Extra special bonus! The most important line from this week’s closing credits soundtrack is also a Sonic Youth song! One of my favorites! But here’s the grimmer song, about the ladies (plus Sally) on Mad Men, from The Sound of Music:
Your life, little girl,
is an empty page
that men will want to write on.
I’m putting the page break here, before I say anything about anything, so that none of y’all get your spoilers until you want them.
The Internet is excited that Betty got Fat!! She deserves it, that [insert colorful, sexist insults here].
Also, the Internet is relieved and a bit surprised that they feel sorry for Betty, instead of hating that [insert more colorful, sexist insults here].
I disagree with you, Internet. And I’m a little embarrassed for you.
The short version of my take on Betty is that she is that empty page. And after two unfulfilling marriages, she wants to write on that page herself.
Pardon the clumsy metaphor: it’s Leisl and Rolf’s fault! (Rolf later becomes a Nazi, in a movie about fleeing Nazis with no Jews in it. Which ties into New Guy Ginsburg. Whom I don’t have room to work into this post, but stay tuned for Mad Men: Jew Edition.)
But to start, a short defense of Betty, by request. She was raised to believe that her only worth would be as a trophy wife with beautiful, quiet children. She should be educated enough to marry well and fulfill her hostess functions with the high-powered colleagues her husband would bring home. She did all of that. And her husband routinely cheated on her anyway. He failed to keep up his end of the bargain. Profoundly, and repeatedly. But she couldn’t divorce him because divorce was a scandal and divorced, single women could not support themselves and their children. So the first chance she gets to be someone else’s wife, she jumps at it. And that isn’t so hot, either, because she was never taught what to do when the whole wife-and-mother thing fails to make her happy. And remember that time her sick dad felt her up? She and Don conceived little blond whats-his-name on that trip, despite Betty having kicked Don out for his infidelities. Don was at least better than her dad. Which isn’t saying much: she was a sexual object to the people who were supposed to care about her from the very beginning. And she worshiped and mourned her dad anyway, and named that child after him.
She was supposed to be a sexual object, but her husband kept finding other women to have sex with. What else can she have? Very, very little.
So she tries to control other people, since she cannot control her husbands (or dad) and has nothing of her own. Her children are difficult to control, so she toys with some other people. (Remember that plot a while back when she was toying with the people at her horse club?) But that doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t! So what is she to do?
Compare to Don, who deals with his unhappiness by cheating on Betty and his other mistresses and girlfriends repeatedly, ignoring his kids unless it suits him, drinking himself to a stupor. Why exactly is he so much better than her? Because he’s good at his job? She’s good at her job too, if you think about how different parenting was then, for her class.
It’s because bad moms are the number one monsters in our society. Forget actual monsters. Bad dads? Eh. Not such a problem. We just kind of expect it of men. When there’s a good dad, we do a maypole dance around him and his magisterial good dad-ness. When there’s a good mom, we try to find ways she’s not so good after all. When there’s a bad mom, she is the recipient of all the pent-up rage of an entire society. Hilary Clinton? Nadya Suleman? Madonna? Sarah Palin? You know the examples. (And for the record, disclaimer 1: There are plenty of reasons to criticize those women on other grounds.)
Anyway, so Betty got fat. Recall Peggy’s secret pregnancy in Season 1. Critics generally agree that Peggy’s career was propelled by her rejection of gender norms. Her body size transformed her into an ineffability: a women who is not a sexual object. (In the world of the show, that is. Disclaimer 2: Plenty of men and women are attracted to larger people in real life.)
So after a lifetime of embodying the beauty norms and hiding her unhappiness, Betty finds a way to make her unhappiness finally visible to others. Look what she gets: her mother-in-law is nice to her, her husband is nice to her. She gets to share ice cream with her kid. She gets to eat ice cream, period, which she probably couldn’t before.
And then the cancer scare, which makes her be even nicer to her husband and kids for a while. She has a genuine human connection with her old friend Joyce, which is rare for her. She was raised to believe that other women are competition for male attention. Why should she open up? This new body of hers is giving her reason to try out other new ways of being in the world.
Look, lots of writers on the Internet find ways to criticize her throughout this: that her reaction to her cancer scare is essentially childish and selfish. That she reacts to Henry’s joy with shallow anger about her weight. That all of this makes her a terrible person. But I want to give Betty a break. Her body size is antithetical to her self-image, and while she is getting some rewards for being larger, she is still clearly having difficulty accepting that her new body might possibly be as OK as her husband says it is.
My point is that for Betty, getting fat is not a punishment. It is a vehicle for her to experience the kinds of human connections she was unable to forge when she was living life exclusively the way society told her to. But it’s still threatening to her own sense of self. Because of this, and because the show tends to choose complexity, I don’t expect the whole fat/happy skinny/bitchy thing to hold up for long.
Here’s a variation on this approach, academic-style, that also offers a lovely reading of the tea leaves that form the episode’s title.
I’m extra curious to see what happens when January Jones has her baby and gets actress-slender again. And presumably Betty will, too.
There’s much more to say: Megan seems to actually control and manage Don. Waaaaaa!?!? Is it because of her youth? Her pseudo S&M stuff? Her being an actress (a speaking part over Betty’s being a model)? New Guy Ginsberg is playing up an eccentric/neurotic stereotype to negotiate the WASP world, while at home he’s the substitute wife, buying groceries and making dinner for his immigrant dad. The whole generation gap thing that most other reviews of this episode focus on.
Mad Men is back, people!