George Tannenbaum, advertising icon and sage, runs a brilliant blog titled Ad Aged. There, he posts daily pieces reflecting on the state of the business, industry ins and outs, his own experiences therein, and is generally wise. I was very lucky to get to know George while we were at Ogilvy together. He asked me to write a piece for the blog and I was extremely glad (read: honored) to do so.
You can find the original piece, and George's introduction, here: http://adaged.blogspot.com/2020/06/say-hello-to-gillian.html
How to Nag & Other Stories.
I never knew you could go to school for advertising.
If I did, I might not have studied 18th century French Literature and Postmodern English. But again, I might still have.
My journey towards advertising was mostly accidental, spurred by the knowledge which came to me remarkably late that a job existed where I would be paid to write without needing a PhD. A revelation.
I’m now two years in and I haven’t resorted to begging for alms or selling poems on the street, at least not yet. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Be a nag.
I had a Jewish grandmother on one side and an Italian grandma on the other, so I had a head start on this. Nagging is my blood right.
To bring nagging into the office requires subtlety, but when wielded properly it can be a powerful tool. It requires knowing what is your due, understanding what you are owed and not backing down from that. However, equally important is knowing when something is well and truly off the table, as well as who can and cannot be nagged.
For example, if company policy dictates two reviews per year and yet you enter your 2-year workiversary woefully un-reviewed, time to start nagging. But if your repeated requests for an all-office Gravity’s Rainbow book club are beginning to be met with a deep and mournful sigh, time to stop nagging. Nagging should be approached with a pure heart, clear goals, and a delicate understanding of the feelings in the room.
Know your worth.
This one is tricky, but it’s at the heart of everything. I mean it in perhaps a more thoughtful and critical way than it is typically invoked. At least for myself, I had to understand my value in a detailed and tangible way. If I discovered my value to be slightly less remarkable than I hoped, time to accept the sting of knowledge and find new ways to make myself indispensable.
But once you know what you offer, don’t let anyone downplay it. Because I’ve found they’ll try to—not necessarily out of any mean-spirited, corporate backstabbing, but simply because undervaluing you is convenient. It takes less time, effort, and money for those high up to assume that those down below are mediocre. In the best-case scenario, the strength of your work alone can convince them you’re not. But sometimes, you need to advocate for yourself.
Once you’ve proven it to yourself, defend your worth resolutely to others.
Patience and Humility
Ah, a double-edged sword. Let’s start on the softer side.
Two years isn’t a long time to do anything. It’s certainly not a long time to work in advertising.
But in the very beginning, I found my ignorance could be an asset. I discovered it can be incredibly useful to walk into a room where everyone is accustomed to doing things the exact same way and say, “Why? Why is this the way it is?”
I asked it genuinely; I wasn’t being a smartass suggesting a better idea. I just didn’t know the answer. But then I discovered that other people didn’t know why they did things the way they did. And sometimes, things changed for the better.
I also knew when to work on the ignorance rather than embrace it. Therein lies the humility. I wrote down unfamiliar words and acronyms and looked them up. I researched the names and campaigns that kept cropping up in conversations. I asked genuine questions, sometimes at the risk of my bravado. I knew big things didn’t happen right away, and I didn’t expect them to or demand that they did. I never pretended to know more than I did and, despite all the chutzpah in my writing this far, I tried to know when it was truly right to put my head down and be quiet.
But now to the sharper side. Sometimes patience and humility is a code phrase for shrink yourself, don’t ask for anything, let whatever’s happening happen. Now’s as good a time as any to mention I’m a young woman. Would patience and humility be preached to me if I weren’t?
There’s a pattern to who I’ve seen get ahead, or at least a pattern to who I’ve seen pushed out. And more often than not, those who succeed are the same people who are told from a young age that their voices matter and always deserve to be heard. Colleagues of color and female colleagues tend too often to be cut by the sharper side of patience and humility.
When I graduated college, about three years and a lifetime ago, I never believed in my gut that I could be paid for my words. Ideas are a powerful currency, and the fact that my salary is based on them makes me feel good. My words are my worth, even when I’m selling baby food or motor oil. There’s a dignity and goodness in that. And to me that’s at the heart of advertising.
I get to create; I get to make something from nothing. In my first two years in the industry, I’ve learned to respect the power of that.
But don’t listen to me, I’m just a nag.
Finding what's real in Gravity's Rainbow
To read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is to enter into a world of estrangement, a world where both readers and characters seem to be on the outside of some impenetrable and essential core, some crucial truth which lingers just at the edges of our perception. Artifice and conspiracy dominate; characters are united across boundaries of time, position, and specific intent by a desperate search for something real. Avenues to authenticity appear and deflate throughout the novel, and we watch as characters move towards whatever they think might deliver them to a sense of the real, to return them to their central, lost humanity. Katje Borgesius finds herself at the center of two similar scenarios in which other characters seek the real through elaborate sadomasochistic role-play, where erotic pain is used to facilitate a genuine experience. Both scenes constitute a path to the real that necessitates performance and blurs the line between the genuine and the controlled, and perhaps demonstrates how one can facilitate the other. At the nexus of opposition—pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, choice and submission—these characters find the potential for unity, for a glimpse of truth and entrance into the realm of the real, and the brief return of their human selves which have been so long lost to them.
