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Why does Betty Draper have to make wingnuts feel guilty?

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, November 5, 2009 16:36 EDT
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As Benjamin Schwartz no doubt knew would happen when he wrote this screed of feeling superior to the writers of “Mad Men”, conservatives would eat it up. It was pitch perfect for conservative viewers, in that it dismisses the racism and sexism of the era as something from the fever dreams of sanctimonious liberals, and it scapegoats the character of Betty Draper and even the actress who plays her in order to assuage conservative guilt about wanting to return to an era when women were expected to be servile sexbots. But it also praises the show, so that you don’t feel guilty for watching it. Oh, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a social conservative invested in that show. You must flinch every time Betty walks onscreen, looking pained, bored, and miserable. That she herself is a petulant brat doesn’t make up for that, because the show is making the point that oppression isn’t suddenly right because the oppressed aren’t perfect people. And the show implies that certain ugly character traits are the result of oppressive systems, that Betty Draper is a miserable person because she’s been turned into one. How dare the show suggest that bitchy women might be more pleasant if they weren’t treated like second class citizens? And so Schwartz gave you an out: Betty’s character makes you uncomfortable because it’s not realistic, and January Jones is a bad actress, and women in the 50s were never bored because being someone’s sex-and-domestic appliance is what every woman really wants! It’s not you, it’s January Jones and the evils of feminism.

Which is why I was so amused to see Rod Dreher swallow the bait so eagerly. (Via.)

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of “Mad Men,” but I’ve not enjoyed this season. I don’t care for Betty Draper, and I think the more the serial drama spends time in Westchester, versus the Manhattan office, the draggier it gets. A few weeks back, I told my wife that if we hadn’t bought a season pass for all the episodes on iTunes, which is how we have to watch it in our house (we don’t get AMC on basic cable), I probably would have drifted away from it.

Color me unsurprised. Dreher’s main thrust as a conservative is to be a religious conservative, i.e. invested in the idea of shoving women into the kitchen while being open to the idea that teaching women to read was a mistake. So I’ll bet that he dislikes watching Betty onscreen. She’s what conservatives fantasize about—a woman that’s completely and uncomplainingly absorbed the idea that her job is to live for her husband, to obey his every wish, to be sexually available and ready with a drink and dinner when you get home, no matter what hour it is—and here the writers are asking you to care about her feelings. That’s beside the point! The whole point of having women in that role is so that you don’t have to care or worry about how they’re doing. The whole point of constructing that role for women is so they chirpily make like they love their lot in life, so you the man can feel satisfied about your magnanimity while your slippers are being fetched for you. Don and Betty’s marriage is exactly what the Rod Dreher’s of the world want for all of us, including the way that Don allows Betty to have control over little things so he can feel like they have some kind of partnership. (She gets to decorate! And, as we learn, she really wishes that responsibilities at home were a shared thing.) How dare the show suggest that this arrangement makes people unhappy, and women especially so?

And really, Schwartz’s contempt for the character and his scapegoating of the actress—and especially the applause he got from social conservatives for it—shows the underlying contempt for women in the paternalistic platitudes about how women were happier when being a housewife was mandatory. Dreher’s being upfront about it. Asking us to spend time on the feelings and thoughts and fantasies of Betty Draper is boring, because the whole point of wives is that they’re in the background, making it possible for the real actors—mostly men—to make things happen.

The conservative reaction to the Draper marriage shows exactly how effective that storyline is in making its point. A lot of liberals, I’ve found, are bored with Betty for another reason entirely. They can’t understand why she doesn’t just pick up and leave already, if she’s so unhappy. We’re on the other side of it—so feminist that it’s hard to wrap our minds around the psychology of someone who isn’t. But conservatives flip the fuck out, get defensive and start scapegoating January Jones, going so far as to argue that her dull affect is evidence that she can’t act, when in fact it’s evidence that the actress is being fearless in her portrayal of someone whose entire personality has been flattened out by boredom. That isn’t easy for an actress, you know. Most actresses have an urge to be sparkling and charming in every role they play, even those that don’t call for it. It’s because Hollywood is run by men, and you can get a lot farther being eye-catching and charming and making men think that they want to be around you. That Jones, who is very beautiful, is willing to be off-putting onscreen is brave. That she spends a lot of time onscreen making you wish she was far away is the fucking point. She’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.

The rest of Dreher’s post is about how “Mad Men” is meanie mean stuff for making him feel like the 50s weren’t so great after all. He gets so worked up about how everything would have been better without equality movements, that he actually writes an apology for segregation:

One more thing: You know what I would like to see? A period drama like “Mad Men” set in a black community around the same time period — a middle-class black neighborhood in Washington, DC, say, in the final years of segregation, as the civil rights movement gained steam. Once when I lived in DC I took a cab ride with an older black gentleman driver. We passed by a desolate stretch of Northeast, and he talked about how when he was a young man, all this was thriving. He said to me that believe it or not, life was pretty good in some respects under segregation. That old man was not wishing for the return of segregation. But he was acknowledging the bitter truth that all the gains in freedom his community made in the Sixties also occasioned some fairly catastrophic losses.

I don’t doubt that happened, but Dreher’s missing the point. Greater freedom was not the cause of economic problems, as he implies. It was a lot of things, but part of it included the conservative backlash that resulted in economic policies that effectively bankrupted working class people who had seen their fortunes rise under liberal policies. That said, I think Dreher is going to like “Mad Men” even less going forward, since the show is fixing to be an examination of the mentality not of the people that worked so hard for change in the 60s, but of the people who freaked out at change and retaliated by voting in Nixon and then Reagan, and who are now the people screeching about health care reform while waving Confederate flags.

Personally, I love how the show delves into the domestic sphere. Despite the domestic settings that are common on most TV shows, there’s very little examination of the complexity of domestic life and politics. It’s usually boiled down to cheap jokes about the war between the sexes, or ignored completely. “Mad Men” seems novel in many ways just for showing that domestic life is more important to Men of the World than is usually polite to let on.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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