Betty Draper’s Fat Suit and Other Ageist Travesties on “Mad Men”

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By Sayantani DasGupta

Full disclosure first: I am a Mad Men addict. I love the show, its period costumes and sets, its take on the social and political changes of the 50’s and 60’s, and most of all I love that sexist, chain-smoking adver-jerk Don Draper and his square cut Dick Tracy jaw.

So, I write this rant as a fan. (Warning, spoilers ahead if you’ve DVRed this past Sunday’s episode but haven’t yet seen it.)

But what I have to ask is this: What in the world was with Betty Draper’s fat suit? (er, Betty Francis’ fat suit, whatever, I refuse to recognize that boring new husband of hers.)

I get it, the show is feeling its age. This season’s opener last week was all about babies, domesticity, and motherhood in a way it’s never been before. Which, despite the strange giant close up of Joan’s son’s diaper-creme-y bottom, was a terrific change from the show’s usually male-centric, work-centric world. And now this week’s show was all about aging: Roger feels his age as Pete edges him out as top-wanker at the office; straight-laced Don gets pegged as a narc by the weed smoking 60’s youth at a Rolling Stones concert; even ingénue Peggy (*Shock! A woman gets hired as a writer in advertising!*) gets moved over by a newer, younger, weirder, ethnic-er copy writer (*Shock! An African American women named Dawn is Don’s new secretary AND a Jewish copy writer is hired for the racistly-named Mohawk Airlines account!*). And just in case you couldn’t put all the generation gap pieces together for yourself, the episode ends with the song, “I am sixteen, going on seventeen,” from The Sound of Music. 

But really, Mad Men writers? The female version of Roger’s impotence and Don’s ‘out of touch-ness’ is the fact that Betty got really heavy? I understand that you had to deal in some way with actress January Jones’ pregnancy – but instead of shooting her from the waist up or making her carry lots of shopping bags, you decided to put her in a horrible, unrealistic fat suit, under tons of weird latex and makeup in order to make the point that “middle aged” (how old is she now? 30?) women “put weight on more easily and have a harder time taking it off”? (Not to mention that atrocious tent-like pink housedress that had me running for the Visine! My eyes!) And then there were all those food-shaming shots of her eating Bugles (straight out of the bag!) and two whole helpings of ice cream. I mean, really?

Not only should the Mad Men writers, makeup and wardrobe team be seriously reprimanded for this choice, but they should perhaps be forced to watch (several times over) Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat-suit wearing cinematic splash Shallow Hal; perhaps back to back with those atrocious “investigative reports” on sizeism by the likes of Tyra Banks.  

Fat suits are nothing new in Hollywood, and for a while there it seemed that every supermodel/entertainment reporter/size zero actress was donning one in order to experience “real life” people’s pain. (At least Renee Zellwegger, when she played Bridget Jones, really put on the weight). The critique that Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat suit wearing film generated is the same as I have for Mad Men’s treatment of Betty. In an insightful 2005 MTV article on fat suits in Hollywood, Karl Heitmueller writes,

By burying Paltrow under latex and makeup, the film not only gives us an unconvincing obese girl, it lets the audience off the hook: We’re not forced to truly deal with our attitudes toward obesity because we know Gwyneth the actress isn’t fat…

Subconsciously or not, it’s easier for the audience to laugh at the fat person if they know that the actor underneath is actually trim. Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor” remakes; Julia Roberts in “America’s Sweetheart”; Martin Lawrence in “Big Momma’s House”…

But to the overweight person sitting in the audience, the experience must be similar to a black person watching an old blackface minstrel show. When the character is presented as mean-spiritedly as Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard character from the “Austin Powers” movies or scary-thin Courteney Cox-Arquette’s Fat Monica from flashback episodes of “Friends,” it becomes outright torture.

The public reactions to the Betty Draper story line are alternately horrid and supportive. The Washington Post’s Jen Chaney went so far as to call the character “hefty Betty” and “ugly Betty” – calling the episode a perfect “schadenfreude opportunity.” In an unimaginatively titled article called “Fat suit wearing January Jones returns to Mad Men in a really big way,” MSNBC reports offensive tweets about the episode, including one (referring to reports that January Jones ate part of her placenta) by “@Chet_Cannon,” which said: “Betty Draper looks like she ate about 100 placentas.” On the other hand, Jezebel.com (which does a lovely job summarizing the story line’s twists and turns) applauds the episode for elegantly handling the “complicated emotions that come with a woman’s unwanted weight-gain.”

Now, I don’t as such have a problem as such with a story line about weight gain. (Although I might have liked to see women’s aging issues handled with as much complexity as the episode handled men’s issues.) What I really have a problem with is how this particular story line was handled visually. I have a problem, a serious one, with the fat suit.

We all know January Jones is thin in “real life.” She’s a magazine cover darling, and while she may have been pregnant during the shooting of Mad Men, this fat-suit dependent “does she have cancer or is she just fat” story line is not only size-ist and age-ist but ridiculous. It’s beneath a show whose breathtaking writing and social commentary have made it a Monday morning office water cooler staple.

Get over your mid-life crisis, Mad Men, and get your fat head out of its own fat suit. Real life women, and the women who play us on TV, deserve better.

 

 

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Comments

  1. January was pregnant in real life at the time of the shooting. She was 9 months along. She said in interviews they didn’t want Betty to go through another pregnancy so the storyline of the ice queen past her prime fit perfectly. genius.

  2. Thanks for your comment Maggy! I wholeheartedly agree – it’s an absurd invention/convention and certainly no real approximation for understanding sizeism!

  3. Thank you for your discussion about fat suits and their role in the entertainment industry. I get very tired of seeing thin actors don them for cheap laughs. I don’t believe that putting on a fat suit as a social experiment can give someone a true sense of what it’s like to be fat. The wearer may get reactions from individuals, but has the luxury of being able to remove the suit to avoid most of the slights associated with institutionalized sizesim.