In a now-famous scene from the first season of Mad Men, Christina Hendricks’, clad in a tight-fitting red dress, bends over in front of a two-way mirror. Behind her in the observation room, the men of Sterling Cooper gape at her rear end–and then salute it.
It was impossible not to think of it when, earlier this week, some self-portraits of Hendricks appeared online. Someone had hacked her phone, you see, and posted the pics online. Predictably, they spread like wildfire. Somewhat inexplicably, they also appeared on tech blog Gizmodo, along with a strangely unsympathetic, albeit not entirely misguided rant from writer Sam Biddle. More to the point, though, you could almost feel the sudden frothing of the internet, as our collective libidinal desire for an object–and, it bears mentioning, a person–was suddenly given room to work itself into an onanistic mess.
Yet that scene from Mad Men continues to linger. Ostensibly, it has become well-known because, particularly out of context, it allows the world to safely and repeatedly ogle Hendricks’ form. It’s almost worse in the now ubiquitous GIF form, where it takes on an insidiously seductive hypnotic quality.
But the “bending over scene” is also a moment full of messy historical ambivalence. Yes, here is the objectification of women in the 1960s; that much is obvious. But the same thing is also going on in the present, as we watch a safe, fictional “somebody else” do what we cannot–and yet are doing. Simultaneously, though, we also witness a strangely affectionate gaze for a female body-type that many in 2000s continue to deride. You couldn’t label either aspect of the scene “pro-woman” per se, but it does do a lot to encapsulate the weirdness around women’s bodies and those who look at them–by which I mean everyone.
So flash forward to real present from the fake past, and you’ll see little has changed. The digital future has only accelerated the way in which we salute and gape at women bending over things. It only gets worse with celebrities because, like that heartbreaking Playmate scene in Apocalypse Now Redux, we wish we could pose these people-turned-images as if they were dolls. A world of Photoshop and sex tapes is one about the conscious tease and the unintended reveal, and it’s the tension between the two that sustains our ceaseless lust. The leaked photo, the early-career nude scene, the “nip-slip”–they all circulate in an orgiastic economy of desire of which People magazine is the other half.
It would be too easy and too neat, however, to simply argue that the digital, postmodern world is only some corrupted, reductionist medium that turns people into objects. We’ve always been objects. We can only ever be objects, even to ourselves. So all we ever get of each other are words, bodies we can see, and bodies we can touch. That is the sum total of possible connections between humans. Given those constraints, we thus make ourselves objects, and often in ways where one aspect of our objectified self points to another. Whether one extra open shirt button, or the words and pictures we drunkenly spill out through our phones, it’s the same thing: a part standing in for the ever-unreachable whole.
So we gesture to each other, in a world of salacious texts and fragments of images: the ripple of muscle beneath cotton, or a current of desire in a photo message. What the alphabet did for the transmission of words, the internet has done for the transmission of images, icons pointing to the meaning of something that can never be fully grasped.
We have always been sexting-objects in-waiting. We just needed the technology to do it. We have, as Angie Varona taught us, already internalized it utterly. But the question is why it is mostly images of women’s bodies that ricochet around the web with abandon — and why it is women are blamed for what is so clearly a two-sided equation. “Don’t objectify yourself!”, we say, fixing our hair in the mirror.
The reason for it is as obvious as it is ancient. And two things still linger in the kerfuffle around this. The first: Christina Hendricks’ publicist acknowledged that the pictures were in fact real–except for the one featuring bare breasts. The one that crossed an unnamed line, people took great pains to point out was not the true, real thing. The second is the sickening but all-too familiar phenomenon of entities like Gizmodo, Buzzfeed and countless other smaller sites profiting off the exchange of private, stolen pictures.
Our words and our vessels are never enough. It’s why, in the sudden throes of passion, we all reach for each other with such fervent desperation. It’s why we write poetry and send late-night booty call texts. And these images, too, are borne of the same human yearning that asks “see me as a subject”. Something along the way, however, seems to have short-circuited: where the object of a gesture becomes trapped in a web of something much bigger–like a commodity, being trucked around digital shipping lines, each one of us exacting a toll along the way.