Please note: spoilers abound!
Let’s talk about Betty, our pre-Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan (Google it, kiddos).
Hot Stud Potential-but-Thwarted Young Lover: “You’re so profoundly sad.”
Betty: “You’re wrong….I’m grateful.”
I know we are supposed to have trouble watching her, but she makes me feel so nervous I practically get a stomach cramp every time she comes on screen. I’ve decided there are three reasons for this:
- I have a personal issue where I have trouble respecting women who truly want, more than anything, the wife-&-mother life (and let’s be clear: feminism or no, this is what Betty wants with her entire heart, no matter how empty she knows it to be. She might want to be a part-time model as well, but I see that as a way to reaffirm her place in the society of perfect housewives: being a model means you have won the beauty battle.).
- I never have much sympathy for characters stuck in their time periods. The story of women during her time period is a much-told one, and an important one, but I still want her to transcend her situation, you know?
- Related: January Jones seems to always be overacting by just a fraction—which might be perfect for the character since she seems always to be acting, badly, in the role of a happy white heterosexual housewife. (Her much vaunted “you look just like Grace Kelly” looks aren’t quite my style, either, sorry!)
- And, primarily, her character breaks my heart because she is just the most devastating character maybe ever to be portrayed on television since the beginning of time.
So it guess it makes sense that she makes me feel so nervous and sad.
It seems that she is growing up throughout the show, but her coming into adulthood is not a victory exactly. She is a sweet, vapid person who wants a traditional life and is realizing that the hard world she lives in will not give that to her. Thus, she slowly learns to play the rules of the game.
Betty and Don are our two primary protagonists (though I’d argue forcefully that Peggy—Oh, I’m biting my lip with anticipation until I can start rambling about my deep, deep love for Peggy! On, PEGGY!—is the true hero of the show), and as such the embody my two theses about the show: Don is our Chief Executive Nihilist, and Betty is our Chief Heart, and needs feminism more than anyone else. Betty has feelings; Don has actions.
They are the stereotypical 1950s (I should say here that when I say 1950s I mean the period roughly from 1950-1963, because I mark the end of the 1950s with when the Beatles came to the US. Seasons One and Two of Mad Men take place in 1960-1962, I believe) couple to a dizzying degree: the woman has emotions, children, and dresses, and the man makes money, drinks liquor, cheats on his wife, and is unable to feel a thing. Again, it would be passé and cliché if it wasn’t portrayed with such a heartbreaking and unsparing attention to what, exactly, this means.
It would also be unbearable if the show were only about them. Because we have a half-dozen or so other well-developed characters, their somewhat trite characters don’t get stale.
“She’s so much woman”
First, let’s just look at her ass, OK?
As I said, I’m not the most avid TV watcher, but I know of no other zaftig woman who is an overt sex symbol other than Joan. Am I right?
Let us be clear: Joan’s ass is not here to titillate us. It is here to remind us of several things:
- WTF with women being so skinny on TV these days and how fucking gorgeous is Christina Hendricks?
- Joan’s entire purpose in life is to use her sex appeal to get what she needs in order to survive.
- How awesome are Joan’s clothes, I mean, really?
Joan is the who understands, with absolute, brilliant certainly, the world she lives in, and she has made the decision to win at the horrid game of life without changing any of the rules.
Joan can never question the misogynist nature of her universe (oh, Mad Men writers! Prove me wrong!), she can only strive to rise to the highest paid position any woman in a woman-hating society can achieve: Queen of Whores. She is bought and kept by every man in the office, sometimes quite literally, and she is absolutely aware of this. She very ably wrings every bit of power she can out of this explosively powerful dynamic. There is nothing Joan won’t do to maintain her place on the hierarchy, and can you blame her?
(On the other hand, because of her actual and perceived intense sex appeal and sexual history, she suffers from the hardship of being a girl with a “history,” ultimately culminating in her fiancé raping her in Don’s office in order to reclaim power over her she felt was taken away she dared to climb on top of him during sex [“Where’d you learn that from?”].)
Joan is the exception that proves my thesis: through her absolute adherence to the nihilistic/fascistic (the two would seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I’d like to throw out the idea that in Mad Men they are almost the same thing—do you feel me? There’s a sort of fascistic adherence to nihilistic meaningless.) system in which she finds herself, she is queen.
She is, at root, a fucking amazing portrayal of women’s false choices in the early 1960s.
Her heart—well, I have no idea.
Well, I have one idea. We see exactly one flash of her heart:
“I’ve never had your job,” Joan tells Peggy when she comes to her for advice about her new responsibilities as a junior copywriter. “I’ve never wanted it. You’re in their country. Learn to speak the language.” This is what she wants us to believe: that she has no knowledge of or interest in the world of men’s work.
But when she spies a job she does want and is good at outside of her office management duties—albeit perhaps the most girlie office job imaginable: reading television scripts to check for marketing opportunities and clashes—and it is taken from her and given to a man, she feels the sting. Her face clouds over for just a second, and that is enough to break our hearts.
When relations end with her longtime office lover, the silver fox Roger Sterling, he moves to the next woman in line, the aptly named and equally (though completely differently) sexy receptionist Jane. Jane/Joan, what’s the difference, in the end? Roger purports to have fallen in love with Jane (who is, of course, at least 20 years his junior), but we know that it is Joan he truly fell in love with, and he will be trying his entire life to transfer his feelings to Jane.
I sort of think of Joan as our canary in the coal mine, the one who shows us just exactly how fucked up the Mad Men universe is. The glee that she gets in Season 2, Episode 10 out of telling Kinsey, her former paramour (as she puts it when showing Peggy around the office for the first time in Season 1, Episode 1: “Hopefully if you follow my lead, you can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made here.” [Kinsey walks by and leers “Hello Joan.”]. “Like that one.”) that he can’t go on a coveted trip to LA after she has been wounded by the knowledge that he has taken up with a new woman is shocking: When the only thing that makes you feel better is petty sniping and backstabbing, what a horrid world you are in.
Similarly, when her roommate nakedly tells her that she is in love with her, she literally pretends not to hear, and takes her out to pick up older men she forcefully brings back to their apartment. Le sigh.
Joan breaks my heart much harder than Betty, for sure, because Joan is the smartest bitch on the whole show (I’d argue that Peggy is more clever, but not smarter). Betty simpers her way through her days, crumpling and failing and trying to get her hands to work, while Joan gets up every morning, puts on her industrial, backbreaking undergarments (the scene [Season Two, Episode Eight] in which she rubs her shoulders, deeply creased with bra strap lines, almost moves me to tears*) continually steels herself for another day in the piranha cage. She’s up for it, always. No matter what the consequences. I want to kidnap her and make her live with me on a desert island where we read Shulamith Firestone and talk about how to tie a scarf in the absolute most jaunty fashion.
*And the parallel of that scene in Season Two, Episode Six “Maidenform,” where the perfectly anachronistic The Decemberists’ “The Infanta” plays while Betty, Joan, and Peggy get dressed, is probably my favorite in the entire series. The tenderness the show lavishes on them—a tenderness they never show themselves, with the possible exception of Peggy in later episodes—as it unflinchingly depicts the layers of grooming necessary for women at the time just kills me. There is so much more to say about that episode, actually, but my bottle of wine is almost done and I’m losing steam, so why don’t you talk about it in the comments?