one you own." But there again is the imperative verb, and it is followed by a threat: "If you don't, you'll be alone." The ex's claim to own Beyoncé somehow does nothing to lessen her autonomy in her own mind. There's a little hint of BDSM play here, the verbal equivalent of being handcuffed to a headboard: Beyoncé wants to be a little owned. So play the game her way or she'll ditch your ass.

As for the new fling, he is an accessory like her lip gloss and designer jeans. Twice Beyoncé tells her ex, "Don't pay him any attention." She refuses to let this become a dude-versus-dude match, a competition between the ex and the new guy where Beyoncé is a property that can be earned. She always brings it back to the ex's failings in his relationship with her, before this new guy was ever around: "Cause you had your turn / And now you're gonna learn / What it really feels like to miss me."

One of my favorite moments in the video is when Beyoncé literally brushes off the new guy as unimportant:

The video really does make this all about Beyoncé. She is the entire world -- there is no one else here, no ex, no new guy, no set or props even. There is no dude here to enjoy her sexy dance -- the camera doesn't even care about the backup dancers (who are Beyoncé clones). And yeah, the video is sexy -- because hot damn, Beyoncé can move. Her body is powerful, strong, in constant motion. She displays her control of her body as much as she displays her body itself.

The editing style -- editing being the visual equivalent of grammar -- is part of what makes Beyoncé seem so powerful here. The takes are really long for the choppy ADD world of music videos, and there are plenty of tiny barely visible jump cuts that exist to make the takes seem even longer than they are. Mostly the stays moving, bobbing slightly forward and back and turning occasionally so that the viewer is constantly forced to reorient on the figure of Beyoncé, always near the center of the frame. When the camera does zoom in for close-ups, they focus exclusively on her face.

For contrast, let's look at two other megahits whose videos are polar opposites of "Single Ladies" (assuming things can have more than one polar opposite BEAR WITH ME HERE). The first: Britney Spears' 10-year-old (really? wow) "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" video.

Here are three stills:

Science Fiction Double Feature

From a slow-motion shot -- and this is the entire frame.

Britney's face is reflected in the screen of his helmet! Aaaa!

This is so male-gazey that it creeps me out. Shut your face, astronaut man!

Viewed after "Single Ladies," it's like watching a train wreck -- quick cuts, shots of Britney lolling on a bed making orgasm-legs, slow-motion shots of just her body in red vinyl, extreme close-ups of various parts of Britney's body, the smiling astronaut and his NASA buddies for whom she's putting on a show. Britney doesn't so much dance as strike a series of poses. And there's at least three of her: dancing Britney (full shots), singing Britney (shot from the boobs up), and lounging Britney (flat on her back and shot from above). You never know where Britney "really" is and you don't know what Britney really wants -- which of course is the upshot of the song, after all.

An even more extreme example is provided by the opening thirty seconds of Kanye West's "Gold Digger": The lingerie-clad woman is reduced to a series of images of her parts: face, boobs, hair, ass, all overlapped at seizure-courting speed. (And then the parade of pin-ups begins.) As for Kanye, he doesn't even turn toward the camera until about halfway through the video. Makes me wanna do this the whole time:

You show him, bubblegum-tongue lady.