Why "Mad Men"'s View of Mental Health Is Only Somewhat Outdated

Ginsberg's mental illness is sad, while Betty's mental illness is seen as a major character flaw.

May 13, 2014 at 10:32am | Leave a comment

This article contains references to the most recent episode of "Mad Men," titled “The Runaways.”
 
 
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Image source: AMC

 
We’ve known since day one that no one on "Mad Men" is a model for healthy living. Everyone is plagued by some affliction, and all are the victims of an era in which people exerted immense amounts of effort to hide and repress any hint of social imperfection. But this week, for the first time in a while, we are confronted with issues of mental health that we can’t gloss over.
 
The obvious example is Ginsberg, who has a complete psychotic break in this episode. But what about Betty?
 
In the first few seasons, we see physical manifestations of Betty’s troubled mental state. We see her hands shake uncontrollably. We know that she hallucinates while giving birth. And we see her (arguably) physically abusing her children. At the very least, Betty seems to suffer from clinical depression.
 
But over time, these kinds of acts have faded into the background and for the most part, the audience sees an angry, awful woman who is a terrible mother. When Betty manifests her mental fragility, we the audience feel pain, though not for Betty. We sympathize with those Betty hurts. She's painted as a bad person who mistreats her family.
 
And now, Ginsberg. For the most part, we have seen Ginsberg attempting to cope with stress, anxiety and maybe even some trauma going on in the background. All things considered, he remains (relatively) cool on the surface. He doesn't have a drinking or drug problem. He doesn't drown his pain in orgies or pills. He's a little tightly wound -- but that's it.
 
When he was first introduced there was that strange scene with his father praying with him that was never really explained. So behind his work self, you always get that sense that he has stressful family responsibilities. But when Ginsberg finally cracks in this episode, in what appears to be a nervous breakdown manifested as some sort of delusional/paranoid/psychotic series of incidents, it's presented with humor. His ideas about the computer making Lou and Cutler gay just seem silly. Even when he tries to force himself onto Peggy -- it's not meant to seem like an almost-rape. It's meant to be seen as some ridiculous scene where an overworked, undersexed man has begun to unravel and simultaneously discovers his attraction for his supervisor.
 
But when Ginsberg finally snaps -– and hands his severed nipple to Peggy in a box -- Peggy calls the psych hospital and we see Ginsberg being carted away on a gurney, with Peggy crying into her scarf. You feel genuine sympathy for him because you recognize that something has cracked inside him, and he can't control it. We see Ginsberg as the victim -– of circumstance, mental illness and an uncaring, unsupportive environment full of intense pressure.
 
Betty's mental illness is seen as a major character flaw; something that makes her easy to hate. But in Ginsberg it's comical -- until it's not. Then it's just really, really sad.

What this all means is still a little fuzzy. Certainly it's not a leap to take it as a commentary on the way mental illness and mental health issues were dealt with in the '60s. (That sight of Ginsberg being taken away is really, really haunting.) But it's also not a leap to think that this all says something about one of the many different expectations for men and women. It tells us how women should act, the amount of sympathy we have for female characters who are really troubled, and perhaps most importantly, the way we see the validity of women's claims that something is really wrong.
 
In the end Ginsberg's issues were taken really seriously. Peggy sees an alarming problem and calls for help. We know that his co-workers took his situation seriously enough to reach out and get help.
 
 
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Image source: AMC

 
But there has not yet come a time when Betty's issues are taken seriously. In the first season, she visited a psychiatrist and unloaded all of her problems to her trusted doctor so that he could give her report card to Don and dismiss everything she said. Later, she tried therapy and pills for her depression and weight gain. And while she clearly can't cope with the stress of her life and her past family trauma, she is time and time again dismissed, often as a bitch. This means that we can never have sympathy for her, and that there's little hope that her issues will ever be treated with the same urgency as Ginsberg's.
 
Maybe things really aren’t that different today. How often do women who say that something is wrong get dismissed as oversensitive and overemotional? When a female character acts out or struggles with mental health on TV and in movies, how frequently are they dismissed as “a bitch?” (Skyler White, anyone?)
 
And for all the progress we have supposedly made since 1969, why in 2014 are we not recognizing that while Betty Draper does some awful things, she's also left without a support system, scarred from her childhood, and with no one to take her seriously when she speaks up. Would anything really be different for Betty today?
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