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Audio: 'The L Word' meets 'Mad Men'

by Jeremy Hooper

On last night's season premiere of "Mad Men," early 1960s mom Betty Draper said the following about her young daughter:

Picture 4-247

Then she and husband Don shared a simple, benign laugh, as if they were already envisioning her mid-'70s commitment ceremony to Patty Duke (or her identical cousin).

To us the exchange felt quite anachronistic. Considering this was the same episode where closeted gay Sal had to carefully hide his sexuality, it seemed unlikely that these two fairly traditional parents would be envisioning a lesbi-label attached to Sally's name, unless it was to suggest that she might someday marry Dick Van Dyke. So we need to ask those of you were around back in this day:

  • Was "lesbian" widely used enough in the spring of 1963 that suburban parents would have used it to describe their pre-pubescent daughter's tomboy pursuits?
  • And if used six years before Stonewall, would it have come out in such a causal way, or would it have been more likely to have been spit out like slur?

The show is so hellbent on accuracy, it seems weird that they would put this in if it wasn't true to the era. But as modern folks whose exposure to '63 primarily comes via Andy Griffith and a Zapruder film, we couldn't help but go "Huh?" as soon as we heard the Sapphic saying.

Anyone have firsthand insight?

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Your thoughts

Oxford English Dictionary says that "lesbian" was used to refer to female homosexuality as far back as the 1890s and was used in the 1940s by writers such as George Orwell and Edith Taylor in much the same way it is today. (I'd link the entry, but it's password-protected.) Therefore, it's feasible that it would have been a common term in the '60s. That said, I was born in the '80s, so I have no first-hand experience :-D

Posted by: Brian | Aug 17, 2009 10:58:58 AM

Yea, it was definitely around. I guess it's more the way that it came out that felt anachronistic. But again, that could be because most of us today (I was born in '79) have only been exposed to this era via highly sanitized media.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Aug 17, 2009 11:08:23 AM

Now thats not fair. I had a son in l966. Went to Berkeley. My mother did too and was a PE major, only thing I ever heard was that she was always upset that everyone considered PE majors to be lesbians even in l935 when she graduated.
I was a tomboy but boy crazy too... also a smart geek (we used bookworm) so that drove them away till college.
No I do not think it appropriate even to Berkeley at that time unless they had a friend they liked who was lesbian...probably proper term though.

Posted by: LOrion | Aug 17, 2009 11:22:51 AM

I'm confused, LOrion. What's not fair?

Also, we should put it into the context of location: Betty and Donald Draper are supposed to live in Ossining, NY, which was surely more conservative than Berkeley.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Aug 17, 2009 11:30:00 AM

Just old phobia. Not fair to make me acknowledge my age. Too true. Ossining NY was still discriminating against Jews too right? e.g. Auntie Mame?

Posted by: LOrion | Aug 17, 2009 11:59:43 AM

I think that parents, back in those days of yore, would speak much more openly among their spouses and close friends than they did in front of their children, or even coworkers for that matter. And, not that television ever really mirrors reality, but the television broadcasts from that era also never would have been able to get a lesbian crack past the censors either, so what we see in actual video from that age is pretty sanitized.

But, I thought the same thing. And, the hotel porter's somewhat aggressive sexual advances also seemed to be blurring the lines of credibility for a sixties period piece.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Aug 17, 2009 12:09:34 PM

Oh I see LORIOn: Forcing you to reveal your age was unfair. Gotcha.

Yea, I'm pretty sure that Ossining was a fairly conservative place.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Aug 17, 2009 12:16:00 PM

My first recollection of these terms would have been in the mid-60's. . .I was born in '59 so remembering '63 would be a stretch. . .I do have a pretty clear memory of the Kennedy era ..and in casual conversation the slang would have been "Lezzie", or "Lesbo. . .never heard the usage of "Lesbian" unless it was clinical with the term "Fag" being universal for either gender towards the mid-late 60's. I don't remember "Dyke" being used until the early '70s.

I admit, I haven't seen "Mad Men", but if the character portrayed in the audio clip is of higher education it's plausable.

My 3 cents aren't any more valuable than someone elses 2 cents. A lot of these tags were vernacular/regional.

Posted by: Jon | Aug 17, 2009 12:37:31 PM

The one other thing about the Porter-sexual-hookup bit: the repressive attitudes of the time probably heightened what we today call "gaydar". And the little dance they performed of elevator glances, turning up the thermostat on the AC, and feigning the "mechanical things are sooooo beyond me" ploy, just to have an excuse to lure the porter into the room, probably was the more the norm than not.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Aug 17, 2009 12:53:46 PM

Wow I totally didn't catch that last night, it must have been at the beginning. I tuned in around 10:10. I'm really excited to see more of Sal's story line this season. :)

Posted by: Eric | Aug 17, 2009 12:56:52 PM

I was protected from hearing derogatory words. I was 14 before I encountered a list of racial epithets & had to look up most of them in a dictionary. I do remember lesbian feminists reclaiming words like "dyke" in the mid-seventies -- dyke originally meant a suit of men's clothes in the 19th century.

Thanksgiving 1964: My parents invited coworker Joe & gf to have dinner with us because they had no family with whom to share holidays. Joe wore overalls & a flannel shirt, had a crewcut, & smoked cigars -- even so, I quietly asked my mother if Joe was a man or a woman. She told me Joe was really a woman who thought she was a man & thought she was married to another woman.

I came out 10 years later and still thought Joe was a very confused transman, instead of a very butch lesbian.

Posted by: Wyzdyx | Aug 17, 2009 1:26:34 PM

A couple of things to note - Betty went to Bryn Mawr, so she likely suspected some of her classmates were lesbians while they were in college, and more than a few likely have taken up "the life," as they said back then, since graduation. Over at "Basket of Kisses," a fantastic blog devoted to the show, we have been discussing the cultural influences of the early 60s, particularly movies. There have already been some James Bond references, and the first movies were huge successes, so calling the British secretary "Moneypenny" seems appropriate.

During 1961 - 1962 the first American films dealing frankly with homosexuality were released - Advise and Consent and the Children's Hour. The latter movie dealth very frankly with lesbianism, as did a popular book of 1963, the Group, which was about a clique of girls graduating from Vassar in 1933, and included a lesbian character. Given Betty's women's college background, she likely would have read it.

Posted by: CPT_Doom | Aug 17, 2009 1:57:57 PM

Very good points, CPT! I think the Bryn Mawr connection is solid. I can absolutely hear her saying this exact same thing about some of her former classmates.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Aug 17, 2009 2:13:22 PM

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