Like A Bird In A Cage

Tea Leaves

“Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, the Sound Of Music Cast

Tea Leaves, Season 5 Episode 3

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            The hit musical The Sound Of Music brings us this swooning orchestrated duet that tells a fairy tale story of young love, dainty and condescending in its gender politics. These two moods are great for a Betty-centric story, as she tends to be ill-tempered yet mannered at all times. Her prudence and helplessness often give her stories a staid old-timey air, focusing on a developmentally stunted woman in a period of unprecedented freedom. “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” gracefully captures this ironic disconnect between the era’s opportunity and entrenched sexism.

            Betty’s uncertain waffling between empowered feminist and submissive housewife ideals, compounded by her bristling demeanor and deep sadness, creates a compelling presence that sticks in the viewer’s memory far disproportionate to her screen time in the last few seasons. Her series-long battle to gain authority, yet retain poise and beauty makes for a subversive backdrop to this song, which is all about a woman ceding her worth and giving herself up cheerfully. A demure, old-school show tune is the perfect complement to the character’s ingrained self-worth issues and struggle for respect.

            Critics make much of the fact that Betty’s growing self-awareness, mood swings, bodily changes and dissatisfaction hidden behind decorum are quite similar to the maturation of a teenage girl. Indeed, in the first couple seasons she was a shrinking innocent turned petulant victim, but by the third season she had come to terms with her failing marriage and scoundrel husband with some semblance of perspective. At this junction, she is metaphorically just growing out of her teen years and becoming the complex woman she was meant to be, having decided what she wants out of life. She’s contradictory, like the actual young woman who Don has a cryptic, strange conversation with at the rock concert. Her worldview is gradually broadening, smoothing over her self-defeating attitude. She has seen a lot, no longer afraid of things beyond her understanding like the girl in the musical.

            In a way, “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” is about everything that Betty fears, yet strives for to keep up appearances. She feels as though she was married off for her beauty and thus squandered her potential, like Liesl, the character singing the song. From Don to Henry to Glen, she is used and marked by the men around her – as the lyrics go, she’s an empty page to be written on. After being dependent and miserable as late as season four, when she could only open up to a child psychiatrist, she instead becomes manic and directionless. Perhaps as a result of this stress, her weight gain between seasons only complicates her sense of self-esteem. Henry has been ignoring her of late, though he is notably quite accommodating and positive about her body image. Sally is growing distant from her, and to top it all off, she must face her own mortality.

            The cancer scare Betty has in this episode is a chance for the character to examine where she’s going in life, and whether her new life is truly satisfying. It also reflects her anxiety about her efficacy as a mother, wife and friend. Everyone comes out of the woodwork to show their support, and they expect her to be relieved at the false alarm, but she’s still unhappy. So we finish the hour with her eating ice cream, as a way to dull the pain. And then she pauses for a second and decides to finish eating Sally’s dish as well. The final shot has immaculate tonal balance. It is at once a victory, as Betty proudly takes control of her body and lifestyle, and a shameful defeat, because she can’t help herself and still feels guilty and inadequate (about more than just her weight). The complexity of a character or situation in one simple scene, over a cleverly insightful song – that’s what Mad Men does best.

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“I Enjoy Being A Girl”, The Chrysanthemum And the Sword

            Here we have another commentary on womanhood, again focusing on one storyline for a pithy punch. Sometimes the show had more cluttered and contrasting hours that wouldn’t be well serviced by one song, so they picked an ideal candidate for a particular plotline, usually the one with the closing scene.

            Doris Day’s shamelessly dated and cutesy tune is used in this season four episode as a closing statement on a story wherein Sally has her first experience with sexuality. She experimentally masturbates at a friend’s sleepover, learns (to her disapproval) of her father’s new romantic travails, and cuts her hair in rebellion. This wild, but not unusual behavior leads her inexperienced mother to hit her and take her to a psychologist, as mentioned above.

            The song is a chiming, perky laundry list of all the typical feminine signifiers, some of which Sally will have no part in. Examining this track in parallel with the one from Tea Leaves shows how in some ways, Sally is a prisoner of her mother’s values, and in others, she will be a member of the generation that breaks free from them.

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One Response to Like A Bird In A Cage

  1. Michele says:

    I selfishly wanted Don and Betty to stay married because I knew if they didn’t, her screen time would get slashed, and I was right. She was one of the few characters that I could never quite predict how they were going to react or what they were going to do next and I loved her for that.

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