Category Archives: Mad Men

Don Draper: Sexual Assault Victim?

Mad Men-The Crash(SPOILER WARNING: the events of Mad Men up to the present will be discussed)

A few weeks ago, when the Mad Men episode “The Crash” aired, commentators reacted with varying degrees of bewilderment and exhaustion. The exhaustion stemmed primarily from the episode’s focus on what Tom and Lorenzo aptly call “Don Draper and his Big Bag of Fucking Bullshit”:

Show of hands: who found it shocking and revelatory that Don got his cherry popped by a blonde prostitute? Or that his stepmother abused him? There is nothing new to be found here and we found ourselves getting quite annoyed by the heavy-handedness of it all.

No, nothing about Don’s arc over the course of this season has been particularly new or subtle, but I’m a little curious as to why I haven’t heard or read anyone talking about that scene in which young Dick Whitman loses his virginity as sexual assault or abuse. After all, this was a young (14 year old?) kid having sex with a much older woman, a woman who had promised to take care of him. If you rewatch that scene, note how he pulls the covers over himself, says “stop it” and “no” before shutting his eyes with a pained look on his face as she ignores his refusals. The scene is shot with tight close-ups on his face, similar to the way in which Joan’s rape scene was shot. It’s really hard not to view this scene as a sexual trauma.

Perhaps people have simply overlooked that fact to talk about the other ways in which that plot-line was problematic, but it’s hard not to jump to the obvious conclusion that we as a culture still don’t see males–even young boys–as likely victims of sexual assault or abuse. The scene in which the prostitute reveals what happened and Dick is subsequently beaten by his step-mother contains some interesting gender connotations. “I popped that kid’s cherry,” she tells Uncle Mack. On the one hand, the use of that colloquialism–based on the penetration of the hymen–feminizes Dick while also suggesting that it was something that needed to happen. A boy’s virginity is less sacred than a girl’s, something that demands to be lost even as a girl’s demands to be preserved. Males are supposed to be sexually assertive. Note that the prostitute takes his obvious arousal as an overt invitation to sex while also reveling in the power she has to arouse him.

Likewise, Dick’s punishment at the hands of his stepmother can be read in two ways. On the one hand, she’s beating him for becoming precisely what his father was and at the same time, she is punishing him as so many female sexual assault victims are punished: for failing to prevent a horrible thing from happening to him.

All of this would seem like heavy-handed manipulation on Matt Weiner’s part, a ploy to get us to feel sorry for a character who has become progressively less likable over the years, if I didn’t think he had a broader point. On one level, there is the much-discussed implications of this scene for Don’s relationships with women. I think it’s no accident that this revelation comes in the context of his and Sylvia’s breakup after their weird little sex game in the hotel. Don desperately tries to assert his control–in a very creepy way–but ultimately, it’s Sylvia who has the power to end it when she chooses. And truthfully, that’s been the case in every relationship Don has had with a woman over the years. From Rachel Menken to Betty to Peggy to (through her decision to go back to acting) Megan, every woman he has screwed over and tried to keep under his sway has ultimately walked out the door, has revealed his illusion of control to be as ephemeral as it actually is. I find it significant that almost immediately on the heels of “The Crash,” we got an episode in which a radiant Betty comes back into Don’s life to prove that she can have him whenever she wants him and cast him aside without so much as a thought.

And while a lot of this stuff is specific to Don’s brokenness, I think it’s representative of the way many white men paradoxically felt and continue to feel in a world where women and minorities are gradually asserting their rights: institutionally and as a class, they have all the power, but on a personal level, as individuals, they feel powerless.

Now again, that misogynists are driven by deep insecurity is hardly news. Don Draper: child rape victim doesn’t make Don Draper: adult asshole any less responsible for what he does to the people around him. So if Matthew Weiner is adding anything to this Psych 101 conversation, it’s perhaps the extremity to which this sense of impotence goes. Back in Season 3, we had another similarly eye-roll inducing moment when it was revealed that Dick was named for the promise his mother never lived to see fulfilled (that she would cut Daddy Whitman’s dick off if he got her into trouble). On one level of reading, Don/Dick was named for the male member and its power to create (a child) and destroy (the life of its mother). But he is also named for it’s absence, for the very act of castration.

So, what Weiner seems to be inviting us to see in Don’s ever recursive journey back to these primal moments of rejection and trauma is that male power is both a presence and an absence, a thing that is present and can effect the world around it but is also somehow absent or under threat of being violently taken away. To borrow a line from everyone’s favorite eunuch, “Power is an illusion,” and white male middle class heterosexual power at mid-century is based on the illusion that it is inevitable, historically and biologically, and therefore invulnerable, while the events of 1968 proclaim in every possible way just how much it is not.

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.

Why Betty Draper Matters

Betty Draper and Henry Francis from the AMC Show Mad Men

SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses details from the current season of Mad Men. Those catching up on DVD may want to move along.

Nominally, this is a blog about writing, pedagogy, and the whole academical experience, except for the days when I feel like writing about Mad Men.  Today is one of those days.

Folks, I must confess to something horrible, something that I know separates me from the majority of Mad Men fans out there:  I am enthralled by Betty Draper.  I know.  I know.  Everywhere I go, the Betty hate thrives.  Feminists hate the character because she’s so pitiful and unsympathetic.  Everyone else hates her because she’s just awful.  She’s childish, self-centered, and an utterly wretched parent who’s either enlisting her daughter to help bolster her shattered image or treating said daughter like her little sister, saying crap like “wait til your father hears MY side of the story” as she wrestles her away from the phone.  Betty is easily the most uncomfortable character to watch, but when the A.V. Club declared Betty a potential “showblocker,” a character “so grating—sometimes intentionally so—that even fans of the show heave a heavy sigh when they appear onscreen,” I made a “Huh?” face.  While they qualify Betty’s nomination for this list by saying that the newly divorced and remarried character simply “has all of the makings of a classic showblocker,” the implicit argument is that, untethered to Don, Betty is no longer essential.

