My facebook status from yesterday: “GIVING SOME BETTY DRAPER.” I don’t twitter, and I don’t like to use the facebook statussing to inform my meagre 219 friends the extremely boring activities of my daily life: like they need to know that I cleaned my sister’s apartment. But that’s just what I did yesterday (OK I just cleaned the dining area) but it felt significant enough to broadcast in the language of drag. I was “giving some Betty Draper,” as in, I was embodying January Jones’s character on the television series Mad Men. Betty Draper is of course, the 1960s iceberg of a spouse (now ex-spouse) of the show’s protagonist. (Betty is so glacial, when her widowed father and his new ladyfriend come for a visit, she puts them in separate bedrooms. LOVE IT!!)
But this is not a glorification of housewifery. I don’t find anything glamorous about being an indentured slave to some man, cooking cleaning and talking babytalk to an infant all day. I clean house in an old Skinny Puppy t-shirt. The only way I like crinoline is shredded and cigarette burned. But I do like the way the January Jones embodies the tenets of her enslavement: she’s angry. Jones plays a repressed housewife, but she practically seethes in every scene. She’s so tense and clipped that she might as well just wear a sign that says “I HATE MY LIFE.” Repression is the vase into which she pours the flower of her fury. I love Betty Draper not because she is a (gay) male fantasy of a sexy housewife, but because I love the way the female actor playing her embodies the anger of a woman forced to embody the male fantasy of a sexy housewife.
When I cleaned my sister’s apartment yesterday, I wasn’t seething at all. My lawyer sister is a working woman and a former tomboy to boot so domestic labor is definitely not her thing. But the night before last, she complained loudly, “God I hate how this house looks like a hoarder’s house! Stuff everywhere! The kitchen table is a mess!” Which it was: half of it was covered with expired vitamins, dead pens, old bills, court documents, make-up she was bored with. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed or thrilled, because even though she was just letting out the complaint into the air at no one in particular, she sounded exactly like some mid-20th Century upper-middle class American husband. That’s when I decided I’d just take up her challenge and give (her) some Betty Draper.
So what does it mean that I want to embody this hybrid of sexist femme persona and proto-feminist performing female that is “Betty Draper”? Especially at this time in my life, when I have gone through almost a decade of giving various black ladies (Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross, and of course, Mariah) as my everyday persona, I am suddenly wanting to embody...a white woman????
That I see an Aryan lady when I look in the mirror of my brain always gives me pause. It makes me think of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, in which a little black girl loses her mind due to her consuming passion for Shirley Temple. But that is a novel that is seriously misread all the time. I’d love to explain more, but that is the last chapter of my old Ph.D. dissertation/ first book manuscript, which is still seeking a publisher home. So I’ll use instead a faster and more contemporary example: the film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. There is a scene in that film in which the dark-skinned, African-American heroine (who is also very overweight) is getting ready for her day in front of her mirror. We (the camera) are positioned behind her and we suddenly see what she sees in the mirror: not a dark-skinned African-American who is very overweight, but a slim, pale, blond, white girl.
The scene is presumably there to indicate to us the heroine’s lack of self-worth: she wants to obliterate her own body for a white one, which she believes will give her the happiness she desires. As Venus Xtravaganza famously said: “I want to be a spoiled rich white girl; they get everything they want.” In this way, the white reflection in the mirror is a symptom of Precious’s racial self-hatred: Precious wants to be a white girl. However, that is true only if she thinks that the white girl in the mirror as her reflection. But what if the white girl were not a reflection in the mirror, but the mirror itself?
Then we have to think about the mirror itself as a tool of self-creation. I’m not going to go into Lacan here. Instead, I’ll cite a white lady:
"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size."
Thus spoke Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Substitute “Women” with “White Girl” and “man” with “Black Girl.” According to Woolf, the mirror is useful precisely for its distorting function. There is a difference between the material of the mirror and the phenomenon of the reflection. Being a mirror: you are the object with which the looker creates a certain (amplified) image of one’s self; being a reflection: you are a distortion that the mirror provides. I embody Betty Draper/ January Jones not because I desire to turn my yellow skin white, but because the white femininity becomes the hard glass with which I can make my flesh an unimaginable version of “girl.” “White Girl” can be a mirror rather than a reflection. It is in this way that the mirror scene in Precious is my favorite scene in the film. There is something weirdly punkrock, something subtly rebellious, about a 300 lb. black girl seeing herself as and through a 100 lb. white girl. Through the trick of fantasy (or psychosis, take your pick) the black girl has transformed the cells of her flesh into the cells of her imagination. She was saying a big FUCK YOU to biology. The image of white femininity is not an unattainable goal, but an attained one. The white girl in the mirror is not a glamorous ideal, but something so merely and importantly mundane: a white version of herself. Two girls, black and white, in the same black leather.