Betty Draper brings the L-word to “Mad Men”

Mad Men premiered Sunday night and lesbians across American rejoiced.

We will have plenty to say about the marvelous women of Mad Men this season, but for now, let’s look at Episode 1’s L-word moment.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who is determined to be a faithful father after Betty (January Jones) issued an ultimatum last season, spent some quality time with daughter Sally (Kierman Shipka) last night.

Sally has been acting out a bit because Daddy’s gone a lot. In fact, she ruined his valise by smashing the clasp with a hammer. But when Betty tells Don about it, she jokes, “… she’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian.”

Wait, what? Two conventional Sixties parents had an exchange that so casually dropped the word “lesbian” in reference to their daughter? Really?

I’m not quite old enough to remember words that were in casual usage in 1963, but I do know that I never even heard the word “lesbian” until college — maybe later. The two girls in my dorm who walked down the hall holding hands were “homos.” Athletic girls were “tomboys” and older unmarried women were “spinsters,” even when two of them lived together. Then again, I was raised in the Bible Belt by Southern Baptist parents and went to Baylor. I didn’t exactly live in a progressive world.

Still, in 1963, Stonewall had not happened and homosexuals were far from accepted. Mad Men’s storyline about Sal’s struggles with being a closeted gay man indicates that even in a New York ad agency, homosexuality is a taboo. And last season, when the normally outspoken Joan (Christina Hendricks) hears a confession of love from her roommate Carol, she simply pretends not to understand.

My initial reaction was that Mad Men goofed. But a comment I read on the fabulous Mad Men fansite Basket of Kisses made me reconsider. As the commenter pointed out, Betty attended Bryn Mawr, one of the Seven Sisters colleges. She doubtless had lesbian classmates, whether she regarded them favorably or not. Perhaps Betty’s background gives credence to her comment about Sally.

Does anyone know if “lesbian” was used casually in the early Sixties? Or was Betty’s remark anachronistic? Do you care if Mad Men time shifts details for the sake of the story?

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