That argument represents a particular school of Mad Men fandom that thinks this show is about the workplace (or really just wishes it were).  This school of criticism went to the refrigerator for a beer every time we found ourselves back in Ossining last season for more Betty and Don marital angst while eagerly awaiting further antics from Roger Sterling and views of Joan Holloway Harris as she departed a room.  This is also the school of criticism that groaned when the latter got married (to a reprehensible prick albeit) because we now have to deal with the fallout of Joan’s problematic (but really not all that atypical) home-life and are longer allowed to simply enjoy her as the office sexpot.  This is a school of criticism that seems to think that domestic life in the 1960’s is not as worth documenting as work life in the 1960’s, and I feel like I’m stating the forehead-smackingly obvious when I say there’s something pretty sexist about that.  From whence comes all the whinging that Betty got such substantial character arcs last season if it isn’t from a place that really sort of thinks that people like her do not deserve their own storylines?

Suburban housewives are an essential part of the story of the 1960’s.  Don’s pathetic life as a divorced man confirms how essential the pretense of a perfect home life with a princess of a homemaker was to the Don Draper ethos.   So far, S4 has given a glorious middle finger to all of the fanboys who thought that divorce would liberate Don, would allow him to become the magnetic Sex God that he was always supposed to be rather than the sad-sack self-parody he has become.  But trust me, Betty and the children and Ossining weren’t restraining Don’s mojo.  They enabled it.  Don telegraphed it multiple times in his moments of honesty with Anna:  having the adoration and support of a woman like Betty validated Don to his co-workers, his clients, his potential sexual partners (with the single possible exception of Rachel Menken), and himself.  Betty made Don more attractive in every possible way.  Think about how characters from Roger Sterling to Jimmy Barrett to that guy from McCann to Conrad Hilton suddenly saw Don differently once they saw Betty.  We even got a hint of how a wife could certify her husband’s inherent desirability when the wife of the Chief of Surgery told Joan “knowing that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel better about his future.”

And what Betty giveth, Betty taketh away.  A big part of me thinks that people started hating Betty when the writers had her stop being merely ornamental in S2, when she stopped merely representing the belittled and under-appreciated mid-century housewife and started dismantling the Don Draper auto-mythology.  Betty is the one who points out that for all his charm and charisma, Don is a horribly selfish lover.  For all his fleeting moments of passable parenting, his homelife was always a little bit dispensable to him.  For all his tender confessions to Anna Draper, he had never even attempted to atone for the myriad wrongs he has committed in his life:  against her, against the real Don Draper (whose memory he wiped away), against his brother, against his co-workers, and against his family.

Through Betty’s perspective we see things we really don’t want to see about characters we’ve come to love, including abuse.  So many of the Betty-haters point to child abuse as the reason for their distaste.  These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting.  These are the same people who hate Greg Harris for raping Joan but qualify what Pete did to that German au pair last season and deliver tired victim-blaming excuses for rapes that happen in the real world.  Where is your outrage when it’s happening to a character or even a real live human being that we haven’t been conditioned to empathize with through the power of professional storytelling?  I’m just saying.

I once heard the two sides of the Betty controversy described as one in which those who see Betty as a Product of Her Circumstances do battle with those who just think she’s a terrible person.  I actually don’t think those two notions are mutually exclusive.  Yes, the writers have consistently shown that Betty is a victim of sexism, but that victim status has never, in my mind, ruled out agency.  She is a fully realized character capable of making her own terrible choices.  Yes, those choices are shaped and limited by sexism, but the writers have shown her to be capable of moving within that context to try to carve out a life for herself, even if she doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

So far, this season has continued to develop the central theme of the series:  that the measures we take to re-invent ourselves will ultimately prove inadequate as long as they are used to conceal some fundamental character flaw, some deeper sadness that we would rather not face.  Even when we make drastic changes in our lives and try to free ourselves, our Lee Garner Jr.’s can rear their heads and become even more oppressive than they were before (there is so much significance in the fact that Lucky Strike is SCDP’s bread and butter as well as the cancer that threatens to destroy it).  While that theme is most evident in Don’s story, we also see it in Joan, who became conscious of the disposable quality of beautiful women when she saw The Apartment in S1 and when Marilyn died in S2.  We saw it in Peggy last night, who despite her joyous romp through the 60’s counter-culture with hunky writers and wise-cracking lesbians, was overwhelmed by how much Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy upset her (best Peggy episode ever, by the way).  And of course, Pete was reminded of the things he is giving up in order to become the man he always thought he wanted to be.  And judging by the previews for next week, we’re going to see more of that with Betty, who has married someone who seems to be simultaneously more stable and less authentic (I mean, c’mon, he’s a professional political operative) than Don, and that story is entirely in keeping with what Matthew Weiner and the rest of the show creators seem to be doing.

I also think it’s just flat out brilliant to explore the concept of divorce in this way.  Divorce, in film and television, is so often treated as either tragedy or liberation, when for Don and Betty it  is sort of both and neither at the same time.  While divorce was a progressive concept in the 1960’s, leaving a marriage isn’t necessarily a progressive act.  Both characters have, if anything, adopted grotesque versions of the lives they led before, Don in his pitiful man-cave that’s so ridiculously manly that he can quip “I think Norman Mailer shot a dear over there,” Betty having embraced her status as an ornament even more tightly than before (and as the arm candy of an even older man).  At the end of S3, they did the most modern thing two people could have done in that context and wound up even more old-fashioned than they were in the first place.  That’s a story that hasn’t really been told before, and I’m excited about going for the ride.