Can people really change? This is the question asked by the season finale of Mad Men on Sunday and it is our question about our born in the Old South (and possibly racist bred) 66 year-old Queen of Butter – celebrity chef Paula Deen.
It might seem strange to conflate Ms. Deen’s jokey use and tolerance of the “N” word (as well as her less talked of jokes about Jews, gays and who knows what else) with the machinations of fictional characters playing out the social changes of the 1960s on a cable television series. But it isn’t. There is barely a visible line between any of the real and the unreal touchstones in our world at this point in time.
Since we’ve learned from a low level systems analyst, who has thus far eluded the entire law enforcement apparatus of the US, that the American government now could very well be listening in on YOUR (certainly not mine!) daily phone calls, I find I’ve even begun to wonder how truly false the activities are of the Housewives seen on television in any major US city. I mean, just because they’re BRAVO cable TV creations cheekily billed as “Real,” and everyone knows Bravo reality TV shows are fake (don’t we?), how do we know for sure in this climate that they actually aren’t all an even more clever trick – a dead honest representation of what a large segment of our lives have become. A world we don’t want to admit to in the same way Mad Men’s Don Draper and the deposed Food Network diva Paula Deen don’t want to cop to their foibles until they both are absolutely forced to.
Since I’m not a housewife, nor can I technically be considered an authority on married adult family life since I couldn’t be legally married in the US or even considered part of my own adult family until a few days ago (and the jury is still out on that if I decide to move into any other of the majority of our “united” states), I can’t speak for those shows on BRAVO (Note: though ironically, I am a key demographic in their target audience). I am, however, a big Mad Men fan and have on more than one occasion gotten a hoot out of the over-the-top unhealthy food choices and personality of Paula Deen on the Food Network (especially when almost 10 years ago my dear friend Michael, in all seriousness, dubbed her “a murderess”). So I can mouth off with some authority to the general bulk of the subject at hand.
The thing about change is —
You can do it but it takes A LOT of will and focus and diligence to truly alter who you basically are because it means modifying what you were taught (or through experience decided) to believe was fundamentally true. We build up defenses – systems for being in the world – formulas for success or even right or wrong ways to be. Through our lives, these ideas are learned and unlearned. Sometimes what you learned or were taught works the first time out and it is great!!! Many other times they fail you and you wonder why you’ve been left in the dog house when all you’ve done is follow the rules or did as you’ve always done and are now suddenly being told that formula is outdated, not useful or just plain wrong.
This is when reinvention or re-education comes in. In other words, change.
No one stays the youngest, the smartest and the most handsome forever – as Don Draper, brilliantly played by Jon (“He deserves his Emmy already”) Hamm has finally begun to learn. Even when you stay handsome, as Don/Jon certainly has, the starchy early sixties thin-lapeled suits and tight slicked back hair give way to the more desirable shoulder length tresses and striped bell bottoms (do we really want to see DD THAT way?). The same way the actions of a cool, scotch-swilling square jawed Lothario, he of the chic Madison Avenue success story, can quickly become the cold, desperate acts of a lying alcoholic whose behavior no one will tolerate anymore when, really, his actions are to himself, deep down, only just a little bit more or a little bit less than what he’s always been.
Whether one is an avid MM watcher or not, we all can relate to that point in time when we know the jig is up. This is where Don Draper is at the fiercely ended sixth season. A guy who has been fired from his personal and professional worlds and can either keep going on a downward spiral or decide, in some small or big way, to make an attempt to deal with the dreaded Big C – in this case, Change.
For Don Draper his admission of his past and how he was raised – poor, unloved in a whorehouse, a young boy who was occasionally given affection and life lessons from the random prostitute who took pity on him, or on herself by using him – is a big step forward and would almost seem cliché unless one were to have witnessed all six seasons of his life up to that point in time. This is much like it is in real life when a person exposes a particular painful part of their past to you after admitting to a particular heinous act of their own towards you, and asks for forgiveness. It depends how willing you are to make the leap with them given what you know of them, and how big, smart or able to open up your own heart is (or, more correctly, decides to be).
As a loyal viewer and participant in the Draper saga, I found it incredibly moving when he turns to his troubled 14-year-old Sally – who has begun to carve a somewhat delinquent road of her own thanks to her father’s lies – and stares her down as they finally stand together in his truth in front of the crumbling brothel in question. But even more effective is Sally’s gaze back up at him – perhaps the only look of true love in her eyes towards him when she realizes for the first time in her life her father has chosen to show her, unvarnished, who he really is. Talk about a change – on both counts.
Now admittedly this type of change might have particularly moved me since I would be only a year younger than the fictional Sally was at the time of this look and I remember quite well how infrequently this type of stuff happened between parents and children in 1968. Which is understandable since at the time the country and adult Americans were both coming-of-age, a circumstance that usually needs to happen before real change can come from them towards us and everyone else (and vice-versa). Which brings us to the much written about, proud daughter of the South – Paula Deen.
