Friday, May 15, 2015

800 Words: In Praise of Betty Draper

The Golden Age of TV was not kind to women. We hate ourselves for loving Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, Don Draper, and yet, to a man, we love to hate their spouses.

No spouse was more hated than Skyler White, and the actress who played her: Anna Gunn, was rewarded for how faithfully she executed Vince Gilligan's requests to be the shrewish counterpart to Walter's evil with death threats. But at least Breaking Bad granted Skyler her own personhood. Betty Draper/Francis spent Mad Men longing for a liberation from her husbands Don and Henry. In Breaking Bad, it was Walter who longed for liberation, and Breaking Bad granted him more liberation than Walter could ever imagine. But the whole point of Betty's character was that her liberation would never happen. To their dying days, women like Betty Draper are designed to stuff their humanity into a two-dimensional beauty that is clearly less than human casing.

Nobody ever likes Betty Draper - whatever small bits of personality she exhibited was as shockingly unattractive as the figure from which it issued was beautiful. It is a mirror opposite of Shakespeare's Richard III, whose ugliness has turned his soul ugly. Betty's beauty has, in a sense, wilted her soul. She is personally unattractive because being disliked is the only way that her human qualities could even be noticed.

I vividly remember a G-chat status by a friend of mine - a guy of course - who was a few seasons behind on Mad Men from me. He wrote in all caps: "BETTY DRAPER IS HITLER!!!" I knew exactly which episode of Season 2 he'd just watched. But assuming Betty Draper is Hitler assumes that she has personality enough to have an unattractive personality. Unlike the male fantasies which exist in so many ostensible works of art, not merely a person, like Vertigo's Judy Barton, she is barely more than a chimera, a person designed to capture men's imaginations. But, if anything, Matthew Weiner's rendering if this beauty myth is at very least a degree more artful than Hitchcock's. Whereas Judy Barton (or Madeleine Ferguson) is coached to ensnare men to so that a movie plot can be set into motion, Betty Draper is coached by an invisible society of time and place which only exists in our imaginations and the social mores of people who soon will be deceased.

Rewatching the early episodes of Mad Men is always instructive when you realize just how important Betty Draper used to be in the show, and equally instructive when you realize that January Jones's acting has been grotesquely maligned. No one will confuse January Jones for a master thespian, but no one was confusing Kim Novak or Janet Leigh either. These were movie stars, not actresses, who had a very specific part to play and were cast at least as much for how they looked on camera as how they acted. The only difference between Betty Draper and Marion Crane was that in the intervening half-century between their creations, the plight of women like them gained sympathy, and therefore a voice.

But did Marilyn Monroe ever seem more at ease with her onscreen role? Did your elderly but well dressed female cousin who got a divorce in the days when divorce was a scandal? Betty Draper is, in many ways, the truest to life, fully realized, character in the entire Mad Men universe because there is so little life to realize in her. She is barely human because that is all she is allowed from her life. And when the show ends, she will disappear into memory, as so many women have, because the memories of men is all to which they were allowed to appeal.

Friday, May 1, 2015

800 Words: Should I Stay or Should I Go?


Monday Night.

The plane back from Chicago.

There were a number of times when we thought we could see fires from the riot on the streets below. I have no idea if what we were seeing was fire just bright city lights, or the factory smokestacks, or a giant ladybug. There was no way of knowing what we were seeing, except that we were reading ourselves into the Baltimore skyline, and the city we saw was weirdly transformed from the dozens of times we've seen it. Somehow, the view of Baltimore looked different, as though we left a city we knew and returned to one completely different.

As usually happens in my family, it doesn't take much for political arguments to break out. For at least a century, fighting about politics has always been a useful surrogate in our family for fighting with each other, and it would seem that our generation will be no different in that regard. We spent that day talking about Baltimore, about the country, about the hopelessness of a country that is built upon hope, and of course, insulting each other. It got heated, it always does. It's frankly amazing it wasn't more heated, and in the future, there will no doubt be many times when the heat will increase.

I was, as always, the 'liberal' (and allegedly the flaming leftist) facing off during a traffic jam in a mostly centrist car against one libertarian whose views might be considered on the far right in most countries. And of course, any real leftist firebrand would consider me at best a heretic, at worst, a liberal in name only who is a conservative wolf posing in liberal sheep's wool. I've heatedly argued with the entire political spectrum for hours at a time, so I've heard it all...

But the discussion continued, at least in wound-down form, once we got on the plane. On the flight to Chicago, the plane was so overbooked that my brother Ethan was told he had to wait for the next flight. On the way back, we thought about taking a cellphone picture to show how empty the flight was. No more than thirty of us on a plane that could easily hold more than a hundred.

