Lady Lazarus: Lay Down All Thoughts, Surrender to the Void

Season 5, Episode 8 of Mad Men entitled “Lady Lazarus” culminates with one of the most shocking moments of the series so far: a real Beatles song and one of the rare ones.  The beginning notes of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” alone, were sufficient to blow the mind of any human being actually living and engaged in popular culture in the 1960s, the backdrop for Matthew Weiner’s award-winning television show.

Ostensibly this episode is about Megan Draper’s decision to leave advertising, a profession she has a gift for, and one that does not easily accept women, to pursue her dream to be an actress.  It also features Pete Campbell’s pining for the wife of a colleague with whom he has had a brief sexual encounter and the existential angst this causes him. However, with a title like “Lady Lazarus,” the name of one of Sylvia Plath’s most furious poems about male domination and suicide, “Lady Lazarus” is embedded with a potent message about oblivion, resurrection, and the identity politics which surfaced in the mid-1960s.

The time frame of this episode is the release of the Beatles’ seventh album, Revolver, August of 1966.  And although much of the narrative of Mad Men deals with the positioning of women in relationship to the rise of Second Wave Feminism, in this episode Megan abandons the chance to become a powerful female in a male dominated environment.  Meagan’s dream is acting and she makes a very 60s decision to pursue a course of personal fulfillment rather than succeed at a capitalist profession.  Megan’s search is one of identity, but it coincides with some of the larger questions inherent in the decade.  Critic Jeffrey Escofier posits, “The politics of identity is a kind of cultural politics. It relies on the development of a culture that is able to create new and affirmative conceptions of the self, to articulate collective identities, and to forge a sense of group loyalty.”

In this episode of Mad Men we see the cultural schism from which feminism is emerging:  while the trapped housewife Betty struggles with  “the problem that has no name” proposed by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Joan has used her savvy to become office manager of the firm, and has chosen career over housewife— but it is Peggy and Megan who have entered the realm of career over family.  And while this episode reflects Betty and Joan’s jealousy of Megan, it is Peggy who is most disappointed with her colleague’s departure, for Megan is a like-minded “sister” in a male realm.  Peggy’s anger is palpable and she tells Don to “shut up.”  “It’s not me you’re angry with,” she informs him.  They are both angry with Megan for abandoning the team, and this reinforces their status as equals.

But there is a deeper meaning to this episode, which encompasses feminism but also goes beyond.  It is reflexive of the deep generational divide which pervaded the 1960s, the idea that the personal quest is more significant than the group effort.  Don, who served in Korea and fought to move beyond the social stigma of being a prostitute’s son, is glad to work within the framework of a collective herd that affords him luxury and the status of “boss.”  Megan, who is fifteen years younger, leaves to search for her bliss.  Both Don and Megan are Lady Lazarus, however.  While Don has reinvented himself, literally resurrected himself from the dead Don Draper to create a new identity, a new existence, Megan is resurrecting her identity.  She also wants to be an actor, one who channels identities.  The poem states, “I have done it again/ One year in every ten/ I manage it—”.  Plath is referring to her suicide attempts, her resurrection from oblivion whenever she fails.  She tells us “It’s the theatrical/ Comeback in broad day.”  She likens those in control, men, to Herr Doctor, Herr Lucifer— the Nazi imagery she also uses in “Daddy” to repudiate her father for his untimely death.  And the poem ends with one of Plath’s great images:  “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air” invoking Lillith, Eve’s counterpart, the first female to demand equality instead of motherhood.

And how do the Beatles fit in?  Ginsberg, the young ad man, is infuriated when it is suggested that a thirty year-old record could sound like the Beatles in an ad campaign.  Don is confused, thinks it is the Beatles and asks, “When did music become so important?”  But Megan understands and she gives Don a copy of Revolver and tells him to start with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which begins, “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void.  It is shining, it is shining.”  This song, which hallmarks the Beatles departure from pop and into psychedelia, is a one-chord drone overdubbed with loops of backwards tracks which sound like crows departing from the antechamber of hell, a wall of sound with Lennon’s familiar voice flowing through it.  For those of us who were there, we had never heard anything quite like this song: it signaled departures and secrets codes of knowing.  And, as if we needed any further clues, Pete is reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in multiple scenes.

