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SEXIST BEATDOWN: Advocating For Depressing Mid-Century Housewife Appreciation Edition

So, I have some relatives in town. Including a relative I have not met before! His name is Mr. Are You Kidding I Am Not Disclosing The Names Of My Relatives On This Blog I Don’t Even KNOW You, he is from Arizona and is my mom’s cousin, and his interests include world travel, the theater, and getting talked about all the time by other family members because apparently everybody else in the family knows him and I’ve been missing out. He seems pretty cool, you guys. Also, my mom’s here. So, there’s that!

Here is a shocking thing about my relative, is the point: He does not watch Mad Men. I know! It came as a shock to me, too! My mom was all, “I read that Betty Draper post on Jezebel!” And I was all like, dear Lord, you read Jezebel? Because, um. And she was like, “I have a Google Alert on your name! Sometimes, when I don’t like the tone of the comments, I too comment, in response!” And I was just like, okay! Let’s all talk about Mad Men! HEAD FOR THE HIGHER GROUND, MEN. But my relative, he does not watch it. So we were stuck. Thank goodness this relative of mine is not the Internet! At least, not currently! Because if there is one thing you all like to talk about, it is Betty Draper and the ever-growing, vile abyss within her brain.

And what better person with whom to talk about the ever-growing, vile abyss within Betty’s brain than the patient and insightful Amanda Hess, of the TBD site, and also of her own long-established sparkling wit? Join us now, as we plumb our scary depths, talk about your totally predictable and kinda gross 180 on Peggy, and discuss Joan and her, um, personal growth and development. Join us!

SADY: So, you know who has some problems? BETTY DRAPER. And they are of the Whole Barrel of Scary Wacky variety.

AMANDA: They are some of my favorite problems, actually, even more compelling than the stole-a-guy’s-identity-to-get-out-of-a-war-and-escape-a-life-of-vague-olde-tyme-Amishness-and-then-make-sex-with-many-beautiful-women variety!

SADY: Yes, Dick’s life on the Hookers and Hobos Hoe-Down Party Farm has ceased to hold my interest for, lo, this many a season now.

AMANDA: At least Betty’s problems do not include excruciating flashback sequences.

SADY: Right. Which might be for the best, for all of us! Because I seriously do NOT want to revisit Betty’s childhood. Although, you know, in every scene with Sally, I think we are sort of visiting Betty’s childhood. Betty is her own flashback sequence. It’s funny, because she’s become undeniably awful to know this season. And I think a lot of her former fans feel betrayed by this.

AMANDA: I for one like her character more than ever. I thought your piece on her did a really good job of arguing for her descent into abuse vis-a-vis exerting the little power she has (over children, service workers, etc.) As it turns out, being treated as a lifeless doll your whole life does not always turn out swimmingly for some women!

SADY: Right! And, I mean, that’s one of the things “Mad Men” does so well; it shows that oppression doesn’t automatically make you a better person. It doesn’t always look great. It can kind of eat your soul. There have always been a contingent of people who complain about Betty; in my experience, these people tend toward dudelihood. And they tend to intersect with the people who thought Peggy was boring and frumpy until she got her new hip downtown friends, at which point she became sassy and sexy and everyone’s favorite character. Nobody wanted to hang out with Peggy when she was in the fat suit and had bad hair.

AMANDA: Right? I mean, Betty, like nearly every other character on the show, is reliably awful. Meanwhile, many of the men on the show are actually rapists. This is not so much of a problem for some viewers! I do expect that Mad Men will do more with Betty than just allow her to descend into an unending cycle of Sally abuse. Even Don takes a break from having sex with women to swim once in a while. But count me as very thankful that Betty hasn’t risen above her oppression in one season simply by virtue of marrying some other dude.

SADY: Yeah. I mean, I think early on, it was easy to predict that Feminism would swoop in and solve all of her problems. But the show is being pretty honest about how that actually works; it doesn’t hit people like Joan, or Betty, because they’re already within the system and they perceive themselves as having something to lose by stepping outside of it. It hits Joyce, who then makes lengthy soup analogies that I’m not quite clear on, and Peggy, who can then use it to point out that she doesn’t HAVE to care about the minorities because she WORKED her way up.

