Monday, October 19th, 2009

Footnotes of Mad Men: The Liberation of Betty Draper–Or Not

OH YOU TWOAt the end of season two, Betty became convinced that Don was cheating on her. (Crazy, right?) She spent much of a day tearing apart the house, looking for clues of infidelity. Shoving her hands inside pants pockets (smoking), pulling out desk drawers (drinking), reading every scrap of paper in the house (sweating), Betty, in a deflated and droopy party dress, found nothing. Generally, TV shows will afford one scene to this sort of lipstick-on-the-collar scenario, but instead we were drawn into the hunt over the course of the entire episode.

THE GROUP§ So now what else is there to do but draw a hot bath and pick up Mary McCarthy's The Group, the 1963 best seller about the post-Vassar lives of 'nice' girls in the 30s. Most regard the book as an early feminist novel, because it's an exploration of the follies and successes educated women experience when they are confronted with a society that only values their domestic abilities. While others-say, Norman Mailer-thought it, largely, boring: "not one of the girls even exhibits an engaging bitchery," he wrote. Although: "it is nonetheless possible now to conceive that McCarthy may finally get tough enough to go with the boys." Oh, wow, well: lucky her! Still:

These pissout characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed or depth of feeling, their indifference to the bedrock of a collective novel-the large social events of the season or decade which gave impetus to conceiving the book in such a way. Yes, our Mary's a sneak. Like any First Lady she disapproves of unseemly ambition, and yet she is trying a novel which is all but impossible to bring off in a big way.

So maybe this won't be the lit match thrown on Betty's tinderbox. (As it were.) And problematically, the character who most resembles Betty Draper is Elinor the lesbian, who jets off to Europe for most of the book. And overall, it seems like something closer to a factory worker picking up The Wealth of Nations instead of the little red book.

SEX AND§ What about this clingy teacher lady?! Doesn't she seem a bit too blasé about the whole marriage thing? Maybe not. Another one of the lady-books burning up the best seller list was Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. Gurley, who, in her own odd way, inspired a generation of homewreckers and housewives to lead whatever sexual life made them happy (and rich!), wrote that she viewed infidelity as an inevitability. So why not chase married men? In a chapter entitled, "The Availables: The Men in Your Life," Brown speaks favorably about affairs with them. "I'm afraid I have a rather cavalier attitude about wives," she wrote.

Also, here's another little gem from the book: "My friend Agnes lives over a garage in one enormous room… A hot plate and ice box make the kitchen, but you can see wonderful old sycamores through the windows." Who does that remind you of? Hello, Bowdoin! (Fun fact: Bowdoin didn't actually start accepting women until 1970, so whose shirt is our little schoolteacher wearing, hmm?)

OH GURLEYBrown's advice wasn't some radical critique on marriage or a purposefully risqué sexual diary. It's about class, as in, Brown did not even come from one. She grew up in a farmhand encampment in the South where women walked around barefoot and lifted their dresses to pee on the side of the road. Whatever it took to be forever removed from that caste, Brown believed you should take it: wife, kids, another mistresses, whatever! Brown eventually got out of the Southern slums, went to secretarial school, became a working girl at an ad agency, entered an essay contest for Glamour, won, and ended up where all nice girls do: Hearst publishing.

Looks like our girl Peggy will be running Cosmo in no time and, hey, maybe Betts will get another European charm on her bracelet. If you know what I mean.

You can always find more Mad Men Footnotes here.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

LondonLee (#922)

I have an old paperback of 'The Group' that has the exact same cover as the hardback Betty was reading. The first Mad Men artifact that I actually own!

I'm surprised you didn't mention Lane Pryce's "no one here has ever asked me what school I went to" – that seems to be a favourite of Mad Men recappers who like to feel superior about the English class system. As if no one in America ever did better in life for having gone to Harvard/Yale/Princeton etc.

LondonLee (#922)

Oh, and Mailer is wrong (as usual), 'The Group' is a terrific book.

