The Empty Page (Mad Men Blogging)

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!

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9 thoughts on “The Empty Page (Mad Men Blogging)

  1. Inder says:

    I have yet to make it past Season one of Mad Men, so I obviously cannot comment in depth on subsequent action. However, I did see this great blog post bringing up “Betty Draper in a Fat Suit” on another blog in the context of body-acceptance and media, and thought of you.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks! That post had it all: cyborgs, media critique, and something I didn’t work in: all the ways the writers gave Fat Betty the stuff that make people think fat people are depressed overeaters. The ice cream eating. One reason I liked the Kritik discussion I linked above was that it was a little nicer to Betty, too, and a little more generous about that ice cream thing–tying it to the tea leaves, connecting it to Betty being a bit happier–to her seizing the remainders–the sweet leftovers (ice cream) rather than bitter (tea leaves).

  3. Stacy says:

    I am a dedicated Mad Men watcher and NOW a dedicated reader of Thinker for Hire. Kevin found this and just showed me. I’m so glad you’re blogging, E. Now, I think I’ll be able to keep in touch with you. But first, lots of catching up on your blog!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yay! So happy to hear from you!! I am very glad that Kevin found this, and happy birthday to him (right?)

      Very eager to get in touch. Looking forward to your smarty-pants comments here.

  4. Nice to meet you. I added you to my blog list since your tagline made me laugh out loud and such. I think I’m going to bill my self as an opiner from now on, as I do enjoy opining.

    I think you trust the writers more than I do!

    Remember when Betty wanted Don to “discipline” their little boy for being bad and he wouldn’t and explained that his dad beat him all the time and he wasn’t half as good as their kid? I think that’s how the writers set us up to hate Betty and love Don, even though he was about to cheat on her. Every time she slaps a kid and Don doesn’t, he gets to sleep with at least 10 women.

    Now I think they are setting us up to feel sorry Betty so that we can applaud her personal growth which will be marked by her no longer needing to see her daughter’s psychiatrist and also becoming thin again.

    • Elizabeth says:

      You may be right. But I like to think that she’s mostly an example of what happens when the pink robots eat a gal.

      Welcome! I hope you like my blog! I enjoyed yours too.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Hi again Betsy,
        I have been thinking about your comment since you left it, and didn’t get a chance ot write back till now. The link I put in my original post, to the Kritik essay on this episode, reports that Matt Weiner supposedly said that people hate Betty because she’s so beautiful. If he really said that, he displayed the grossest possible misunderstanding of the way gender works in the US. Leading me to mistrust the way it works on Mad Men even more. I haven’t seen the latest episode yet, but I will definitely take this into account next time.

  5. alexbetty says:

    Point well taken. I am usually pretty good about putting things in their era-perspective (for instance, I really like Gone With the Wind, though I know I’m not “supposed” to). Here I was expecting Betty to behave like a smart, modern woman. She really just wasn’t brought up that way. She did everything she was supposed to do, and she got robbed. I don’t hate her, and I did not applaud her fatness as her just desserts (terrible pun), but I did wonder what she was going to do with herself now that she doesn’t have her model-looks going for her. What else has she ever had to offer? And I have to wonder about the MM writers’ obsession with fat-suits.

    I also read the blog post to which there was a link above. I never got that song before. I know a little girl who loves that song. If it is really about what the poster says, that makes me so happy. A great line from the post: “Clothes are supposed to serve women. Women are not supposed to serve clothes.” Obvious, and said many times before, but never quite so perfectly. I hope my little friend always battles the pink robots.

  6. […] seriously? She kicked Don’s ass. In the best way. Betty’s trying to use the power she has. Fair play to […]

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