Housewife Demonology

heteropessimism of the will, cruel optimism of the spirit

In the series’ penultimate episode, Mad Men’s depressive hausfrau Betty Draper trips in a  stairwell on the Fairfield University campus and discovers she’s  dying.  Lung cancer at thirty-eight: unusual in a woman her age but not, perhaps, inconceivable. Is the metaphor obvious? Subjected to the “non-existence” of the housewife (to crib a different Betty–Friedan), the structural suppression of her personhood has generated in Mad Men’s Betty a metastasizing interior rot. But before this, Betty is  a cigarette adman’s celluloid dream: a Hitchcock blonde gone trad, nearly never exhibited sans une clope. (She’s a Salem girl: “For a taste that’s springtime fresh!”). Her elegant fingers are unfailingly, irresistibly lengthened by three visual cues: impeccably manicured nails, those trusty Salems, and the slinking yarn of smoke rising from them.

Betty foregoes treatment. She isn’t moved to intervene in her own annihilation. She won’t be stripped of her shine, though.  The show can’t seem to bear it. There is a delicate cough, a mussing of Betty’s platinum permanent. Her daughter studies an old photograph: the phantom remainder of her mother’s previous glamor.  Betty will shuffle off this mortal coil in Grace Kelly-esque immaculacy; it is crucial the end of things be on her terms. This choice is the apotheosis of Betty’s liberation.

Before, her outcome  was a Medusa glare, a fate  I couldn’t stand to  regard directly. What was this horror? Not of death, surely, a beast I felt well-companioned to when writing “Fucking Like a Housewife” for this publication nearly four  years ago. Possibly my recoil was from incompletion. I needed to believe in the impermeability of a life at the moment of its possible, its imminent flowering. What use  was hope if not towards faith that my world was about to change irrevocably, and, I felt certain, for the better? 

At the time, I believed myself to be a kind of stubborn specter. I labored, I desired, I breathed, yes, but I revolved, inanimate, inside the trap of my life—that tightening grip about my throat, the  dull march of seconds, minutes, hours, years staggering past. I was in a state of profound spiritual decay. Most of the time what I felt was nothing. I was a biological persistence . If I lived at all, it was in some imaginative elsewhere. I lived, a  desperate cliche, only in dreams. 

Julia Kristeva defines the abject as a revolting betweenness, as “death infesting life.” The corpse is abjection’s most posable mannequin, but the abject as a conceptual mode is, I think, more fascinating when sizing up its manifestations among the living. In the letter, a will of sorts, that Betty leaves for her daughter, Sally, she insists that “I am to be interred, intact, in the family plot.” The—her—body is to be draped in The Blue Chiffon, the one she’d worn to the 1968 Republican Winter Gala, and the lipstick applied to her cold dead mouth should be the one stashed in her handbag. “Remind them how I like to wear my hair,” she instructs. “Will you show them the picture?”

To the last, Elizabeth J. Hofstadt is possessed by surfaces. (In a surprising detail, Betty’s stationary endures as a monument to her maiden initials: EJH, in flowery script.) Her final attentions list toward this desire for superficial wholeness, grasping at a particle of control in a cold universe. The letter is penned from a still-ensouled present, read by Sally post-mortem, and narrated in ghostly voiceover. With it, Betty disturbs temporal order to refine the fleshly residue of herself. If she has been forbidden in life the power of determining her life’s shape, then, by god, Betty will be the engineer of her own death, the couturier of her own coruscating death mask. 

I am reminded of the frozen tableau in the opening of one of Sylvia Plath’s last poems, “Edge”:

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

I cannot verify but strongly suspect that Mad Men luxuriated in a deliberate flirtation with the possibility of a self-inflicted convergence of Betty and Sylvia’s undoings. In story sequences like Betty’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in season one’s “Shot,” or the winking use of “Lady Lazarus” as an episode title in the sixth season—a poem in which the speaker suggests “Dying / is an art, like everything else”—Matthew Weiner and his writing team teased a more unmentionable denouement for Betty, a different sort of a response to the asphyxiating bell jar of domesticity.

In any event, the experiential echoes sound: the indissoluble constrictions of a socioculturally rigid girlhood, the philandering jaguar of a husband—not to mention the central Other Women, Rachel Menken and Assia Wevill, exoticized, respectively, by Don Draper and Ted Hughes as mystic “Jewesses”—the stunted ambition, the cruel twist of finality at the precise moment the mad housewife begins to fashion a fully autonomous style of being. Recall Betty with her copy of The Feminine Mystique, making peace with her children, married to a decent (if boring) man, cheerily laboring toward a degree in psychology. Or Sylvia, that catastrophic winter of 1962, the coldest since 1740, separated, finally, from Ted, writing a poem a day for an incandescent month, recording for the BBC, and carving a literary territory beyond the choking umbilicus of her husband’s mammoth career. 

(The crude shock treatments Plath endured on the cusp of her twenties—which haunted her for the rest of her brief life—are displaced onto a minor character, one of Pete Campbell’s luckless conquests, played, with another writerly wink, by Gilmore Girls’ Bookish Innocent, Rory Gilmore [Alexis Bledel].)

