Over this past summer, I watched Mad Men. While the series did end on a far more optimistic note than the 1960s did themselves, the show is ultimately a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense. we are moved toward pity for the characters, especially Don Draper, and through this, we can experience a catharsis.
In particular, I resonated with the female characters. Joan Harris showed me a professional woman’s path full of sexual harassment…something I’ve been protected from by industry standards and Equal Rights laws (and perhaps also my Throne of Privilege). Peggy Olson showed me a woman who was willing to overcome social norms and pursue her authentic self. Betty Draper gave me cause to look in the mirror of my own relationship to my mother, thus prompting all this recent work on Demeter and Persephone, a myth that has underscored so much of my identify formation.
***Some spoilers about Mad Men are ahead.***
At the end of the series, we find out that Betty is dying of advanced lung cancer. Her daughter, Sally, has to carry the burden of this looming death in the special way that only a daughter can. But it’s even more upsetting that she’s a teenager when it comes to light. My own mother died from complications with COPD, also a decaying lung disease, when I was 16. She was 54. Really, this is my primary reference for what aging looks like. She spent her “middle age” growing progressively sicker, and I spent my youth struggling with the constant battle between my innate daughterly-duty of taking care of her and rebelling against the whole thing. I’ve had to find Demeter entirely as a Persephone, alone and without the veiled mother longing for my return.
Being the same age that Betty was in the show, her character provides a helpful lens for dissecting the Demeter-Persephone balance that I’m missing. It’s difficult for me to read the books of the women who came before, because they frame their experiences and myths according to a narrative that doesn’t align with my Millennial upbringing. I’ve been fed a narrative that women as they age should do everything they can to maintain their beauty and youth until they no longer can deny the inevitability of their age. In other words, I’m supposed to go from young to old overnight without the journey in between. That narrative is missing. Betty’s narrative helps provide some context, except for the fact that she dies young.
Betty Draper doesn’t fully become an emotional mother until the opportunity presents itself for her to impart her wisdom on her daughter, but Betty and Sally’s relationship struggles underneath the weight of Betty’s own challenging relationship with her dead mother, one that also struggled to nurture and develop a healthy space for daughter to develop her identity. As Sally exerts her identity, Betty struggles with her rebellion and independence, blaming Don for not being a stronger authoritative figure for Sally. There’s a childishness in Betty’s mothering technique that isn’t resolved until she finally embraces her role as a mother.