John Lennon was writing about an LSD experience and influenced by reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but for Megan and Don this lyric is signified by two moments in Episode 5. 8:  When Megan descends in the elevator, leaving Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce for the final time as an employee, Don seems to change his mind about his complicity and rushes to the adjacent elevator to follow her.  But the safety doors are mysteriously open and the elevator has descended to the bottom of the shaft.  He is literally looking into the void— and he has almost stepped into it.  Whether this is real or symbolic, we do not know.

For Megan however, the void is symbolized by her appearance in the montage which accompanies “Tomorrow Never Knows”: Don alone in the empty apartment, experiencing what it feels like to wait for a spouse to come home, Pete longing for a woman he cannot have, because she decided to end the affair, and finally Megan in a state of bliss during an acting exercise— surrendering to the void, the unknown, just as the Beatles meant.  Resurrection is the key to much of Mad Men, which portrays the cultural revolution of its decade: the anger and rebirth and renewal.  And nothing since the 1960s has captured this upheaval as well as Matthew Weiner does, with his complex characters and constant surprises— and the wisdom to choose one of the most important Beatles songs of the decade, not one of the popular, catchy early melodies, but the complex noise of the Beatles in transition, an anthem of a generation in transition.

The Beauty Ritual in Young Adult

She lives in filth, disregards the needs of others, authors teen Trash Lit, possesses an amazing, luminous beauty, and is, coincidentally, a raging alcoholic.  She is simultaneously so naïve and so conniving she actually believes her life will turn out like a young adult novel or a Hollywood movie.  “Don’t you get it?  Love conquers all.  Have you not seen The Graduate?”

The most interesting thing about Young Adult, the new film directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, is the beauty ritual Mavis Gary endures to create a literal personification of traditional, American beauty which she believes will enable her to steal an ex-boyfriend from his wife and new baby.  From this premise, Young Adult proceeds as a tour de force Indy movie: boring and cringe-worthy Midwestern Miracle Mile scenery, nondescript and unadorned bars, interiors of Mavis’s trashed apartment that bespeaks her fixed adolescence, and the domiciles of those she encounters in her home town, including her parents, that scream middle-class stasis and entrapment.

Mavis thinks she is different, superior.  Her weapon is her looks and the cache of her escape to an urban life the audience already knows is defeated and empty.  Although Mavis has come home to steal her first love from his current wife… it is her process, as well as her failure, which gives Young Adult its kick and breath.  And it is the moments that portray Mavis transforming herself into a cunning femme fatale which most resonate.  Mavis, like her YA protagonist, Kendall Strickland, intends to trade on her looks, as well as the idea that beauty trumps all else.  But this, Young Adult instructs us, is merely the stuff of fiction.  Still, Mavis’s transformations into a flawless creature, along with her all too public failure and humiliation, are the film’s most mesmerizing scenes.

The click, click, click of nippers which cut away dead skin and into the quick of nails, the hum of the footbath, the anonymous skillful hands which strip away black nail polish to trade for pink, the slathering on of lotions and foundations used to camouflage the natural and create a different palette, a different identity.  Colors and powders, which accentuate eyes, hide aging lines, and encode an aura of sex or innocence.  Fake hair, which hides nasty habits and nature—all held in place by lacquers and polishes used to keep an assumed identity fixed.  Mavis, already stunning, must use artifice, alcohol, and make-up to keep herself in place, to keep from slipping into the hard knowledge of who she actually is, what she is.