A reckoning with the partial and failed revolutions of the 1960s is beyond the scope of this piece, but, it must be said: these political and cultural upheavals refurbished our collective fantasy of American femininity, rendering the mid-century model of the angel in the house antiquated, leaving Betty and her plucked and fluffed ilk in the dust. Increasingly “modern” women of the postwar period precariously navigate Mad Men’s atmospheric disturbances: Peggy Olsen and Megan Draper, in particular, dance out radical hybridities between the old ways and the new. 


I am not a housewife, nor, as it turns out, do I any longer wish to be one. “To be a housewife” is a rather depthless summation of a fantasy I wrote about in those strange winter months just before the world shut in on itself. “Fucking Like a Housewife” was a meditation on desire from what I understood , at the time, to be a culturally exilic position. I wondered there whether I’d been banished from the peaceable (ha) kingdoms of marriage and motherhood. Partly, the essay was an elegy for my turbulent romantic and sexual history, a history haunted by my sense that I’d been badly-treated in no small part because I am a woman who’s also trans. I’ve been made aware in the essay’s afterlives that many readers identified my housewife fantasy as one animated  by a longing for gender-affirmation, but mine was not a principally ontological inquiry. For me, the coherency and material reality of my womanhoodwas never in  question.

In other words, my interrogation of this exile was not concerned with whether “the” trans woman is properly a woman, or if womanhood broadly originates in metaphysical “truth.” Mainly what such arguments do is cede ground. In “Fucking Like a Housewife,” the trouble was that I’d come to see the circumscription of my intimate and sexual life inside a virulently transphobic public as a functionally irremediable ill. Suffering, needless to say, inaugurates an especially hostile mode of tunnel vision in the subject, squeezing what you are able to recognize about your possible world through a needle’s eye. More or less as a rule, I do not write about transness. But I suppose, in that essay, I also wished to unravel something about what sorts of futures trans people are capable of dreaming up in a world that wishes us reversed, silent, or, in fascists’ most excitable wet dreams, dead. Identificatory partitions between women are tactical inventions–ones unfortunately being disseminated by political bigots across both sides of the aisle. There should be no doubt about who will be violently subjected to the disciplinary techniques of our present and increasingly precarious gender apparatus. It’s all of us.

Looking back on “Fucking Like a Housewife,” I see it more urgently as the meticulous architecting of a fantasy, one of affective, bodily, and sexual security I supposed might be affixed, in part, to the beguiling vaudeville of the housewife: my glimmering erotics of submission and domesticity. I took my terror of lovelessness and my looping experiences of objectification and violation as an incitement to play with the opposite extreme: a dream of Betty, and of a relinquishment to the heterosexual contract which would be total, would guarantee something I knew could only and ever be a dream—safety without limit, safety granted as an exchange for my participation in care work for and sexual abandonment to a domineering Don-daddy. These things I imagined I could successfully orchestrate to be harmless, possibly even (with great scrupulousness and will of mind) rather pleasurable:reproductive labor as survival strategy.

I suppose any garden looks like Eden if you’re barred from entry. It’s not that I believe the housewife to be happy. Betty’s calamity is being caught between cultural lobotomization and the ineliminable trauma of being. No–I was under no delusion that happiness was waiting just around the bend. While awaiting revolution, what I sought was a deferral of further damage. The fact is, I needed to not have one more door slammed in my face. I needed to imagine a world in which my rent would be paid. I needed, urgently, in that dark period, to not get raped again, or to go on stumbling about with the replicative threat of sexual violence seeping from the shadow of every man I encountered.

This was no baseless paranoia.  In the winter I wrote “Fucking Like a Housewife,” one of my rapists had returned to the neighborhood and resumed haunting one of the dive bars where I worked, where management refused outright to protect me from having  to serve him. In front of their patrons and god, I called the men I worked for complicit, I called them rape apologists, I named them what they were: cowards. I don’t guess it will shock you that my complaint cost me that  job. In the haze of those months, I couldn’t walk alone at night; I didn’t sleep unless I’d drank myself to it, or had some pro tem boyfriend in my bed, a hard heft of man to hide behind. Any trust extended to such men was, of course, reluctant and provisional. No vulnerability came without the menace of obliteration.My survival seemed dependent on the feverish hallucination that, somewhere in the proliferating disorder of my universe, there was a life available to me that was safe, stable, sane. This future was the kind a TV psychic might lay atop a foldout table between us—a conjuring, founded on nothing, with no practical paths in sight. Any net would do. 

So I sought protection in the fashion women are instructed to: I prayed I might be enshrined beneath the aegis of a dominant patriarch. This, I believe, is part of what Simone de Beauvoir communicates late in The Second Sex by her sense that the woman who loves men must make of these men gods. It is by such worship she’s able to concede to, rather than be destroyed  by, a social order in which she is “condemned to dependence.” This surrender becomes digestible through a survivalist rationale: if revolution isn’t here, stomaching our imprisonment requires a disavowal of the inviolability of “the” self. To the extent that “woman” is a socioeconomically determinable class, our first manner of recourse in most circumstances is not only shored up by, but often mandated as, the orthodoxy of the marital bed. 

