Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sad Clown

Betty, post-meltdown

I was watching a rerun of Mad Men Season 2 on AMC last night when I was reminded -- as if I needed reminding -- why I think it's the best drama on TV, period. It so beautifully captures a time period in our nation where we were hanging in a balance; WWII had ended, the Vietnam War hadn't yet happened, the Kennedys were in power and you knew you were living the American dream if you owned a powder-blue boat of a Cadillac replete with fins.

As we all know now in hindsight, this world was not set up around a pillar of equality. Women had their place, and that was generally in two locales. If you were married, you played house, raising the children, cooking, cleaning, running errands, and looking pretty and proper as arm candy at your husband's work functions. All other women worked "out there" in the real world, which tended to elicit sympathy and is another post to come.

Anyways, the episode last night (called a "A Night to Remember") is one of my favorites and includes a scene in which Betty Draper finally confronts the fact that she and her husband (Don Draper) are on unequal footing. Not surprisingly, she feels vulnerable and embarrassed. Embarrassed because what finally spurs this flitting thought to take a seat front and center in her consciousness is that she suspects Don of cheating on her, and not only that, she feels like everyone must know except her -- as if this elusive world of men that Don is a member of is all in on it. And she's right -- everyone knows...Betty was just the last to find out.

A little background: Before the confrontation, Don and Betty have a dinner party for Don's coworkers, which Betty has painstakingly spent days preparing for. In her polka-dot "clown" dress, Betty offers Heineken to the gentlemen, which elicits lighthearted laughter because (unbeknownst to her) Don has been working on a Heineken ad campaign in the office. The embarrassment from the dinner party carries over to Betty's confrontation and climaxes with her telling him that he knows her so well and she knows nothing.

I can't help but wonder how many of our grandmothers had similar conversations at some point early in their marriages, during the 1940s, 50s and early 60s. After all, men were heads of the house and women came second, including in any decision-making that involved the family or finances. Because men were characteristically seen as "providers" for the family, I think it was subconsciously accepted that they could do as they pleased because they brought home the bacon and held the purse strings. This sort of financial power that men held gave them a sense that they afforded their philandering lifestyle and crippled women like Betty into the submissive Stepford wife she portrayed all through Season 1.

To TV watchers, not only does Betty know nothing about where Don is every day, or what kind of affairs he carries on with, she also literally knows, well, nothing -- especially about the family's finances. If Don were to leave for good, Betty would have no other option than moving back in with her parents (her two children in tow), and it's this sort of purgatory that kept so many women in the 1950s and early '60s stuck in dead-end marriages. Not only was there a financial incentive to stay with your husband, but also divorce was not a term thrown around lightly. (A divorced, single mother that lived down the street from the Drapers in Season 1, for example, was looked at as a pariah in the community.) To be a female divorcee translated to being a failed woman.

Again, this Mad Men story line resonates because similar scenarios have happened to many of our grandmothers -- and maybe even our mothers. I'm not some raving feminist, but I can't help but be grateful that as women we now have the right to choose what we want our lives to be and we all have the freedom to be in charge of our finances, stigma-free. I love being married (and I admit, I do love Don Draper, the cad), but it's refreshing to know that nowadays we don't have to get married to feel financially secure, or fully depend on a man (and a cheating one, at that!) to make the right financial decisions for us because we have no other option.

For the entire day after the confrontation, Betty pads around the Draper house in her disheveled party dress from the night before, makeup in disarray, and rifles through Don's suits and desk, trying to find any evidence of his cheating ways. The image that struck me most in this scene was when Betty sat in Don's desk chair in his home office, trying in vain to open his locked desk drawers that undoubtedly carried the family's files on everything from finances to health insurance. These were drawers Betty, as a wife and woman, was not allowed in.

Betty looked so out of character sitting in Don's chair, as if she had usurped -- for a brief moment, at least -- his head-of-house throne. Luckily for us, though, head of house is a character we can all play now.

3 comments:

Bonjour Madame said...

I take an active roll in money management around our household. I would probably feel vulnerable if I didn't know what was going on.

TeacHer said...

Great post! Not only because you raise great points about women and money but also because Madmen is the. best. show. ever!

It's funny because my mom and I were talking about something similar over Easter break. We agreed that the transition that women made in society was probably hardest on my grandmother's (her mother's) generation, because all of a sudden in the 1970s, when they were already were married and middle-aged, they were confronted with the notion that everything they believed and had been taught was wrong. And worse, they were watching their daughters go on to do things that they never could have imagined, in a social environment that was totally different. It must have been really, really hard, and caused a lot of bitterness and regret.

My bf's parents are about 10 years older than my parents, and it's amazing what a difference there is between their marriage and my parents' marriage. My parents are so much more equal; his parents seem so old-fashioned in the way that his mom always defers to his dad, never even teasing him or standing up for herself. It's so weird for me to see.

What's more funny is that if my bf and I were to get married, I would be in total control of the finances. He is so absent-minded about money, I could never leave the family accounting up to him!

Emilita said...

You've convinced me I need to watch this show.

I keep telling myself I will, after hearing raves about the writing and the beautiful styling (like you, I have a soft spot for the period aesthetics). But for some reason I never started watching...I think because of a minor aversion to shows in which I need to be invested every week to understand what's going on in the story. For some reason, I tend to watch programs without a continuous plot.

But once I get over the hurdle and start caring about a story, I am easily hooked. (ie: My devotion to The Hills, and in high school, to ER.)

The only problem now is, I don't have television in my new apartment! Maybe if I get netflix I can get the old seasons on DVD...hmm...

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