Thursday, March 26, 2009

Domesticity and the Drapers: Gender Roles on Mad Men

Having recently watched the first season of AMC's Mad Men, I am interested in this look at domesticity in 1961. I think that it is falling into the old party lines of domesticity as entrapment. Betty Draper, the perky but depressed wife of main character Don Draper, is meant to embody the feminine ideal of the era. A blond, Grace Kelly-type, she attempts to perform the type of domesticity that it represented in those period Coca-Cola ads (which she models for in one episode). Betty is unquestionably domestic. She cooks - roasts, steaks, salads, and cakes. She cares for her children - the angelic girl, whom she is trying to make over in her own image, fretting about her weight and face, and the little boy who is too young to have much personality, apparently. Don tells her that her job, which she is better at than anyone else, is to take care of the children. But, this is clearly meant to be an empty consolation. Although Betty clearly tries to believe this, she obviously feels like she is missing out on something - her modeling career, the admiration that she could garner as a public woman in Manhatten, rather than the hidden housewife in the suburbs.

Betty is depressed, a diagnosis both she and her husband are reluctant to face. Her therapist is dismissive of her fears - her petty concerns which he labels as immature and childish - the neuroses of a housewife. The rhetorical position of the show seems to lead the reader to conclude that the root cause of Betty's depression is her trapped existence. Her life is shockingly empty, and although she is ostensibly the primary care-giver to her children, they are often with the maid or with a neighbor, and Betty is often shown sitting alone at her dining room table, a cigarette in one hand and a wine glass in the other. She is alone and she has nothing to do. Clearly the fate of all domestic women everywhere.

It seems frighteningly rare to see a positive image of female domesticity. Certainly, a woman should not be prevented from leading her own career, but the message seems to be that a full and active life and a concern for management of home and family are mutually exclusive. Betty's brief attempt at balancing her role as housewife and model fails. But not because she can't manage it - the worst that happens is Don gets a cold sandwich instead of baked ham for supper - but because she gives it up a the first rejection. Perhaps her problem is that in both roles, she is not seeking her own happiness, but rather the approval of others: that of her husband and the readers of Life.

Obviously, a complicated situation, made even more complicated by the show's attempt to accurately represent the problems faced by women on the cusp of first wave feminism. Have we reached an appropriate balance now? While women are now encouraged to follow any career they choose - a great and good gain, I wonder if the pendulum hasn't swung too far in the other direction, and we have been conditioned to see domesticity as a trap. The issue of balance is also problematic, because it pushes women to attempt to be superwomen, juggling everything with perfect grace and ease, an often impossible task. How do we reconcile the two - without pushing ourselves to the brink?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Defining Domesticity

The term domesticity hardly seems to need defining. It is not commonly used in everyday parlance, but can quickly be intentified as a derivative of "domestic," which is rather more commonly used. People talk about "being domestic" as in "I am going to be domestic this weekend and do some laundry." On the other end, domesticity as a concept and lifestyle seems to have been assigned solely to stay at home mothers and Martha Stewart disciples. Certainly, there is more to it than this.

Domesticity has a historical context. In the nineteenth century, domesticity was seen as the realm of middle and upper class white women in Britain and America. It indicated wifehood and motherhood as the management of the home as the role for women. Clearly, today, this is problematic, and helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction that many people have when they hear the term domesticity, equating it with oppression and sexism. As Nina Baym says in Woman's Fiction, "domesticity is equated with entrapment" (26). This short-changes the concept of home and family and how women can relate to them. In the nineteenth century, domestic fiction was actually empowering. Prior to the emergence of the genre, most fiction about female characters followed a common plot, one in which women were invariable made into victims; sentimental fiction or novels of sensibility focused on women who were innately good and pious but who are somehow abused, betrayed, seduced, and abandoned. While these novels were perhaps useful in illuminating the plight of women, the fates of these female characters was less than inspiring, usually involving insanity, death, or insanity and then death. In the best cases, the woman was able to reform the rake who was attempting to seduce her, although this makes for questionable husband-material (see Richardson's Pamela).

Domestic fiction, on the other hand, written by women, refused to imagine women as victims. These writers "were unwilling to accept, and unwilling to permit their readers to accept, a concept of woman as inevitable sexual prey" (26). Instead, women had power over the home, and the home was the center of the world. The domestic arrangement and the happy home was the "acme of human bliss." While domestic fiction is often linked to the concept of separate spheres, such a term is perhaps misleading. The home is not cordoned away from the "real world" of the market and public interactions, but instead "everybody was to be placed in the home, and hence, home and the world would become one." This has significant implications for female power: "to the extent that woman dominated the home, the ideology implied an unprecedented historical expansion of her influence" (27).

How does this function today? Do we see domesticity as oppressive? or is there something still empowering in domesticity? In a post-feminist society, does the concept of the domestic world raise hackles or are we seeing an increasing return to home as people become disenchanted with the public realm?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seeds of the Recession

According to John Laumer at Tree Hugger seed sales are up 19% in 2009. Clearly, this is largely due to economic issues: money is tight and people are concerned and looking for ways to save some money. And, certainly the food prices that rocketed last summer in the wake of soaring gas prices are still on consumers' minds. Although fears surrounding the recession are not good, the fact that many people are turning to traditional food sources is great. And they are growing real food - as far as I know, there are no seeds for Doritoes and Twinkies. Chemical free tomatoes and peppers are being grown on people's patios, and some people I know are digging up their lawns.

I was offered a few rows in a friend's garden, but after some thought and planning, I have had to decline. Although I would much prefer land and gardening on a larger scale, my time budget is going to confine me to some container gardening. So far, I am feeling a bit stressed because I have nothing planted yet, but I am planning on getting started soon. I am planning on growing lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and some potatoes, and maybe some peppers - things that we eat a lot of. I'm also planning on some herbs to accompany my poor mistreated oregano and lavender and maybe some flowers, just for fun. I grew zinnias at the end of last summer, and enjoyed them.

So, I want to hear about it. Has the economy prompted you to consider some home gardening? Are you digging up the yard? Buying containers? What are you tips and tricks for growing your own on a limited budget?