I was being more conciliatory, trying to grant some points, being more sympathetic to family who  determined that they had to drive back to Federal Hill when none of us knew where the rioting would spread. The moment we got up from the plane, I realized that half the plane was comprised of white families like ours, each loudly complaining about how the riots inconvenienced them, loudly speaking about black people as one gigantic mass, and scared (probably unnecessarily) about driving home. The other half of the plane was black people, all of whom were alone, and all of whom had facial expressions that looked like they were simmering. One girl in her twenties had clearly turned her headphones up all the way so as to do her best to drown us out. Another guy in his mid-to-late thirties was still planted firmly in his seat as everyone else got up, staring straight ahead with the kind of poker face which is the look of a man trying to dissociate himself to anywhere but where he was at that particular moment.

When was the last time I felt like such a cretin?


What the hell did these protestors expect?

Of course they have every right to protest for grievances that could not be more legitimate, but when you lend your voice to a protest called 'Shut Down the City', how are some people not going to take this as an incitement to riot? The protest encouraged people to break the law in a city where rule of law is always tenuous. Did Iraq teach us all nothing? Once you throw off a despotic rule, you had better be ready for the ensuing mayhem.

Of course the protestors are not responsible for the actions of rioters. Who knows? Maybe the protests briefly delayed riots that would have been inevitable. But once you assist in taking the lid off society's order, you cannot return to the box what you've released. You better damned well be sure that all the potential violence, all the suffering, all the chaos which you've helped to unleash is not only worth your end goal, but also that your end goal is at all attainable.

Of course the lives lost matter more than the property destroyed in retaliation. But what about the lives ruined by the property lost? What about the people living near CVS and Keystone who can no longer get medication? What about the elderly living in the senior center that burned down to the ground (I know, we're not certain if it's related, but... come on...)? What about the small businesses and homes destroyed that were created over decades? What about the investments in these areas that will now be removed and lost for yet another generation? What about the people who have lost their jobs to the fires, and the untold thousands who will have worse jobs or no jobs because of businesses that will never be established? I've read someone justify CVS's looting by saying that CVS and places like it are too evil to be supported. They're corporations that put Mom-and-Pop pharmacies out of business - as though Mom and Pop can get a loan to build a store to replace CVS so easily in today's economy. It takes one night to destroy what has been built in twenty years. What hope can these protests possibly give but a cruel false one? If there is no police reform, the fascist dictatorship of West Baltimore will grow still more despotic. Baltimore will probably never be like it was in 1993 again. It's more likely that White Baltimore will grow still more prosperous, while the police will make it happen by squeezing their boots onto the necks of Black Baltimore that much tighter.

Of course the police have a vested interest in maximizing the riot's size. The more property is burned and looted, the more they can justify their brutality. The logic the police uses becomes circular in the eyes of the public: "If they're using so much riot gear, the riots have to be horrible! Don't they?" But when the riots began, lots of apologists minimized them by comparing them to sports riots, as though any sports fan but an animalistic one wouldn't be mortified that people would do something so horrible in their name. When it became clear that the riots were more destructive than any sports riot, the apologists changed their tactic to saying that the rioters had every good reason to riot. Well, maybe they do, but even the most flagrant apologist knows as well as I that the riots are only making it easier for the police to crush them with impunity.


And yet...

Maybe I've got this all wrong

The riots of 1968 heralded the conservative resurgence. Demographics of that era showed the 'Emerging Conservative Majority' of Christians, Conservatives, and racists. And the riots were the kindling needed for Richard Nixon to set liberal America on fire.

Let's get real. The chances that Baltimore will be the only city with rioting are infinitesimally small. In Ferguson, the protests were almost all peaceful, and accompanying violence was just a small part of the main story. In Baltimore, the protests were mostly peaceful, but the riot almost completely subsumed the story of the peaceful protests. There are 461,000 police officers in America, and there are 327 million mobile phones. More murders, probably many more, are going to be captured, and the justified rage at this problem will only increase with every new harassment,  every new beating, every new murder captured on camera. This can't not be the issue of 2016. If President Hillary Clinton ever finds herself with a Democratic congress, she very well might be able to push through effective police reform. And even if she doesn't...

Just as 1968 heralded an emerging conservative majority, 2008 heralded an emerging liberal majority. Congress has been redistricted so devastatingly by Republicans that their hold on it is increasingly ironclad. But the new coalition of blacks, hispanics, and white liberals (mostly women) should be enough to hold the Presidency from any but the most devious Karl Rove like Republican maneuverer. And as implausible as it sounds, maybe the next generation of Republicans will tire of the constant social conservatism and race baiting. White America no longer has the country in a complete stranglehold. Perhaps the next generation of whites, unlikely as it sounds, can learn to live with it.

And if they do, the country might have some moments of clarity, and all 30 of the problems that could kill America have a chance of getting resolved. Justice will finally be done, and the white-maned lion will lie with the black-wooled lamb. And if that 1-in-1000 chance for progress we dream about happens, then I will spend the rest of my life remembering this week as a time that I stood in its way. Surely, that 1-in-1000 chance is worth the 999 other voices which tell me I would be an idiot for believing it possible.

If I go to the protests, I'll immediately feel guilty.

If I continue to stay away, I'll continue to feel guilty.