Part two of Gravity’s Rainbow begins the steady collapse of what has hitherto been a beacon of order: The White Visitation. As the bustle and business of the War fade into the narrative background, the organization that thrived on its structure starts to dissolve. Brigadier Earnest Pudding has begun to shirk his responsibilities, showing little care or concern for the program he was once so wholeheartedly dedicated to. As Myron Grunton puts it, “The old man’s funking!” (Pynchon 227). Pointsman devises a scheme to keep Pudding in order, to sustain in him some measure of hope or inspiration, incorporating desires pilfered from Pudding’s dreams and fantasies. In comes Katje, carefully costumed and briefed on her role, to play the part of Domina Nocturna, Brigadier Pudding’s own pseudo-Kabbalist “shining mother”, his Mistress and last love (232). In return for his memories, recollections of “myth, and personal terror”, she delivers to Pudding beatings, twelve strikes of her cane in return for his accepted confession (234). Pudding’s pain, his punishment and his reward, is contingent on this moment of shared communication, a moment of connection.
As the blows fall, Pudding feels the veils drop from his world and something of the truth is revealed to him: “bound by nothing but his need for pain, for something real, something pure. They have taken him so far from his simple nerves. They have stuffed paper illusions and military euphemisms between him and this truth, this rare decency, this moment at her scrupulous feet...” (234). They have brought him away from a sense of the essential, and instead filled Pudding’s life and heart with “military euphemisms”, insolation from the truth which this moment of contact and pain so swiftly delivers. Huddled on his knees, taking the waste of another into his own being, he finds a sense of dignity. His world, so bound in a tangled web of conspiracy, power, and shifting control, has kept him from feeling connected to reality, to his fellow human, to his own sense of self. In each strike of Katje/Domina Noctunra’s cane, he is made viscerally aware of another human’s impact on his body and spirit; he confesses to her psychic pain to be cleansed by physical pain, and she delivers the contact that frees his from the “paper illusions” which cloud his life outside this cell.
And yet he accesses truth through fantasy, through a performance where the woman he worships is steeped in artifice down to the last, intimate detail. It seems essential to his experience of this “rare decency” that Domina Nocturna exists only in this cell, only in this role as supreme love and supreme pain, and yet as readers we know the depth of Katje’s history; this is for her, theater.... Isn’t it? She has been instructed, at least, by Pointsman or some outside operative on how to act, what to wear, even how to shit. But moans almost escape her as she takes pleasure in watching Pudding’s pain, a current of the real that rips through her performance (234). The narrator imagines her voice mingling with Pudding’s, two joined declarations of genuine pleasure, two testaments to authentic feeling.
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Issues of Multiplicity and Containment in Olympia
My mother used to tell me, “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind”. She was, I think, trying to tell me something about a woman’s right to interior freedom and the necessity of having a mobility of opinion, position, and countenance. To be female has long been associated with a sense of fluidity, both in physical form and quality of consciousness. Unsurprisingly, her male counterpart is often linked with unyielding rigidity. The subjects present in Manet’s Olympia each embody a certain female fluidity, a difficulty of categorization that has significantly informed their reception. At the time of their exhibition, they existed largely outside the contemporary discourse that normally served to discuss and dissect them, and subsequent efforts at understanding and classification have been conflicting and frustrating. The figures depicted exist at the center of infinite crossroads, confounding the masculine desire to subsume their multiple identities into a consumable whole. I argue that the unfixed nature of the female consciousness and body is at the center of the viewer’s interaction with the piece, and is vital to a conception Olympia’s and Laure’s roles.
In “What Is Female Imagery?”, a group of feminist artists in 1976 come to a tentative consensus that there is such thing as a “female sensibility”, not in the sense than any female bodied or identifying woman must or simply does create a certain kind of unified work, but rather that to exist as a woman is a distinct way to move through the world, and this is often reflected in their art. As Linda Nochlin puts it: “My experience is filtered through a complex interaction between me and the expectations that the world has of me”. The binary framework used in their discussion appears outdated now, and today it would be considered maladroit to march into a Gender Theory course and try to assert any quality or sensibility as inherently “feminine”. And yet, to be perceived as female in 1860, regardless of actual gender identity, was to interact with the world in a fundamentally different way than a male-perceived counterpart. The expectations, opportunities, and possible roles for women all differed significantly from those of men. It is with this understanding of a loosely united “feminine sensibility” that I proceed with my binary discussion of ‘female fluidity’ versus ‘male rigidity’; although gender may well be constructed, society’s larger belief in a gender binary creates a difference of lived reality for those perceived as one sex or the other, and in this sense binary gender becomes a real and vital factor in an individual’s life. The women making claims to a ‘female sensibility’ defined it not in terms of concrete style or distinct trends, but rather spoke of this ‘feminine’ unfixed, fluid quality. Lucy Lippard said of the work: “…it’s vaguer, even more impossible to pin down. There is a lot of sexual imagery in women’s art….But that’s too specific. It’s more interesting to think about fragments, which imply a certain antilogical, antilinear approach also common to many women’s work”.
Olympia and Laure are similarly impossible to pin down. Their essence is doubled, refracted—they exist simultaneously as the live models who sat for their likeness and the represented figures they became. With regard to the figure of Olympia, she complicates primarily the distinction between ‘femme honnête’ and ‘fille publique’, neither a respectable woman nor a traditional courtisane. Contemporary critics sought to fix her within the bounds of prostitute, a role that was regarded “anxiously and insistently—as a unity, which existed as an end-stop to a series of differences which constituted the feminine”. Although her nudity and pose placed her within the framework of paintings dedicated to les filles publiques, her body is unorthodox: her gaze too penetrating, her hand too flexed. She shifts between varied signs of what she could be and how she should be received, and contemporary critics as well as modern viewers seem bested by desires to “…discover in the image a preordained constellation of signifiers which keeps her sexuality in place”.
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