Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mad Men - all about Betty

So, I've watched this last weekend's newest Mad Men episode twice already, and I'll probably watch it a couple more times, but I wanted to at least start to get my thoughts put into words.

First of all, I love Dawn. I love that she seems to perform her job very well, but that people (like Harry) keep making it awkward. She just wants to be a good secretary, but other people want to keep reminding her about her difference.

But the issue most people have been talking about is Betty's appearance. Which surprises me, really. Every blog I've read has either been blatantly offensive with phrases like "the elephant in the room, literally!" Or otherwise making fat jokes with her as the punch line. Each one feels like a punch in my own gut.

Other posts are mad at the writers for using Betty's weight as a way of making her more sympathetic or "redeeming" her, which I think is kinda weird. I've always thought Betty was sympathetic.

Also, why can't Betty grow and change in her new relationship? Don can become a better father and boss because of his relationship with Megan. I think we're finally going to see who Betty is without the voltile Don-Betty dynamic, and the truly loving adoration with Henry. She can still be a bitch, and I'm sure once her fear of death disappears, she'll return to her old self.

But the other issue I think is interesting, and I haven't read anything about, is the whole issue around being fat in the late-60s, when diet pills were considered so normal your mother-in-law would recommend them. Yes, the scene of Sally and Bobby trying to zip up her dress was juxtaposed with Don neatly zipping up Megan's dress, but I think it's more complex that just a "hey, look, Betty's fat now" thing. Remember last week, when Don was making breakfast for the kids? He asked Megan if she wanted anything, and her response was, "just black coffee for me." And Sally looked at her with admiration. Already, even then, I suspected that Sally was picking up on the notion that women need to be thin to be considered worthy. And, that was reinforced by the ending scene where Betty and Sally were having ice cream, and Sally stopped halfway through.

Several bloggers accused Betty of "stealing" Sally's ice cream. I totally didn't see it that way. Instead, I see Sally's walking away from the table as a kind of rebellion against her mother. Not only is she still angry at her for being a bitch, which I think Betty is actually trying to overcome, but she's adding some fat-shaming in there too. "I'm full." Really? What kid is ever too full to eat ice cream? No, this is more complicated that just Betty being fat. This is about Betty, Megan, Sally and women in general in the late-60s.

Interestingly, the doctor insisted on an exam for the diet pills and even gave Betty some pushback. Of course, as someone who wasn't alive (ex-utero, at least) in the 60s, I don't really know how easy it was to get diet pills at the time. But Pauline, Henry's mother seems to think they're easy to come by. Even the Rolling Stones, who were also an off-camera feature of this episode, had a song about "Mother's Little Helper," that came out in 1966. While the drug in the song is a barbiturate, it seems like getting prescriptions should have been easier than it was for Betty.

But, then again, it's good that the doctor did the exam. And, who knows, maybe after finding nothing physically wrong with her, he would have given in and given her a prescription to give her "a little jump start."

I don't think the show was written to humiliate Betty, although she was certainly well and truly humiliated throughout the show. First, she had to beg off from yet another function. And I'm sure it was because she felt ugly and fat, and not easily fitting into her dress just made it worse. Even Pauline commented on it, saying, "you've missed a bunch of these, Betty."

Heck, just having Pauline come by to talk with her was humiliating. "I know how it happens. You get comfortable and you give up a little bit, and then it just gets out of control." As though her fatness is a moral failure, like she's just being lazy. For a split second, we even got to see the old Betty, when she snapped back, "Why haven't you taken them?" But Pauline takes it in stride, and brings it back around to how Betty isn't pleasing her husband.

When Betty shows up at the doctor's office, she's not her old self, demanding what she's there for. She's contrite. "Well... it's just that I'm wondering... I've put on a few pounds, and I haven't had much luck reducing on my own for some reason." She's hedging. She's trying to be brave, but you can tell she's worried he's going to judge her too. And he does. "Mrs. Francis, when a housewife has rapid weight gain, the cause is usually psychological -- unhappiness, anxiety, boredom, things that cause us to lose our self-control." See, even he is bringing it back around to something she's likely doing wrong.

Of course, it's not her fault. It's a tumor on her thyroid. Which explains the tiredness and lack of regular-Betty behavior. As someone with a thyroid condition, I can totally relate to both the weigh gain and the weird behavior. If I miss taking my replacement thyroid pills for two days in a row, I can totally feel it. That Betty is sitting on the couch in her housecoat eating Bugles is no surprise. And she's not doing it because she's lazy. And I guarantee when her tumor is removed and her thyroid is acting normally again, we'll see more of the old Betty we know and love to hate.

But, even so, it's kinda interesting to me how this show set in the past is trying to tell a story about being fat in the 60s, and people are jumping all over it in the present, totally missing the point. Or, more likely, proving that very little has changed in the last 46 years. Women can't get fat without it being some kind of humiliation or moral failure. Whether it's about how disgusting Betty is now, or how sad it is that they made Betty fat, or how the writers made Betty fat to mock fat women, I think most people have missed the point. She's fat, and she's tired. But, at the end, she's also relieved to still be alive, and adored by a loving husband who doesn't care if she's fat, so maybe she's eating the rest of Sally's ice cream because she wants it and she can. Sally didn't want it. It's not like she pushed Sally down and took it from her. She really wanted Sally to enjoy the ice cream as much as she was so they could share a nice mother-daughter moment (which was a nice juxtaposition with the scene of the new guy Michael and his father), but she is rebuffed.

I'm curious why Betty turned to Don during her moment of fear when she returned home from the doctor's office and Henry wasn't home. I think this really says more about how she feels about Henry. Like maybe she's confused by how he reacts to her. Don was firm, authoritarian with her when they were married. Henry is kind and understanding. But even during the phone call, we can see how Don has changed. She has to tell him, "say what you always say." Meaning she called him for a brisk talking-to to help her calm down. She needed someone to be in charge.

There's a whole lot more going on in this episode, but I don't really have time to give it an in-depth treatment. I love the image of Roger Sterling juxtaposed with all the young kids in the office. Heck, seeing Don and Harry backstage at the Rolling Stones concert with those kids. Or even Don compared to Megan. "You're so square you have corners!" Lots of scenes showing the whirlwind of change everyone is facing. Don's 40, but he may as well be 60.

What about Pete and his power play? He's the new face of advertising and he's rubbing Roger's nose in it. And likely justifiably, considering how Roger was acting in the previous episode.

And Peggy hiring the new guy, Michael. Some claim that Michael is the "new Peggy" but I don't see it that way. He's brash and creative, and I expect there will be fireworks, but I trust Peggy to remain in control of the situation. She's not fooled by him for one second.


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