Spending the first portion of my summer sick in bed gave me the opportunity to do something I’d been meaning to do for sometime. I reviewed Mad Men in a condensed timeframe, watching particularly for the development of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). I’m drawn to Sally for various reasons. She’s a fascinating character for thinking about the depiction of girls. She reminds me of my own little sister, messy blonde hair and all. And, like her father before her*, Sally is a fine source for biting humor or blunt honesty, which is called sass if you are a girl. (Watch Sally’s Sassiest Moments) If I had a dollar for every time I got in trouble for talking back…
A lot of analysis about Sally focuses on her coming of age and her “loss of innocence,” especially in relationship to Betty’s anger**, her parents’ divorce, and the way the show portrays her haphazard acquisition of sexual knowledge. (One of my favorite lines ever is, “I know what it is. I know the man pees inside the woman.” 4.5 “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword“) Although Shipka isn’t allowed to watch the tv show (HuffPo), Linda Stasi at the New York Post criticized the series’ portrayal of Sally “discovering” sex and reaching menarche as child exploitation (Whut?) while Time’s James Poniewozik lauded the character’s engagement with generational issues:
“Kiernan Shipka does a great job here as she has throughout the series, especially since much of her work consists of reacting to what she’s seeing. But she manages to show us so much of Sally’s disillusion and determination—and really, bravery, because what Sally has to do is try to negotiate her way into adolescence either alone or with questionable adult guidance.”
I think there’s another dynamic at work in the development of Sally. Not to say that her awkward transition into womanhood isn’t worth the attention that it’s getting, but I think the way Sally functions on the show also says a lot about the relationship between parents, children, nostalgia, and futurity. Obviously, the child is a pretty major symbol for thinking about issues of innocence and experience or for putting a bright polish on the complicated, if not dubious, political motivations of adults. (i.e. Betty firing Carla “for the children!” Riiiight.) There’s just so much intricate detail on Mad Men, but I’m going to take a swing at this.
When the series begins, Sally functions much like a piece of set dressing. She’s the cute little blonde girl, lisp and all, as emblematic of middle-class white suburban success as the well-dressed housewife. She fixes her parents drinks (check out Sally’s drink guide), dances ballet at their dinner parties, and dutifully watches TV whenever Betty tells her to. Sally operates as a double for Betty in pretty obvious ways as Betty worries about Sally’s chubbiness and other assorted petty things, like her friendship with Glen Bishop. Sally, like Betty, is also pretty angry and her hot temper becomes one of her most enduring characteristics, linking her to her mother and to the myriad issues facing her as a girl in the sixties. That’s why I’m calling this post “The Sally Draper Mystique.” I think this anger is obviously tied to the issues forced upon Sally both symbolically and in her lived experience.
Though Sally works as a double, mirrors, in fact, are often part of the way the camera portrays Sally looking at her parents. There’s the moment of Sally and Betty pictured above, which feels like a throwaway during the episode, but also says so much. Then in 2.6 “Maidenform”, there’s a pretty significant moment between Sally and Don. The episode deals with one of the central themes of Mad Men–appearance vs reality–in a number of ways. Don visits the country club with his picture perfect family, then slinks off for his affair with Bobbie Barrett. Betty buys a yellow polka dot bikini, thinking Don will like it, and gets told she looks desperate (mean, Don). The firm pitches an ad to Maidenform that focuses on two sides of the same woman–Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. Peggy begins her transformation from dressing “like a little girl” to playing with the boys. You get it. During his tryst with Bobbie, Don finds out that he’s developed a reputation for his sexual prowess. He’s not happy that women are gossiping about him, so, disgusted, he ties Bobbie up and leaves her. The next time we see him, he’s waking up in his suburban home. While he’s shaving, Sally comes in and sits down and smiles up at him adoringly.
“I won’t say anything so you don’t cut yourself,” she says. Don looks down at her and smiles. Then, as he catches a look at himself in the mirror, his face falls. He quickly grows agitated, telling Sally, gently, that she’d better leave him alone. The episode ends with Don sitting where Sally was, staring blankly ahead. The camera pulls back and we see Don reflected in a mirror again, this time from the outside of the room. Don is pretty inscrutable, so it’s hard to know for sure, but clearly in the scene Sally stands in for his conscience, for the disjuncture between who he wants to be and who he is, or for lost innocence of some kind. Or a mixture of the above. Continue reading