And Diablo Cody knows what she is doing.  Being a woman, she understands the promises of the beauty mill, the implication that starvation and pain ultimately bring the fulfillment of a myth as ridiculous and fictional as Mavis’s young adult narratives.  And this is why we love Young Adult, because it unmasks, cleans the slate, and yet somehow still leaves Mavis undaunted.  Because you may not like Mavis Gary, but you appreciate her tenacity, and you also appreciate her downfall.  Most of us, let’s face it, never felt much love for the Prom Queen, the idol of popularity and the priestess of loveliness.  Most of us just live in the world as it is.

Tate and Violet vs. Bella and Edward: Uncanny Elements of The Postmodern, Undead, Gothic Teen Romance

Here is my recently accepted abstract for the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association national conference to be held in Boston, April 11-14, 2012. *warning: if you haven’t finished AHS for the season, there is a SPOILER!*  Essay to follow.

Whereas Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series often exhibits more traditional elements of the Gothic Romance between teenage, star crossed lovers, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s newly minted television series American Horror Story presents a high camp and terrifying look at the pitfalls of teen courtship in a Postmodern, Gothic setting.  The creators of these series are respectively a Mormon housewife and an openly gay architect of highly successful television series.  Consequently, both couples reflect the time frame in which they were created and the ideology of their creators.

Common elements of these teen affairs include undead Byronic male figures and their living counterparts who chose to die.  Bella and Violet are metamorphosed by their interactions with Edward and Tate, who are both so highly romanticized and physically beautiful, each young woman is ruined to the prospect of a normal relationship.  Bella and Violet, however, are also intellectual, intelligent loners out of step with society.

The focus of this paper will be the inherent differences of each relationship.  While Edward is configured as a sensitive, yet flawed, hero figure such as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester, Tate is a full-fledged psychopath and serial killer whose teenage lover both abhors and longs for.  While Meyer’s plot arc is often laughable and stunningly traditional, American Horror Story’s young lovers have more in common with modern Horror and Slasher traditions, which give the series its cache.  The feminization of Tate and Edward, along with traditional and unconventional aspects of Violet and Bella’s femininity will also be explored.

In Praise of Barbarella

When I teach Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968) as a feminist film text, my students usually think I have lost my mind.   Barbarella, however, pushes a counter-culture narrative and boasts a sexually liberated female astronaut who attracts both males and females in her adventures.  She is not only liberated, but also empowered.   The film is based on a comic strip character created by Jean-Claude Forest, which appeared in the French V-Magazine in 1962.  In its native France, the female astronaut soon became a pop culture sensation.  Two years later when Eric Losfeld published Barbarella as a graphic novel, it immediately sold 200,000 copies, but French censors also ruled that it could not be publicly displayed.

Jean-Marc Lofficier states, “Barbarella was the first female hero to enter French comics since World War II and the country’s first science-fiction character. Her liberated attitude gave her a fragile, yet invincible aura. She became the incarnation of the ’60s budding eroticism” (36).  Forest admits that Barbarella was patterned after American comics such as Flash Gordon; he also wanted the comic to have the same kind of whimsy as Louis Carroll, but with a comedic slant.  The graphic novel was a resounding success: “Dubbed the “first comic strip for grown-ups,” Barbarella attracted rave reviews from a varied assortment of magazines including French literary weekly Arts (“a modern epic”), Newsweek (“a mythic creature of the space age”), and Playboy (“the very ‘apotheosis’ of eroticism”)” (36).

In 1968, the French director Roger Vadim convinced his American wife, Jane Fonda, to star in a film version of Barbarella.  The movie, however, was immediately controversial due to the scantily clad or nearly naked figure of Fonda, who is placed in an ongoing series of sexual situations.  The Barbarella text was faithfully reenacted and interpreted by screenwriter Terry Southern, who wrote other controversial 60s films such as Dr. Strangelove; or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Collector (1965), Casino Royale (1967), and Easy Rider (1969).  Southern emphasizes many of the sexually bizarre components of Forest’s original narrative, such as the heroine sado-sexually attacked by mechanical dolls with teeth, vampire children, and an evil lesbian queen.  In one scene, Barbarella is placed in a glass dome with birds that attack her and flay her skin, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). This pop culture reference, among others, creates a cinematic record of the zeitgeist of “hip” Sixties culture.  Thus, Barbarella is also an early example of a postmodern film text.

