Television has a long and storied history when it comes to managing their actress’s real-life pregnancies. Typically this involves standing behind couches or holding boxes,  being shot from the waist up, or being abducted by aliens, you know, the usual. Less common, though not untried, the actress in question may find herself donning a fat suit. I’m thinking in this instance and with minimal research,  exclusively of Daphne in Frasier, a 22-minute situational comedy. Because I had seen it before, you’d think I would have been less than surprised to turn on Mad Men last night and find Matthew Wiener’s choice of managing January Jones’s pregnancy – Jones’s angular face was padded with a ring of fat not dissimilar from the one Gwyneth Paltrow wore in Shallow Hall, her first appearance of the season and it is with porcine curls and a dress that won’t zip up, and later on binging on Bugles and ice cream, a body double hired to play Betty stepping from the bathtub. I don’t know what exactly I felt upon seeing her, but it was incredibly intense and incredibly complicated.

Ultimately, the problem with the characterization of Betty gaining weight can be divided into two, separate problems.  The first – we do not live in a culture where fat people are treated the same as thin people. (By the same token, we do not live in a culture where women are treated the same as men. I hold out hope that one of those two unfortunate realities will change, but I hold my breath over the other.) Like it or not – fat means bad in contemporary America, and the only time a skinny actress puts on a fat suit is to elicit a laugh. Audiences react to sudden changes like this, and familiar tropes like this, in one way – laughter, humor, a distancing. The second problem, is in a way, exacerbated by the first:  I do not think, upon reflection, that it was Wiener’s intention to create a ‘funny fat’ character. I think his intention was to was do something very interesting – to present Betty as something she has never been – Don’s foil. While Don is grappling with his shifting role in the mid-60s – no longer the young man, drugging himself with booze and the affections of a younger woman, Betty is grappling with the life she had fought so hard for and now finds lacking. Wiener chose to illustrate this crisis within Betty through a cancer scare, and through emotional eating.

Wiener’s handling of Don’s womanizing and alcoholism has always been nuanced. That’s part of what has made Mad Men such a success. The characterization of Don feels multidimensional, rich, distinctive, and specific – it’s told in gestures and in mood. Above all, Wiener treats Don – even at his worst moments – with respect and affection. Had he approached Betty in this episode, fat suit or not, in this way, it could have been very successful. Instead, the internet’s GIF cup already overfloweth with sped-up images of Betty in a housecoat mainlining fried corn treats and finishing Sally’s ice cream. They are cliched images, they do not delve into anything, they are as non-specific about a woman’s relationship with her body as any Cathy cartoon. This is perhaps all the more frustrating given Betty’s past attitude about Sally’s appearance. Instead of allowing Sally to leave to leave the table after a brief chiding about finishing her food and joining her mother in over-indulging, what if Betty had made Sally finish it? Instead of selective shots of Betty binging, why not show us the more layered realities of a woman who has made her body a metaphor for her unhappy life – a week of restriction followed by a binge, hidden food, the polite demurral at a Junior League party followed by the awkward eating of a small plate of salad.

Better still – why use this image at all? To be frank, the richest moments of last night’s epsiode came from Betty’s grappling with her own mortality in the face of her potentially life-threatening diagnosis. Betty breaking down upon having her tea leaves read, Betty’s haunting dream of a house without her, Betty’s odd reaction upon learning she was healthy, and most of all, Betty’s call to Don in a time of crisis and the shared intimacy of their failed marriage revisited. All of these things did what Wiener seemed to be reaching for by touching on the issue of Betty’s weight gain and with all the respect he usually treats his characters. So why bother doing it? Why not stick to the classics and not try to bend a story progressing so beautifully into an awkward shape?

Strangely, the choice to make Betty an emotional eater has me going back on my easy acceptance of Peggy’s own turn in the fat-suit during her secret pregnant.  While it was happening,  I had no issue with these sorts of thoughts, I felt no conflict – because it was so clearly a major plot point, and because Peggy is so well-written and at that stage, such a closed-shell – that the revelation about her pregnancy was a perfectly crafted secret and surprise. There was a never a moment where I worried the audience would laugh at her. Ever. But when viewed as the first in a series, as a tact the shows takes, I wonder if I was wrong to be so accepting. I think back on the jokes made by other characters at Peggy’s expense, and I think of Betty’s snide retort to her husband’s adamant insistence that he doesn’t seen any weight gain – “Of course not,” she mews, “your mother’s obese.” And I worry that I am still tempted to explain away as poor writing may in fact be as a thoughtless fat phobic point of view. Neither, for a show of this caliber, is acceptable.

 


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