Like many other Mad Men fans, I hate Betty Draper. I’ve tried to love her the way I love Peggy and Joan and Pete (oh, I love Pete Campbell), but I can’t help it. I hate her. It’s not the character as she’s written. It’s that if I knew Betty Draper in real life, say if she were my neighbor, I’d create elaborate fantasies about murdering her. So imagine my surprise when last night’s episode of Mad Men took Betty to a place that hit way too close to home for me. A place that is making me take a look at this show that I didn’t want to take. The look being dismay.
I was kind of into the Betty Draper (excuse me, it’s Francis now) storyline last night, in which Betty (who’s been getting fat; this is the show’s way of dealing with January Jones’s real-life pregnancy) has a cancer scare and is forced to think about what the world would be like without her. Specifically, the way in which people would remember her. She knows she’s inflicted some kind of damage on Sally that does not bode well for the future, and this is the first time that I can remember really seeing Betty think about the mother/daughter relationship in this way, with any kind of future repercussions. So I was willing to follow this storyline right up until the end.
Until that final scene of Betty eating the second bowl of ice cream at the kitchen table. I love this show and I care about the world it’s created. It makes me laugh and cry. It rarely ever invests me emotionally in such a way though that I might become mad at it. But you know what? I’m kind of mad now. At the writers or Matt Weiner or whatever. Or maybe at the kind of sociological discussion that might have inspired this scene. Because on a show that is known for being “deep,” this seems like a pretty shallow shorthand for what’s going on with Betty psychologically. But I think the show mostly made me mad at myself.
The complicated relationship of women and food is too long and well-established for me to talk about here, but let’s just say that the way female food consumpition is depicted in media has always been a bit troublesome. It’s troublesome because it reflects actual trouble. For any woman for whom self-esteem is an issue, food is a problem. I’m not talking about major psychological issues like anorexia or bulimia. Rather, it’s the day to day significance of what it means to have a body and to have to feed that body. Let me get all personal here. I haven’t been thin since I was a small child. And although I was average-sized in high school, I became obsessed with my weight. I was never disciplined enough to become anorexic, and I was too squeamish to become bulimic. But I was bothered enough by my body that I turned all my attention to food. Not the food itself, but the being seen eating it. For a couple years in high school, I skipped lunch so people wouldn’t be able to see me eating. When I went to restaurants, I wouldn’t order anything that might make a person think I wasn’t eating well. This led to secretive eating. Not binge eating. Just that I would wait to go home and eat by myself, where no one could judge the actual food I’d chosen to eat. In college, this problem became even more complicated. I became a stress eater. I gained a significant amount of weight.
So clearly, I’ve got issues. I still prefer to eat food that’s bad for me (sugary foods in particular) in private, curled up by myself in front of the TV, although I’ve become a more comfortable with my body. I’m losing weight; I’ve come to terms with what my body is and isn’t. But I still measure personal success by how much control I have over my body, and I’m fairly certain that many (or most) women do the same.
Back to Betty Draper, then. She’s clearly unhappy with herself, but she also seems incapable of making herself happy until she’s given the cancer scare. Suddenly, given a real problem, she seems as happy as ever. When she’s told it’s benign, she’s forced to realize that she’s getting fat because she’s getting fat. It’s all on her. This leads us up to that scene at the kitchen table, in which Sally stops eating her ice cream sundae and Betty scoops it up, a smile on her face. What are we to make of this scene given the previous hour? I honestly sat there stunned and staring at my TV for a couple minutes, then groaned, then went to bed in a bad mood.
Let’s think about the two main ways this moment can be taken (and I think both these interpretations have everything to do with issues of control):
1. Betty is suddenly comfortable with who she is. After her dance with death, she realizes it’s not worth caring about any kind of superficiality. Therefore, she can eat the ice cream without guilt.
2. Betty does it because it’s a comfort, because she’s worried about who she’s become (physically and principally) and this is the one thing she can do that she feels she has control over. So the smile is one of some kind of blind subjugation.
I find both these things to be really problematic because of the symoblism of the sundae itself. It’s supreme decadence. It’s fatty and sugary and loaded with bad calories. Food as symbol, etc. I am willing to be persuaded that this is actually a theme of the entire episode (after all, we see Harry Crane chowing down on a load of burgers after work-related disappointment), but I still couldn’t help but watch this issue with all my own food-related issues coming into the mix.
Is there a way to watch television (or see a movie or read a book) without accidentally forcing mirrors onto the screen or page? I thoughtMad Menwas the one show that I could watch with some remove and yet still find rewarding and enjoyable. I have never placed my own personal issues on this show before. This is the first time. And it’s all due to the loaded bomb that is that ice cream sundae.
P.S. I should maybe also note that the cancer scare storyline hit a little too close to home, too. When I am having problems with depression, I begin thinking of dramatic events that might alter my mood. The first one I always go to is cancer. Thinking you might have cancer when you’re struggling with personal issues manages to scare you back into yourself, but there’s also that tiny voice that says, “Yes, but wouldn’t cancer be a great excuse for everything else in your life….” So yeah, overall, a rough episode for me.