If taken out of the context of camp, however, Barbarella highlights Laura Mulvey’s theory of scopophilia, or pleasure in looking.  In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey theorizes:

 The first avenue, voyeurism, on the contrary, has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness…. Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and end. (Mulvey 22)

Barbarella, however, thwarts Mulvey’s notion, because Barbarella always triumphs over her subjugators and tormentors.  Because she is open, innocent, and clever, she defeats everyone who seeks to control her, confronting the sadism of her captors with good will and negotiating her own terms for physical pleasure.  Southern’s understanding of both the decadent and the grotesque certainly informs the film, rendering a cult text in the guise of a Hollywood narrative.  Yet, Barbarella is very much a product of its day.  Reflecting both the sexual revolution and revolutionary chic, as evidenced by David Hemming’s absent-minded, feminized rebel who needs Barbarella’s help to manifest his plans.

In her essay, “Bringing Barbarella Down to Earth,” Lisa Parks praises another dimension of the film, “While scientists and politicians positioned feminine sexuality as a threat to the scientific rational and nationalist imperatives of the American space program, Barbarella represented a dangerous alternative: a female astronaut who was sexy, single and political—a highly volatile combination” (253-4).  Parks sees the character of Barbarella as a female with agency, “Barbarella’s hyperbolic sexuality … enables the female astronaut to assert power and control within the narrative …  Barbarella’s body is also a tool of personal pleasure and political power” (254).

Jane Fonda commented that Barbarella was “a kind of tongue-in-cheek satire against bourgeois morality” (qtd. in Parks 261), while Vadim deemed it “ruthless satire.”  Although controversial, Barbarella is certainly made from the sexual revolution of its day: a melding of pop culture and camp, where the “low art” of comic book meets the capitalism of Hollywood to create an American and French version of the Swinging Sixties set in the future.  After all this time, shouldn’t she be praised for these achievements?

Lofficier, Jean-Marc, and Randy Lofficier. “Cruising The Galaxy With Barbarella.”  STARLOG.  Issue 92. March, 1985. Web.  15 January 2011.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual And Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Parks, Lisa.  “Bringing Barbarella Down to Earth.”  Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s. Ed., Hillary Radner and Moya Luckett.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1999.  253-274.

Stay Tuned.

The purpose of this web site is to provide links to my C.V., publications, course syllabi, dissertation, and perhaps even part of a novel. But I also intend to use the empty space of the page to expound about cinema, television, culture studies, popular culture, gender studies, feminism, and perhaps even pedagogy.

How to begin? I wanted to create a header from photos of my favorite actresses in scenes from 1960s cinema. In less than an hour I had collected a dozen… then two, and more. It was impossible to choose. How can you show Martha, without Mrs. Robinson? Together they make a whole name. And how could you have Scout without Sue Lyon’s Lolita? Or Marianne without Anita (well, you do!). And the 60s can’t be represented without Varla in all her glory, but where is Barbarella, Modesty Blaise, and Pussy Galore? Bonnie Parker crowded out Rosemary Woodhouse and a zombie or two, but not Cat Woman! Yet certainly you cannot exemplify the age of both radical politics and Flower Power without the Princess del Lago, Diana Scott, and Sally Bowles? Or the curse of the monstrous feminine without Janet Leigh’s iconic scream and Bette Davis’s booze-swilling sneer as Baby Jane Hudson takes charge. And of course, without Blow Up’s Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Birkin, or Veruschka?

One by one, however, I promise to march them all out, to re-examine, apprise, and praise. Stay tuned.