Tag Archives: Sexism

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.

Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.

On Women’s Colleges

I was particularly impressed by this Broadsheet post on women’s colleges. As a graduate of a women’s college that ultimately went co-ed in the years since graduation (a decision I have mixed feelings about), I identify with the dilemmas that Eby highlights. On the one hand, women’s colleges seem like an artifact of a time when women were unable to attend mainstream schools. On the other hand, so much of the criticism of them takes on overtly misogynist overtones, as Eby points out. Jerry Falwell infamously called the women who attended my college (while I was there no less) the “whores on the hill.”

Furthermore, arguments for their obsolescence tend to rest on the assumption that feminism has essentially accomplished its task, that women don’t face any obstacles in attaining a college education anymore. And while women appear to be on equal (possibly even stronger) footing with men in terms of enrollment numbers, it isn’t clear that all of the barriers have been beaten down. Women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business and government and continue to make less money than men during their lifetimes. Female students, even at the most elementary levels of education, still do not speak up in class and are not called upon to do so as often as their male peers. At some elite universities, the top student leadership positions continue to be dominated by men. Women attending co-educational universities also face an unacceptably high risk of being raped, physically assaulted, or harassed and have to contend with college administrators who fail miserably at addressing those issues. While removing all women from co-educational environments probably is not a tenable solution to these problems, it does suggest that there are still reasons why a female student may prefer to opt for an all female environment before entering the work force, and she doesn’t necessarily have to be a wallflower in order to do so.

My own reasons for choosing a women’s college had to do with the viciously misogynistic educational culture that I grew up in. In many ways, it was just garden variety sexism: slut shaming, sexual harassment in the school hallways that was dismissed by the administration and parents under the logic of “boys will be boys,” male students elevated to leadership positions more frequently than females, practices of policing female dress and behavior in ways that were frequently humiliating and shaming, an intensely competitive academic environment in which female voices were often stifled and feminist viewpoints usually ridiculed and angrily shut down, girls who got kicked out of school for getting pregnant while their partners got to stay. Then when you add the hyper-conservative Christian nature of that environment to the picture, you get systematic misogyny sacralized by spiritual rhetoric. The moment when I finally said “Fuck this” came senior year, when a male student who regularly made me (and other female students) feel unsafe walking down the hallway experienced a dramatic conversion and was instantaneously elevated to spiritual leadership in our class. While his spiritual transformation may have been genuine, for me, it wasn’t enough to erase three years of routine disrespect and fear.

In short, I was through with that shit. It was a revelation to be able to spend four years in a kind of feminist oasis (in my experience, women’s colleges, thanks to their origins, tend to be fiercely feminist). I still interacted with men on a regular basis, and even met the man I eventually married while I was there, but it was refreshing to be able to build solid friendships with other women as women rather than as rivals, which all girls inevitably were at my high school. As one of those nerdy girls who claimed all throughout high school that I got along better with boys than with girls, I actually needed to be taught that all women were not, in fact, terrible, that there was no reason to hate other women just because my high school (also middle school and elementary school too, if I’m being completely honest) experience made me hate being one myself. In other words, my own misogynistic tendencies needed to be rehabilitated as well.

This was an environment in which speaking out, both in class and in Student Government meetings (I was eventually elected Treasurer and then President of SG), became habit, something that I took straight into a co-ed graduate program and mixed work environments. In addition to making me more confident around men, I firmly believe that my women’s college experience actually gave me a better, more compassionate view of the male gender. Being able to be selective with the men that I associated with (and finally meeting some feminist men) taught me that I could actually feel safe around them, that I could actually work and socialize with them without feeling awkward or threatened.

So, my defense of women’s colleges is, essentially, that I want other women to be able to have the same experience. In an age of anti-feminist backlash and still-rampant sexism, it is perfectly reasonable to want to spend some time in a kind of feminist enclave. And in my experience (which may not be everyone’s), doing so can make us more effective citizens in the long run, better able to happily co-exist with both our male and female peers.

Update: I just want to be clear on the fact that I don’t think women’s colleges are for everyone or that they are without problems. I do think that this is a matter of choice. There’s another pretty good discussion of this going on at Jezebel.

Update 2: Tevarre at the Fugitivus forums was kind enough to point out this post at Historiann from last year.

The Politics of Book Selection

For the past two years, I have served on the selection committee for the book that all first years in our introductory writing program read.  The book is always on some sort of broad public controversy that informs the writing assignments and discussion that happens in class.  The graduate student committee puts together a short list from which the department powers that be select a winner.  I am not going to disclose the name of the book that got picked this year, because if people one day find this blog, I can only imagine the comments saying “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE THAT BOOK THAT BOOKS IS AWESOME YOU ARE TERRIBLE,” to which I can only respond: I know.  It is a good book and I have nothing against it or its talented author.  It’s just that given the history of books selected over the past 5-6 years, this particular selection turned what was possibly a coincidence into a trend.