I’ve never made a joke that included the “N” word in my entire life (really, I haven’t!) and I never heard either parent make one. I did, however, witness plenty of racial epithets from their friends and relatives growing up and gotten into my share of arguments over them. For example, as a Jewish kid I would often hear the Yiddish word “schvartze” used to simultaneously describe and denigrate Black people – a term you’d be right to think of as our ethnic version of the “N” word.
Now some or even many of the people that use this word occasionally will argue to the death or your own exhaustion – whichever comes first – that this term it is not derogatory because it derives from the Yiddish word schvart, which is the actual word for Black in that language.
To those then and now who defend the word or its usage on this historical basis I say this: YOU KNOW YOU ARE FULL OF SHIT!!!
You KNOW and are FULLY aware of what that word means and what it connotes. That is why you used it then and that is why you use it now. And to the deceased Israeli guy I almost got into the only fist fight of my life with for using this insane explanation to justify his constant use of the word while telling a really bad joke at a public dinner in Santa Monica during the eighties – I’m sorry you died but you will always be full of shit vis-à-vis your justification on this matter.
As for Paula Deen – she not only KNEW and KNOWS what she said was wrong in the 1980s (even though she claims she only said it at gunpoint to a Black man who was holding her up) and she sure as heck/hell (or whatever) KNOWS it was wrong a few years ago in the context of a joke, even if she was simultaneously telling jokes and using questionable terms to describe other ethnic groups, including her own.
It is not a coincidence that the master of the ethnic insult, comedian Don Rickles, 87 years old and still going strong, has never used the N word in his act. Or any other ethnic slurs. Sure, he markets in stereotypical behavior and is an equal opportunity offender that way, but there is a reason he always drew that line. Chris Rock IS Black. He can use the N word if he so chooses, just as Richard Pryor did before him or Chevy Chase was able to do in a vintage SNL skit WITH Richard Pryor.
But Paula Deen – not a comic, at least by trade – built a vast financial empire when, as a single mother in the sixties, she started making sandwiches for her young sons to sell door to door. Cut to last year alone when she earned in excess of $12 million. During that time, she’s traveled all over the world and hung out with all types of people of many different shades, including some very famous (cough, cough, Oprah) ones. She knows what is right. And what is not right. She went against that, for whatever reason. And, because she’s famous, she got caught.
Yes, because she’s famous she is subject to different standards than you or I. Boo hoo. That is the cost of being a play-uh in that game. We don’t each get to make millions trading on our famous faces for endorsement deals so we don’t have to worry as much about getting publicly caught like famous people do. That doesn’t mean we should use those words either. But life is not fair. I’d like to make a few mill for proclaiming the merits of another college professor, or screenwriting program or even blog, publicly. But I don’t. So boo hoo for me on that score.
Paula Deen has committed the crime of callousness, bad taste and perhaps prejudice towards some employees. She is not a murderess (well, unless you use my friend Michael’s definition) but she is also not guilt-free of wrongdoing. And the good news – she can continue to be a national teacher in a different field – change.
As a person born and raised in the segregated South, Ms. Deen now has the opportunity to not hide from one of her problems but to recognize the problem exists and lead by example. This does not mean picking herself up by her bootstraps and eventually rebuilding her empire. It also doesn’t mean starting her own Food Network or privately urging others to seek retribution against the companies who fired her for her misdeeds.
All of us who make mistakes – from Don Draper to Paula Deen, and down to you and me – have only two essential choices: to continue on essentially doing what we always have, or to CHANGE the way we think about ourselves and the issue at hand by letting down our defenses and admit that, despite what we’ve always thought, we are, indeed, wrong. And have wronged. And attempt in some real ways, to behave differently from now on – meaning forever. And to do it in a positive open manner, hoping for the best because, in the end, we’re now giving our best.
Don Draper is fictional so he has an army of very good writers to decide his fate, actions and choices. Paula Deen, being an actual person, has only her own conscience and the choices she decides to make. Which is no different than what we regular people have. Fame can elevate but it can also be a great leveler. As such, this last thought especially goes out to any real or aspiring real housewives: Be careful what you wish for. And how you act both before and after you get it.
My response to the whole Paula Deen thing is this: what exactly did she do? Because 99% of the people raging against her don’t even know. They just like to rage on twitter and on facebook to feel important, to feel like they’re a social activist (kind of like the Green Square, which did NOTHING and only showed that people had zero grasp over the issues surrounding the CGI industry). They also just enjoy seeing celebrities fall. The Paula Deen “scandal” is just an extension of our everyday obsession with bad reality tv. And really, does the Food Network care that Paula Deen said something bad years ago (nope), or do they care about the bad publicity over the twitterverse, whether justified or not (YUP!).
