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.