The book that was picked is on environmentalism.  That’s great.  I love the environment.  I’m all for sustainable living and alternative energies and all that.  It was written by a straight white dude and focuses on his white dudely experiences with the aforementioned.  Fine.  That’s just fine.  I have no issues with white dudes.  Some of my best fathers and uncles and grandfathers are white dudes.  It’s just that, well, last year, the book—which was on sustainable agriculture and the locavore movement—was also by a white dude and centered on his white dudely perspective, as was the book before it.  In the past six years, all of the books picked for this program have been written by straight cis-gendered men, and only once–when the author was bi-racial white/Latino–was the author not whitey whitey white white.  That seems like a problem to me, especially in a program that seems to strive for inclusion, that put Zitkala-Sa (a Native American woman) and Gloria freaking Anzaldúa on our Ph.D. qualifying exam.

And it’s not that books by women and non-white and non-heterosexual cis-gendered people haven’t been nominated before.  They have.  I’ve even nominated them myself.  A select few have made the final short list, but for whatever reason, they don’t get picked.  I have a theory about why this keeps happening, and it is not that my department is run by smelly old white dudes (the chair is a dude, but his hygiene seems fine, also young, and the co-chair is a lady).  I think it’s just risk averseness.  These texts keep getting picked because they are “safe.”  We live in a world in which the voices and perspectives of non-white/straight/cis/male people just seem, well, inherently more “political” and therefore more likely to piss off the conservative state legislature, students, parents, and confirm that our school and department are, in fact, the stuff of David Horowitz’s fevered nightmares.

The thing is that the controversies that have come out of these books have tended to be, well, boring.  Like I said, I think sustainable living and ethical food production are very, very important topics, worthy of discussion, but from the perspective of instructors, it was difficult to sustain a semester-long discussion about them.  Students just did not stay engaged in the way we would have hoped, and I think that’s understandable.  It also doesn’t help that many of the recent controversies suggested by the selected books tend to be fairly typical lefty issues, issues that graduate students and professors in English may feel passionate about, but feel simultaneously alien and overplayed to eighteen year olds.  Furthermore, for students who aren’t already inclined to be sympathetic to their positions, these books (which were not without problems) must have felt easy to dismiss.

The first year I taught in this program, we used Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway (I feel comfortable mentioning it by name since I’m about to give a glowing review), and it was fantastic.  Most of my students had an opinion about immigration, and because this university is in a border state, many of our students had first-hand experiences that they were able to bring to the table.  It was awesome.  Minds were changed.  Simplistic, entrenched viewpoints were reshaped to become either more principled or radically different.  Fantastic discussions occurred.  Beautiful papers were written.  Urrea’s book, if you haven’t read it, doesn’t present a standard left or right viewpoint on the issue but praises the Border Patrol while lamenting the human rights issues that plague the border.  But from what I have heard from graduate students who were on the committee that sent up that book, the department powers that be got really sweaty about it.  The person who nominated it had to fight for it, and I’m sincerely glad that she did.  Urrea’s book isn’t perfect either.  There is a lot of gender fail in there for one thing, but in terms of introducing a compelling, relevant controversy and a well-written, engaging argument that did not center the experiences of white men who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, it was an unqualified success.

So, I’d really like to see more of that and less of what we’ve gotten the past three years and the years before Urrea, but as a member of the selection committee I’m sort of sitting in a big glass house here.  When it’s come time to vote on the short list both years I’ve been on this committee, I too have been persuaded by the idea that X book on sexual issues affecting teens and twenty-somethings (what could be more relevant than that?) will be too awkward in the classroom and potentially get us into trouble, or Y book by a Muslim woman will be too incendiary, even though it calls for mutual understanding between the cultures by speaking directly to young people and is more critical of Iran than of the U.S.  There is always a reason not to champion books like that, especially if you’re already sort of inclined to find one.  It’s always possible to imagine nightmare scenarios in the classroom, and in an age in which non-tenured instructors have become increasingly vulnerable to political backlash, there are reasons to want to protect ourselves.

But pandering is dumb, and it consistently feels like we are designing our curriculum around the most irrational, reactionary student we can possibly imagine, instead of considering that the vast majority of them really, really will be able to handle this and stand to benefit from the kind of lively debate a rhetoric and composition class is supposed to encourage.  In the end it’s insulting to young people and to people who might hold different views than those held by graduate students and professors in English to think won’t be able to cope, though I do get why we think this.  And we certainly shouldn’t be returning to the “safe” white straight cis-dude well as a default response to our fear of controversy.  It’s deploying casual racism and sexism as an antidote to potentially overt racism and sexism, and that’s messed up.

We (I) need to do a better job of fighting for the texts we want to teach.