Additionally, if people are indeed capable of change, at what point do we stop crucifying people for something they might have said 10-20 years ago (and were willing to admit to, rather than lie about) and instead become honest with ourselves that none of us is perfect and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge and destroy those in the limelight? At what point do we wait until all the facts are in about whether or not her restaurant really did demonstrate racist/descriminatory sentiments, and how much Paula Deen was aware or involved, rather than relying on hearsay and internet rumors?
Because to me, this all just speaks to the immaturity of our modern day society as a whole.
I’m reacting to the idea that she wanted to throw her brother a plantation style wedding five years ago and marveled at the idea of all the middle aged black waiters in white tuxedos all lined up at another wedding she went to. Plus the constant jokes in the workplace, which occurred in the last five years. And all the rest. It’s a pattern of behavior that, certainly, we don’t know for sure – except for what she’s chosen to admit. But she has a history of not coming clean. She was diagnosed with diabetes more than three years prior to her revealing it publicly – and only the latter because she got a big contract with a large pharmaceutical co. that paid her to be their spokeswoman. Meanwhile, all during that time, she kept pushing her very, very unhealthy food and joking about any of the health effects.
Personally, I’ve always found her funny, even though her recipes make me gag. I’ve enjoyed her. But I think there’s a pattern of behavior here that’s problematic. Part of being in the limelight is you are making a deal that your life – and you – are being publicly consumed and therefore open to more public scrutiny than the rest of it. For that, people are richly rewarded. In other matters, it’s more difficult. But life is a series of give and take. This is the world as it is now.
These are all honest reactions and thoughts that should rightly be shared. Regardless of what the effect is on Paula Deen, this dialogue is important, valuable and, long overdue.
I’m quite sure that the people reading this response or, Steve’s initial (brilliant) posting) and the other commentors, likely represent several generations. For this reason, difference in perspective and general outlook will be very different. I like the fact that so many are willing to forgive and see this as something less than life threatening.
Alas, there are those of us from “the olden days” when our parents witnessed the Jim Crow South and talked to us about how awful it was. Or not. I’m sure there were and are those who taught, carefully, their children how to hate or, at the least how to hurl hurtful comments at those they perceived as “less than” themselves.
I too grew up in a very accepting family. Please notice that I say, specifically, accepting rather than tolerant. There is a vast divide between tolerance and acceptance. I feel profoundly fortunate. And, racism was all around me, living in post-WWII Los Angeles. My role models, my parents simply wouldn’t allow it in our home.
The very notion that racism is a thing of the past is so absurd as to make one want to throw things and scream. Particularly at the television earlier this week when the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Amendment. The current exemplar of racism is, unfortunately for her, Paula Deen.
She slipped beneath the radar for decades, putting forth an affect of jolly, single mother returned from the brink who just happens to still say things like “I is what I is”. I agree, Steve, that she knows full well that she said those words, two days ago. What she clearly does NOT realize is, that those words and the spirit behind them is just as flawed as the spirit that thinks it’s ok to call someone a “viscious queen” like Alec Baldwin who, will likely have his day in the court of public opinion as Mel Gibson and others have before him.
Look, I don’t like to see anyone suffering and Paula Deen is clearly suffering now. She’ll get over it and move on. Whether or not the public will join her remains to be seen. The reality is that there is much more subtext and complication to this debacle than meets even the keenest eye.
Don’t forget that she has been called “a murderess” (by me) for the crap food she has slung all over the media for over a decade now. She simply doesn’t think that what she does is wrong or, has consequences as I mentioned earlier. Well, there are consequences. Karma has a way of following you around. It ripens and bites you in the butt at the oddest times. Like now. If you are rich, famous and everywhere, where your every tic can be seen by everyone, you asked for it. Sorry, I’m more careful about what I say to virtually anyone and I certainly don’t make $12m a year +++++.
Suffice it to say that maybe many of us are overreacting. I guess I’m willing to bear that burden in the name of change too. You can only piss up a rope and convince people it’s rain for so long. We are smarter these days. We are also numbed, naive, or just ill informed and ignorant about how millions of people have been so terribly hurt by callousness through history.
Sometimes you just have to stop and take a look. Not just at how someone rich and famous like Paula Deen has come to this point in a pretty successful life. But how we, personally think about off color jokes being told at the expense of another in our presence. At what lands “top plate”, in our minds when we see someone say or do something hateful. What slurs and comments pop into our heads or, out of our mouths?
What Paula Deen has done, that has brought this all crashing down on her is, in the end, on her. What we do with all that, is ours. Have a great weekend. Enjoy your point of view and, at the very least do what Ellen Degeneres always suggests at the end of her show…….”be kind to one another”. Have the courage to at least try to change those things in our minds that ought not be there anymore.
Loved this! What I think is the most interesting is the cause and effect syndrome – which I’m constantly reminded of. I don’t know that her blithely “murdering” people with her food caused this current debacle – but it is certainly apt to note that having a general attitude of “I is what I is” – from food on down – can certainly set a lot of various kinds of events in motion. Well said.