AMANDA: Haha. Yes. Even when feminism works, it doesn’t work! I remember having real hope for Betty last season when she started standing up to Don and then left him. But the nice thing about this season is that it shows that a woman like Betty doesn’t have the options that a woman like Faye has (family v. career). Betty’s choices are more along the lines of Don v. Henry, and even if Henry is a better husband than Don, it’s the framework that’s oppressive.

SADY: Right. The show is clear on the fact that she has no job skills, no life skills outside of a really specific environment, and basically no ability to step outside, as of the present moment. But what she has is anger. And she’s “empowering” herself in the only way she knows. Which is screaming and slapping people, so, uh-oh.

AMANDA: Ruh-roh, even. She has essentially one skill at this point, which is predicting that Don will impulsively propose to Megan!

SADY: Right. Her surprise was like, “oh, it’s NOT the other person you’ve been on three dates with. Secretary? Yup.” But I appreciate the fact that she’s not just Betty Not-Friedan. She’s a specific person, who has problems that go way outside of just being a lady, and she’s reacting in specific ways.

AMANDA: Yeah. I do too. But I have to admit that the fucked up gender stuff is what draws me to her. I mean, her weird relationship with Glenn, even. Like, Glenn is a deeply, deeply creepy character who legitimately freaked Betty out with his bathroom-watching and hair-collecting activities. The interesting thing about Betty is that she sees Glenn as a peer. She’s incapable of acting like an adult, which complicates Glenn’s creepiness in ways that are … awfully specific to Betty’s bizarre character.

SADY: He says she’s like a princess! As far as Betty is concerned, that’s all anyone has to say to her for shit to be A-OK Normal! And, like, she sees SALLY as a peer in this fucked-up way, too. She’s jealous of her daughter for stealing her eleven-year-old pseudo-boyfriend. There are layers and layers of awfulness at work. And in her mind, she’s not abusing this person who is half her size and age and depends on her for life; she thinks Sally is like the Wolverines in the Red Dawn of her particular family life. She’s this powerful insurgent that Betty has to retaliate against. I admire the show for being like: “Child abuse: Here’s precisely how far away from a grip on reality you have to be, sometimes!”

AMANDA: Yeah. God, it’s depressing. The thing is that two men in this world have been like, “I am interested in spending the rest of my life with this woman!” which is not for nothing, actually.

SADY: Yeah. But… she’s really pretty? I mean, one thing the show has been clear on, thus far, is that people in this setting don’t actually have to know each other all that well in order to get married. That’s what made the Megan thing so upsetting. Not only that Don was “taken” (you can’t “take” Don’s sexual attentions; Don’s sexual attentions are the wind, baby!) but that we have literally no idea who this woman IS. Betty talked to Henry for about fifteen minutes before leaving her husband for him. Roger sort of knew Jane from work.

AMANDA: Yeah. Has there been a wedding in this show where the take-away has been, like, “that makes sense,” even?

SADY: I don’t honestly know. Maybe Pete and Trudy? But even then, he was already married to her before he was like, “oh, you’re sort of bossy! Your relationship with your parents has some weirdness to it!” So we don’t even know. But, as I think you’ve pointed out, if this were a show about likeable, normal people behaving in well-adjusted, not-at-all-weird ways, it would be a half-hour sitcom called “The Ken Cosgrove Show,” and Carla would be his wacky neighbor, so.

AMANDA: Exactly. I mean, I honestly think that in most television, Betty would just be out of the show once she and Don divorced. And I think that keeping her at the front of our minds while we follow Don Draper’s Wild Ride is just immensely important. Not everyone gets to work in a wacky 1960s advertising agency.

SADY: Exactly. I’m glad we’re following Betty, and I’m glad that the show respects us enough not to give us a fake, feel-good solution. As much as I enjoyed Joan and Peggy having their Sisterhood Smoke-Out in the last episode, it also just didn’t feel like the show. I was like, “didn’t one of you call the other one a bitch just recently? Haven’t you always sort of hated each other? When did the show get so positive about ladies hangin’ out?” Betty cracking open her skull and letting all the issues pour out like hideous spiders is much more in tune with reality and the way the show tends to deal with it.