I didn't mention because I believe the point has been made. And of course we have caste systems and class divides here in the states. Looking at the one's that exist across the Atlantic doesn't make us blind to our own for heaven' sake, Lee! I thought we've earned some of your trust by now.

There is nothing about 'recapping' that makes any one feel superior.

LondonLee (#922)

Sorry, that wasn't meant as a pop at you. Us foreigners get a little touchy about American exceptionalism.

Fnarf999 (#1,831)

The thing is, "what school" doesn't refer to university, it refers to public school, or "prep school" as we would have it. And it's true; whatever snobberies exist in the States, and they are many, they never but NEVER revolve around what goddamn high school you went to. Whereas the British curse is always about Fettes or Marlborough or Charterhouse or Winchester. Seventy year old men still wear their SCHOOL TIE, fer chrissake. America does not have school ties.

LondonLee (#922)

Not that I think it makes any difference which level of education we're talking about (it's all elitism) America has it's fair share of fancy prep schools too. I know, I used to watch Gilmore Girls.

dallasite (#1,297)

"NEVERrevolve around what goddamn high school you went to". Sadly, this is not the case in Dallas.

Syan Reacrest (#891)

Makes me feel better that all I did today was smoke, drink and sweat.

Baroness (#273)

Fantastic find of a quote about that girl who lives over a garage! Because you do get the feeling that the researchers for MM probably pored over Gurley's best-selling book quite intently.

I have to laugh at the idea of Mailer reviewing "The Group". Snarling at the pettiness of these silly, silly broads! And baiting McCarthy to grow a pair and write about the Big Issues, as well as to man up as he's beating the shit out of her book.
Of course they knew each other in the small, boozy literary world of the time. Writers used to scrap then, entertainingly!

Never finished "The Group", but remember the early scene explaining that if a guy saw a literal douche-bag hanging from a girl's bathroom door, it meant she was easy. They were used as primitive contraception back then, way before the Pill.

If any one is going to have a contrary voice about the position of The Group in literary history –it's gonna be Mailer.

I heard this story once, I'm not sure if it's true, but that Gore Vidal and Mailer had some huge rivalry, as men of letters are wont to do. So anyways, they bumped into each other at some party and Mailer, seeing Vidal, headbutts him.

Vidal's response: "Words fail Norman Mailer. Yet again"

He's a problematic guy, but always good for a reaction.

Fnarf999 (#1,831)

Mailer could write a little, here and there, but his downfall always was his obsession with the Boys Club, and who was tough enough to be in it and who wasn't. The problem being, of course, not that his criteria were questionable but that the Club itself was a dubious enterprise. The real writers that Mailer felt himself in competition with — Roth, Bellow, Updike, for instance — weren't interested, and they come off better because of it. Mailer in retrospect is wasted talent.

Maevemealone (#968)

What is HGB's opinion on female belching?

reuben (#1,981)

How about the Singing Nun's Dominique playing in the background when Don enters Miss Farrell's Garage avec Vue?

I know! Totally child like.

mathnet (#27)

You just like to feel superior about that poor-man's-Rachel bitch.

mathnet (#27)

Is Rachel coming back next week?? Just tell me it's not Dr. Scholl's. Also HATHAWAAAAAAY!

"A former client returns; Betty goes on a trip with the kids; Joan and Greg plan for their future."

Rachel is the best of the sassy brunettes, THERE IS NO DOUBT OF THIS. Remember the BoHo gurl from the Before Time. She was pretty neat. But ughhhh this teacher lady grinds my gears.

Also, there's been a significant lack of abortions and eyepatches this season.

finn (#940)

Also, here's another little gem from the book: "My friend Agnes lives over a garage in one enormous room… A hot plate and ice box make the kitchen, but you can see wonderful old sycamores through the windows." Who does that remind you of? Hello, Bowdoin!

except there aren't many sycamore trees around bowdoin (or in maine generally). there are the bowdoin pines.

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