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?

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