AMANDA: I have to say that Don acting a-dude has the power to bring everyone together, and I did enjoy the fact that Don’s desperation is finally reaching the point of open ridicule. Joan gets to have a moment before that silver-haired nicotine baby pops out.

SADY: Maybe her heart grew three sizes. Along with the rest of her chest region. Which we also found out about in the last episode. “Yes, honey, I’m a doctor. My medical question for you about this difficult pregnancy is: Boobs?” Thank God everyone’s life is so horrible on this show.

AMANDA: Look how far we have come, etc.


  1. JfC wrote:

    Eh, the bitch comment was a few months back, and it wasn’t Joan making a judgment on her character as much as a judgment on how Peggy would be perceived. Peggy and Joan’s relationship has always been strained, but new embittered Joan seems to like similarly bitter Peggy. She just seems uncomfortable with Peggy being triumphant or trying to wield power.

    Friday, October 22, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  2. M wrote:

    If I may ask, which characters are the rapists, and when did they rape? Besides Dr. Rapist, of course? I haven’t seen every episode (though I’m “caught up”) and I like to spoil things for myself.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 3:38 am | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @M: Pete and Greg, to my knowledge. Others, like Peggy’s art-director nemesis, Ken, Lee Garner Junior, and… oh, hell, ALL OF THEM have engaged in workplace sexual harassment, but those three (and Roger) stand out for the blatant nature of it.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Kate wrote:

    This: “oppression doesn’t automatically make you a better person”

    I feel like there is this line of ‘oh, you are the Poor HArd Done by character. So you MUST be good!’ And the second a character (or person) shows some negative behaviour, which is not surprising given that they will be, you know, dealing with shit, they are no longer the Good Person. Because the Good Person/Victim has to be Pure, otherwise she was asking for it all along, I can see WHY he hit her, jeez!

    Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  5. MTS wrote:

    Don also had that thing with Bobbie Barrett where he jammed his hand up insider her to force her to get Sid to apologize to the clients at dinner. A lot of people read that scene as hot; I thought it was really disturbing.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Dora wrote:

    Don sexually attacked Bobbie (even if she herself wouldn’t call it that) in order to intimidate her & shut her up when she opposed him on a business issue. SERIOUSLY disturbing, and very reminiscent of what happened to Joan, when her husband decided to rape away her dignity and workplace success.

    The fact that Don & Bobbie’s sex life had a BDSM-y aspect doesn’t make this hot to me, at all. When Don tied Bobbie to the bed, it was in order to tell her she’s a lower being & leave her there helpless.

    (The parallels between Joan & Bobbie are pretty clear when they both tell Peggy to be a woman, i.e. like them, i.e. someone who tries to circumvent oppression with cleverness and sex appeal and a sassy smile. Neither Joan nor Bobbie could admit that they were sexually attacked because that would require a re-examination of their entire world view.)

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  7. Dawn. wrote:

    The show is clear on the fact that she has no job skills, no life skills outside of a really specific environment, and basically no ability to step outside, as of the present moment. But what she has is anger. And she’s “empowering” herself in the only way she knows. Which is screaming and slapping people, so, uh-oh.

    Ditto x10. I love what they’re doing with Betty. I think her “acting out” is entirely understandable. Her negative, sometimes abusive behavior is her only access to feeling powerful.

    Neither Joan nor Bobbie could admit that they were sexually attacked because that would require a re-examination of their entire world view.

    I completely agree, Dora. Especially re: Joan.

    I personally loved the scene between Joan and Peggy during the season finale. I think there’s always been a sort of camaraderie between them; plus they’re my favorite characters.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  8. orlando wrote:

    Joan and Peggy are one of the best examples of this show not oversimplifying the relationships between women. At the start I assumed they would either be made into friends and allies, or enemies. I’ve been delighted with the much more complex neither/both we have seen.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink