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.
Although 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.
Often in the first three seasons, Sally’s scenes dwell on this gap between what the adults see and what Sally sees, or Sally seeing through to things adults don’t want her to see. (Does the mirror become a window?) Sometimes the effect is humorous, like when Sally accompanies Don to work in 2.4 “Three Sundays” and is surrounded by adults behaving badly (business as usual). Her work day ends, like Don’s, with whiskey and a nap on the couch (oops). Other times it’s angst-ridden, like in 5.7 “At the Codfish Ball” when Sally gets to go to a banquet to see Don get an award. While Don is pleased, and surprised, to see Sally dressed up like the almost-teen she is, the adults engage Sally in a game of pretend, enlivening her night out. “You’re a mean drunk,” Roger, her pretend date, jokes with her. This playful introduction to adult society, however, turns into a rude look into adult antics as she accidentally witnesses her pretend date getting oral sex from her step-mother’s mother. No one but the audience knows what Sally has seen, and the episode dwells on this gap. As Glen asks Sally how the city is, she responds, “Dirty,” curtly ending the episode.
Of the adults in the first three seasons, Betty’s father, Grandpa Gene, is the most capable of seeing Sally without the baggage of symbolism, projection, and other expectations. They grow very close, as Sally reads to him nightly, he lets her drive the car, and other antics. In 3.3 “My Old Kentucky Home”, someone steals $5 from Gene’s wallet. We’re lead to believe that it’s Sally, and I’ve always gotten the impression that Grandpa Gene figures that out too. But he doesn’t say anything. Instead of the issue coming to a head, the episode lingers on the shared secret–what Gene sees but no one else does. In another scene in 3.4 “The Arrangements,” Sally, who’s often criticized by Betty for her weight, sneaks late night ice cream with her Grandpa. (I always think of Grandpa from Little Miss Sunshine. Lesson: Grandpas have ice cream and are great). I wonder if Gene’s dementia plays some factor here. As he loses his full grasp on reality, often coded as adulthood, is he more able to relate to Sally? That seems ageist though.
Anyway, it is not surprising that when Grandpa Gene dies (in “The Arrangements”), Sally takes it badly. But no one sees Sally’s grief (at least not until the nightmares and screaming start). Watch this scene of Sally yelling at her parents. It’s just stunning. While the adults discuss mundane details and laugh at an adult joke, Sally is in the other room watching the news. Hearing them laugh she comes in to scold them. “How can you be sitting there like nothing’s happening?…” Betty, unable to deal with her grief, tells her to go watch TV. Sally returns to the TV and watches a Tibetan monk immolating himself. While her mother can’t, or won’t, see beyond her loss to Sally’s, Sally sees something that the adults probably don’t want her to see. The moment clearly reflects on the inability to protect children from grief, especially in such a turbulent era, but also on the way that Sally’s feelings don’t occur to the adults caught up in their own business.
In season four, as Sally hits double digits and Kiernan Shipka proves her acting chops, Sally gets more complicated storylines, especially after her parents divorce. As a final example, I’d like to look at 4.9 “The Beautiful Girls”. At this point, with “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” we’ve already seen Sally misbehave in the city once. But she turns up at Don’s office after taking a train by herself (awesome interview with Shipka). The episode features her playing house and throwing some fits. I think, however, the most striking part is Sally’s last scene, when Betty comes to pick her up. The scene is framed so that the audience sees all the significant women in Don’s life. His ex-wife, future wife, current girlfriend, protegee, and Joan (who runs the world).
Visually, Don is in the middle and Sally is at the forefront. While in some ways, Sally getting bounced from one female caretaker to another could represent possible futures for her, I think the episode also marks a key transition for Sally. She’s starting to assert herself more and she’s moving toward adulthood in a way that makes her another complicated woman in Don’s life, rather than a figure of his success. As the series progresses, we continue to see Sally show increased understanding of the interactions between her parents and start to leverage her own voice and power, if not always successfully. She’s no longer a mirror or a symbol, she’s her own person. That temper fit, Don? This is what happens when your symbols are actually people.
As Sally gets older, the imagery changes from mirrors to the phone. Whether she’s calling Don, Glen, or someone else, we see Sally on the phone a lot. (I thought this week the phone would be her demise.) This seems to evoke the way that Sally’s reach is growing, as is her voice. I also think, however, the way that Sally is read by the audience shifts, especially for younger audiences (i.e. people who were born during or after Sally’s generation). In the first few seasons, as I described above, Sally clearly operates on a symbolic level and the audience is led to read her that way. As Sally became more of an agent in her own right, however, there sprung the many readings of her and her struggles as iconic of girlhood in her time. Now, many critics and fans express anticipation for Sally to become the hero of the series (what about Peggy?) or to become a Second Wave Feminist or some other badass fate. I want to conjecture that, especially as the show is created and written by people who grew up in Sally’s generation, that the symbolic weight of Sally Draper shifts from the adults within the series to the adults watching the series. Betty, Don, and co. have shifted their attentions elsewhere, but the audience now reads Sally as symbolic of anxiety, changing gender roles, and the promise of change to come (and, at a historical distance, we know it’s coming) in a way that mixes nostalgia with futurity. Does that make sense?
Finally, what really got me thinking recently, though, is the confession Don makes to Megan in this season’s episode “The Flood.” After going to the movies with Bobby, who is upset over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Don says:
“I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited. Hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
I wonder, however, if we can really trust Don this season. As my friend Megan pointed out to me, everyone is changing and evolving this season, but Don seems static doing the same thing over and over again and he’s become kind of a drag. (The New Yorker has a great piece on Don “Faking it”.) I think that there’s a lot here, because, to a certain extent parenting children doesn’t require them to know you intimately in the same way that parents know children. At 13, however, Sally’s reached an age at which she’s likely to start pushing for a closer relationship with her father, especially given the difficulty she has with her mother. Is anyone really close to Don, though? Can he do that? Sally started to ask questions last season when working on her family tree. And Don explained the Anna situation to her, at least on the surface. This week, however, in “The Crash” Sally out and tells Don, “I know nothing about you.” I’m curious about where this relationship will go over the next season and a half.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts. I’d really like to think about these dynamics further, watching the series yet again and taking more thorough notes. What do you think? What’s your favorite Sally Draper moment? What parts of the portrayal of parents and/or children on the show to you relate to or find interesting? I personally love her finding out she gets to see the Beatles and the moment between her and Betty when she has her first period.
**I love the illustration “A Sally Draper Mystery: The Secret of Mommy’s Anger,” which is copyrighted by the artist, so I won’t embed it. Click! Click!