16 Jul 2015 Killing Mad Men’s Betty Draper
There is an immense and impenetrable friendliness to certain kinds of capitalist exchange. The love of family, lifelong friends, none of these comes close to the frictionless glissade of buying face-to-face that which could be gotten elsewhere cheaper, or that which could well have been done without. In no other human interaction is one so blithely adored as in the sphere of non-necessary capitalism. I am not wealthy and do not have these purchase interactions often, but I remember their giddiness, like that of eating MSG, before the headache sets in.
Betty Draper Francis, the blonde from Mad Men, is the headache. Her death from lung cancer at age 38(ish) is somehow the payment that Mad Men—which offered a giddy sleekness not at all unlike that of the shiny exchange explained in my first paragraph—has been willing to make so that viewers will know the beauty of capitalism kills, or rather kills in some cases. But the sacrifice is at once so small, since Betty was effectively written into a characterological corner after the first season, and so gendered, the payment is scarcely fair. And yet it gave me a headache to see Betty’s punishment.
Ten years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation (published as my first book, The Posthumous Voice in Women’s Writing on the deep cultural allure of the dead woman. In my book, I traced how various women writers responded to this cultural position of being ‘dead’ by writing from the perspective of the dead, ie, using the posthumous voice, a form of rhetoric. The book focused on 19th century writers, Shelley, Bronte, Dickinson, Rossetti, with a closing chapter on Sylvia Plath. Concluding the book, I made the case that the need for women writers to use this ploy, of writing as if they were dead, was over in the 21st century since now women were no longer placed in the cultural position of the dead.
And then came Betty Draper Francis, whose sacrificial body, whose death, posed at the closing of Mad Men, gave me a headache. Do we still need the dead body of a woman to draw off the poisonous residue of every one else’s power? Of course other characters have died during the series, many of them women, dying of cancer before they reached age 40. But Betty stands alone as a major character whose life ends unequivocally badly. She is the sacrifice. Betty’s husband sold the cigarettes, the smoking of which ostensibly gave Betty her very youthful lung cancer, and he is positioned by Mad Men as a troubled hero, while Betty is simply nullified, erased, evacuated. The gray dress in which she smokes in her obfusc kitchen as the show ends is the same dress in which she smoked during the first-season’s psychoanalysis that gave her the diagnosis of being infantile, childlike.
I am not defending the character of Betty, concerning which I cannot say I much care, but instead I am fascinated to see that the trope of using the dead woman, the beautiful dead woman, did not die out in the 19th or even the 20th century but is victorious in the 21st century. Betty’s death allows every one else in Mad Men to succeed; Betty alone suffers an unbearable fate. Her ultra femininity, displayed throughout the show by signs of blood, fertility, infantilism, excessive delicate beauty, and, above all else, residence outside New York City, caused her death. Her excessive feminine uselessness makes her the “mark” the one who can go down so that others carry on; this violent sacrifice is deeply entwined with capitalism.
While the Sopranos made some effort to goad viewers into thinking about the violence of America even as we embraced the violent Tony Soprano, Mad Men never really sank a comparable punch regarding capitalism. That is, the show should have been about capitalism in the way that the Sopranos was about violence. But instead, Mad Men stayed just at the edge of the glossy giddy capitalist exchange, never quite showing that pain that bends beneath that exchange—that is why Mad Men could not ever really deal with race—and so Betty’s death becomes a capitalist death, a woman killed by merchandise. The sacrificial aspect of her death is strong and yet not strong enough to disavow Mad Men’s contrapuntally brilliant superficiality. The mask of the dead woman shows—not is—the false front of capitalism. Don Draper’s vicious childhood the show submerges as if no one, after Don, might ever encounter such suffering, as if, with Don, all Americans had moved past poverty. Beauty reigns.
As Mad Men shows Betty’s daughter reading aloud her mother’s dying wish, the viewer is encouraged to fantasize very specifically about the beauty of Betty’s dead body. Sally reads Betty’s instructions, and views the accompanying photograph, so that we, the viewers, can imagine the beauty of dead Betty. The cultural allure of the dead woman, an allure that in the 20th century becomes deeply intertwined with capitalism’s facility, makes it into the 21st century not because Mad Men is faithful to 1960s verite, but because the beauty of the dead woman, she who dies for the beauty of the merchandise, apparently is still a compelling trope now, in 2015. Or not now, but two months back, in May of 2015, an age ago, in rapid 21st century time.