(WARNING: SPOILERS AND RANTING AHEAD…also you must have some familiarity with “Mad Men”.)
Matt Weiner hates Betty Draper. And his bile can only be surpassed by that of the critics. Why? Because in a show about the lifestyle of lying, alcoholic, womanizing men in the advertising industry, Betty routinely gets labeled “self-absorbed.” Ah, misogyny…
OH, BUT WAIT. SHE’S GOING TO DIE. SHE’S GOT CANCER. Now, in the wake of last night’s penultimate Mad Men episode “The Milk and Honey Route,” Betty Draper is, finally, according to John Swansberg (whose reviews I usually enjoy and agree with, but not this time), “likable.” BETTY DRAPER IS LIKABLE?! Why? Because women are really cool when they die and just go away. *air thickens with sarcasm*
We’ve been here before, people. I — like many female fans — adoringly sat through five seasons of Breaking Bad (WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU “COULDN’T GET INTO IT”?). A show that I loved. LOVED. A show that blatantly fails the Bechdel Test. For five seasons, I rooted for Walter, Jesse, Hank, Skyler and Marie only to see my quirky flawed (EQUALLY FLAWED) leading ladies face tragic, kind of pathetic endings (from which I only remember that they looked unshowered and mentally ill). Sure, Hank and Walter died. But Skyler and Marie lost their mojo. After all — the show seems to say — THEY LOST THEIR MEN. *air thickens with irony*
I’m not saying that women like Betty Draper don’t exist; women who create a crusty artificial presentation of themselves, criticize their daughters, manipulate their husbands and make passive aggressive comments. I know women like her, and I mostly feel a mixture of confusion, weirdness (if that’s a feeling), and sadness. Yes, I feel sad because I have this perspective on women and what lies beneath anger and eye-liner. I’m not saying fucked up people don’t exist. Hello, human nature! I’m just saying that when it comes to Betty, the writers fail to hold the same standards of ironic distance about her character foibles that Don and Roger and the whole gang of boozy, dashing tailored suit-wearing Grandpas circa late 60s enjoy. In other words, there’s no love for Betty! Betty Draper is Cruella DeVille, while Don Draper gets to be “lost.”
I am, if you can’t tell, a little upset.
I feel cheated. I have sat patiently through seven seasons of charming quips and scandalous interludes. I bought Sterling’s Gold. I have enjoyed the show, so even in my disillusionment, I can’t call it “peaceful hate-watching” (a term I first read in Emily Nussbaum’s piece about The Newsroom). It’s more like adoring fan sexism-overlook. Any woman who likes art and culture and has worked in technology or medicine, or TV (or anything that is profitable, interesting or has caché), has to turn a blind eye to 80% of female characters if she wants to get her binge-watching, TV-coma, get-me-out-of-this-feeling entertainment fix. If I only watched shows and movies, or read books that passed the Bechdel test, I’d still be watching watching Kate & Allie reruns and reading Nancy Drew mysteries.
I’ve hung in there, Matt Weiner. I thought maybe you had something with Joan and Peggy, but I’m starting to think they are just stylized icons of femaleness, another way to pigeonhole women along the lines “Are you a Carrie or a Samantha?” (I’m, clearly, a Peggy.) When Joan gave her feminist speech to Jim Hobart I thought Fonzie mid-air over a shark did far less to threaten my suspension of disbelief. I’ve worked in advertising IN THIS CENTURY and I can’t imagine anyone giving my feminist leanings a passing glance, let alone create the look of fear on Jim Hobart’s face when Joan busted out her Betty Friedan/ACLU references. You really think an agency head was afraid of Joan in 1970?! I’ve never known any woman to accept a terminal cancer diagnosis like it was a UTI, but killing off Betty on Mother’s Day was just the last straw in a series whose ultimate statement is that Mad Men, in the end, was and always has been created by a man.
Like the world Don painted to the Kodak, Jaguar, Lucky Strike suits, the show is a fantasy. We have not reached the point of progression to view the 60’s or even the present with anything resembling clear-headed historical perspective. What about the domestic abuse and violence that was endemic of the 60s? What about violent racism?
I’m sorry, Matt Weiner, but I can’t help but feel that Mad Men played us the way Don Draper did his clients; that is, fool us into believing he had a vision and not just an exciting pitch for an empty promise that, ultimately, just sells the American dream for a profit. Cigarettes, make-up, cars and furs never filled our soulless void. And Mad Men did little to really further our understanding of class, race and sex, except to get us to believe that it’s all going to be OK, in the end. Even death. (Sure, Betty, why not wear the chiffon to your grave?) Were we revisiting the 60’s from the 2000’s? Or were we just sold a whole Vogue/Esquire-ish mystique of clothes, alcohol, cigarettes and style. After all, who will die in the season finale? Don Draper? Betty? Or Banana Republic’s clothing line?
Tell me who kicks the bucket next week. I’m going to bed.