The Rebellion of Little Girls

Kiernan Shipka and Deborah Lacey as Sally and Carla from Mad MenSPOILER WARNING:  This post discusses the latest episode of Mad Men.  Those catching up on DVD are advised to move along.

When I was 5 or 6 and the oldest of my younger sisters was 3 or 4 (the exact year is sort of fuzzy), she and I took a pair of shears into the back yard and hacked each others’ hair off.  Our adventure in hairdressing did not result in an adorable Sally Draper bob but classic (and by classic I mean ugly) 1980′s bowl cuts.  My mother eventually learned to laugh about it, but I recall several hours of pearl-clutching over our decidedly more androgynous (and unattractive) look.

We shall not discuss any of my experiences with the other thing Sally got caught doing last episode, for I am a shy person.  But I do think it’s sort of interesting that certain Mad Men watchers (I’m looking at you, Slate) think that Sally’s moments of rebellion–which thus far this season include refusing to eat Thanksgiving dinner, calling her father when her mother didn’t want her to, accepting the creepy but decidedly chaste advances of Glen Bishop, cutting her own hair, and masturbating–portend something ominous.  Many seem to believe that SOMETHING HORRIBLE is going to happen, and some Slate readers seem to think that this last episode indicates that Sally was abused by her grandfather.  To which I say:  are we, like, watching the same show?

Like Monica at Feministe, I think this is a puzzling reaction.  If anything, it reveals that many of us in the twenty-first century are as paranoid about pre-adolescent (and adolescent, and adult for that matter) female sexuality as people in the 1960′s were.  More importantly, I just don’t think it makes sense story-wise, even if Grandpa Gene did occasionally mistake Betty for his departed wife (which was more a signal of his dementia and a commentary on the place of Betty’s mother in the family and the fact that Betty has become almost exactly like her).  I am a fanatical enough fan  that I have watched all of Season 3 with the commentaries from Matthew Weiner, and the episodes that dealt with Gene and Sally’s relationship and Gene’s eventual death were actually based on Weiner’s own childhood experience,when his own grandfather came to live with his family just prior to his death and Weiner’s grief at losing this person was not acknowledged by the other adults in his life.  I just doubt that the writers would introduce such a dark revelation into what I think is supposed to be a sincerely sweet relationship and a personal homage for the show’s creator.

Moreover, this last episode was about something very different than Sally being screwed up.  This episode was about Sally doing pretty normal 10-year old girl sorts of things and the adults in her life freaking out in totally unreasonable ways, and they are freaking out not because of what Sally’s behavior indicates about her emotional state but because of how Sally’s behavior reflects on them. When she sees that Sally has cut her own hair, Phoebe, Don’s nurse neighbor/babysitter, gets upset (and not without reason) because she thinks she’s going to get fired.  Don, in turn, fires Phoebe because of the “river of shit” he’s going to get from Betty (and again, he’s entirely correct).  Meanwhile, Betty has a conniption every time Sally puts a toe out of line because her behavior disrupts the “I’M DOING FINE EVERYTHING IS FINE WE’RE ALL FINE HERE” dance that she’s doing to prove that her divorce and remarriage were totally justified, though that’s pretty much default mode for Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis anyway.

But there’s also the simple fact that mothers, especially mothers who were socialized in a particular way, tend to see their children–especially their daughters–as direct extensions of themselves, and that sense of continuity includes their bodies.  There is a reason why cutting your own hair as a little girl is such an enormous transgression.  I mean, it’s a BIG DEAL.  I know that boys take crap from their parents for wanting to grow their hair out long, but I think most females have a story about mom freaking out about even pretty normal hair modifications.  It’s the moment when you say, without even meaning to, “Mom, I don’t want to look the way you want me to,” which mom translates as either “I don’t want to look like you” or “I don’t want to look the way you wish you looked.”  Note that the first place Betty goes is to her memory of always wanting long hair and her mother using the threat of cutting it to keep her in line.  Sally’s behavior feels, in some profound way, like a rejection of Betty’s values, values that are deeply interconnected with Betty’s insecurities about appearance and sexuality.  When Slumber Party Mom comes over and says something to the effect of “I don’t know what’s going on in this house,” she’s saying that Sally’s sexual behavior indicates something deviant about her mother’s sexual behavior (and Betty’s sexual behavior at this point consists of sleeping with her husband).  And indeed, this all pays off when Betty’s first meeting with Sally’s therapist (and kids don’t have to be profoundly disturbed to benefit from therapy, especially given what Sally’s been through) becomes a stealth therapy session for Betty as well.

So yeah, Sally’s rebelling in some of the tamest possible ways, and I’m interested in the way this show seems to be exploring that point in a female child’s life when she and her mother discover that they do not share a body, where what’s labeled as “acting out” is the girl taking a bit of ownership of that body, which in turn becomes a sort of rejection of mom.  I’m not saying that’s not effed up, because it is.  Mother/daughter relationships are inevitably mediated by a culture that says that their bodies and the desirability of those bodies are simultaneously taboo and yet all that matters about them.  It’s a problematic dynamic but one that is interesting to explore in this way precisely because it’s so common even in markedly healthier mother/daughter relationships than Sally and Betty’s.

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6 thoughts on “The Rebellion of Little Girls

  1. I agree, and dude, you don’t even have to look to the grandfather for a reason. Betty has treated Sally horribly for years! It’s no surprise to me that she’s rebelling.

  2. I am so glad I’ve found your voice in the sea of anti-Betty sentiment! It is not about if we “like” Betty or not, it is about what her journey reflects on being female, being a daughter, being a woman…in the past AND present. This and your “Why Betty Matters” post from last week are really awesome and insightful. I’m adding you to my weekly blog post fix, and am commenting on other sites (“Tom & Lorenzo” aka “Project Rungay” + Lipp Sister’s “Basket of Kisses”) they all should definitely check you out…no pressure!

    ; )

    ~from your fellow Betty-appreciator in, of all places, Ossining, NY

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I haven’t really been intended to blog about Mad Men on a regular basis, but when a controversy arises, I can’t help but stick my nose in it :-P Given the nature of this season, I expect that’s going to be happening a lot.

      1. You are most welcome! I’ll be checking in to see what your take is on these indeed inevitable controversies, as well as your other interesting topics…

  3. ["This episode was about Sally doing pretty normal 10-year old girl sorts of things and the adults in her life freaking out in totally unreasonable ways, and they are freaking out not because of what Sally’s behavior indicates about her emotional state but because of how Sally’s behavior reflects on them."]

    This is very, very normal among adult parents. And this is something that most adults – especially in the so-called “enlightened 21st century” – would never admit.

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