Mad childhood

Shoe of the week: In honor of miss Sally Draper, aquamarine patent leather Mary Janes

When you think Mad Men, you most likely think of Don Draper all pressed and neat, dark secrets lining his smartly tailored jackets, beautiful lies lingering on his lips. You might think of Betty, the picture of grace (or Grace Kelly) quietly suffering her domestic incarceration behind the mask of perfect pink lips and expertly lined eyes. Or maybe you can’t get Joan out of your head. The way she walks down the hallway of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices you can’t help but imagine the symphony that accompanies her cool sashay and impossibly girdled buoyancy. But what about the little guys? Those little guys with reason to be mad who are hardly men or women? What do we make of the kids on the show? They certainly don’t seem “alright.”

The children featured on Mad Men have often caught my attention and from what I can gather from the first few episodes of the fourth season, it seems like the Draper kids will be examined more closely and in greater depth. On the most superficial level, Sally, Bobby and baby Eugene, serve as fictionalized representatives of childhood in a particular era in U.S. history. The show very clearly complicates the Beaver Cleaver mythos of the 60’s by showing us a perfect-looking yet dysfunctional family—one more akin to our favorite baby boomers’ stories of the past than a Nick-at-Night portrayal of yore. On Mad Men, childhood is a time when knuckles were rapped, arms pinched and bottoms beaten. We see the little Drapers struggle with parental love that is tough, lacking and/or ill-communicated. There is an almost funny bluntness to the missing care for these children especially as the show’s familial scenes provide a stark contrast today’s very child-centric views.

For example, Betty isn’t thinking at all of her daughter’s “self-esteem” when she calls Sally fat and says she has the makings of a good “little lesbian.” Don, in turn, plays the archetypal absent father. Never there, he becomes the perfect object of his children’s affections. His returns at the doorstep are met with squeals of joy as he comes bearing gifts from far away. Don’s persona as father (similar to many other facets of his identity) is a blank screen on which his children project their desires. Every now and again he’ll furrow his brow over his part in his children’s futures, but he rarely does anything to change their situation for the better.

Don and the kidsOn another level, the children also act as interesting reminders of consumer culture. This is a show about advertising, after all, and Mad Men smartly delivers the darling Drapers as more than just a throwback to bygone times. When they are left on their own, ignored, or neglected, they do what comes so naturally even today and bask in the warming glow of the television. Little demographics incarnate under the Don Draper’s own roof, the kids become the open vessels into which Don’s advertising pours. The absent father reaches them through the mysterious amalgam of the media. Kind of an interesting linkage to think about in a present where a family might text each other while watching Mad Men in the same house, no? Take the leisure time of the middle class lifestyle, a lack of parental care and add in the modern achievements of technological distraction and you get a cohort of children who desire things, kids with psychic and emotional voids that need to be filled—the life’s blood of the ad game.

So, lucky for Don, the kids aren’t alright? Sad, but weirdly true.

Most recently we’ve seen Don win a Clio for a commercial featuring a young version of himself imprisoned behind the bars of a regular kitchen chair. His mother mops the floor into a bright glow, but our lonely cowpoke’s sadness radiates and resonates far more than the product. And of course we’ve just witnessed the infamous masturbation episode in which poor Sally is slapped and admonished for touching herself. While Don gains recognition for his disturbed childhood but also begins to circle the drain of a violent alcohol addiction, I’m left wondering how Sally’s future will unfold. It’s easy to imagine her drugged out and oversexed in a dingy seventies nightmare, but I’d prefer to see her grow angry and strong, the kind of “lesbian” her mother would hate…and envy.

But, AMC might not let us see that far into the future. So, for now, do me a favor and the next time you’re watching Mad Men, take a closer look at Sally and young what’s-his-name and the other one.

They could use the attention.

PopHeart will run every other week, appearing next on September 29.

6 Responses to “Mad childhood”
  1. Kevin Mattison says:

    My wife and I have often laughed about the fact that the Draper school of child rearing seems to be distilled into asking the children to please go into another room.

    Nice article, Ana.

  2. ana says:

    Thanks. Yeah, sometimes I just laugh out loud at what a beast that mama is and other times I fantasize about the kids’ awful futures. Therapy, so much therapy. On another note, I kind of love how the parents don’t care because it shows that maybe we aren’t all wired to be good parents. The Drapers seem to have a family because they’re “supposed to”–and that myth is still floating around today.

  3. Tim Carmody says:

    There’s also the little boy from the first season whom Betty baby-sits (while his mom’s working for the Kennedy campaign); he walks in on Betty in the bathroom, then asks for a lock of her hair. His mom confronts Betty for giving it to him, and Betty slaps her; later, she confides in him, left alone in a car.

    The kids are already strange, just like their parents. They’re our parents. They’re us.

    • ana says:

      yes! i really like how that little boy has become involved with sally. i thought that episode of bizarre rebellion was smart and it makes me wonder what’s going to happen next with these kids.

  4. MrsMasterChief says:

    Absolutely loving those shoes to death!!

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