As thoroughly modern women, we aren’t supposed to admit to the moments at which such insidious, unflagging, and structural indoctrination prevails over our self-regard or our romantic determinations. And if the Twitter threads and think pieces are to be believed, any humiliation we experience at the hands of men only ever results in a revelation of our own responsibility for this degradation. In the literary world, a turning of the tides against the personal essay and memoir genres over the last few years has also meant that, should we dare to speak or write about these humiliations, we’ve failed to “get over” them appropriately, or we’ve un-self-critically been co-opted by the Trauma Industrial Complex. The bootstrap mentality of such arguments adores silence. Then, every third hour, we must supplicate ourselves before another recapitulation of the viral post: “Are straight women ok?” 

Indeed, there is a prevailing and parallel sense among critics—a great number of whom, I should  add, are other women—that many among us are too stupid to dissever the uncomfortable but sadly everyday inequities of heterosexuality from experiences of abuse and violation. Having endured several assaults, I’d like to state clearly that, despite my faults, I am remarkably capable of distinguishing my bad boyfriends from my rapists. The increasing dissemination and acceptance of the notion that many or most women cannot make such distinctions is sick-making—a dehumanizing, misogynistic, and infantilizing insinuation. A reactionary turn against the microscopic gains made by the #MeToo era has been costumed now in allegedly “feminist” appeals to “women’s agency,” as if we’ve all been wandering around like zombies, just waiting to be abused so we can bitch  about it. Does the rhetoric sound familiar?

As such, “choice” “feminism,” that malleable anti-ideology, has become an increasingly useful weapon for rape apologists and those invested in the silencing of practically anyone who speaks against exploitative hegemonies. We are the victims, not of structural inequity or historically-sedimented violence, but of “bad decision-making practices” and a laughable incapacity in advocating for ourselves. The circular logic at the heart of such hyper-individualist positions and reactionary post-feminisms seeks to topple solidarity movements of all kinds, because the choice at hand for such obtuse or else bad faith actors most often concerns how best to prioritize your own prospering  within capitalist power matrices. Perhaps what’s surprising is how many awful ways there are to cash in. 

I admitted in “Fucking Like a Housewife” that “fantasy is at heart a survivalist lie.” That essay also, however, crucially repudiates cynicism, as I have no use  for a politics of disenchantment. My ambitions were vast, and this was a wondrous thing. Looking back on the woman who wrote that essay––that sad, suffering creature––I still admire her tenacity, her certainty that she could shuck off certain conventions of transmisogyny in familial life to radically recalibrate the scaffolding of desire that situates our unequal experiences of intimacy, motherhood, housewifery, submission, fucking, and so on. I dare anyone to call her unenterprising. Because, let’s face it: it’s desperately easy to regard our past selves and recognize only the most shameful parts––the needful obliviousness, the searing good faith, the overexposure, the hyperfragility. That expansiveness of vision, however, had its function. Why shouldn’t we want every pleasure? Why shouldn’t we dream a sea change?


What seems to me now the central oversight in “Fucking Like a Housewife” is its failure to properly recall Audre Lorde’s evergreen rejoinder that the master’s tools cannot dismantle his house. Heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and state power, any number of tectonic, interconnected systems of exploitation—none will be revolutionized by revision. I was never going to successfully redecorate my subordination within the gilded edifice  of my conjured dollhouse. 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this particular revolution never happened, or that the housewife became wholly, horribly assimilated into the ideological imaginary of rightwing bloviators and disquieting Catholic converts. In a recent article for Dissent, Zoe Hu remarks that tradlife occupies an odd double-bind: it orients toward nostalgia—that affective darling of conservative aesthetics—even as it powerfully resonates with contemporary and “earnest criticisms of life under capitalism.” “By describing the misery of work, tradlife ennobles itself,” Hu writes, but it likewise “maintains a willful stupidity about modern capitalism’s historical dependence on the family.” Sophie Lewis has also recently identified this prevailing tension in our fantasies of familial stability as inseverable from a “romance of survival” erected against our escalating and global state of precarity. 

This acutely reactionary turn has entailed a correspondent reinvestment of power in the most dangerously normative myths of the housewife.  Never has it been more clear that she’s white, cis, and rich, and that the bedrock of her existence is laid over the backs of people like me and people like the people I most love in this world. We’d do well to remember that Betty’s domestic idylls are summoned by and function as a result of others’ labors—notably, through the labor of black women in domestic service, like her childrens’ nanny, Carla, or like her own childhood caretaker, Viola. 

Meanwhile, Betty’s sexual purity becomes perfectible in contradistinction to, say, the pariah she makes of Ossining’s local divorcée, or against the figure of her old modeling friend who’d become a “good time girl.” The beatitude of the housewife requires the social debasement and expulsion of an abject Other; it thrives on the structural disenfranchisement of women unlike her. The “protection” of the housewife’s possible children (and only her children) means spending previously unimaginable sums on surveillance and police power, not to mention ensuring the continuing spread of abortion bans nationwide, as well as fomenting increasingly exterminationist moral panics around transgender existence.

If it wasn’t then, the fantasy now of the housewife is a dead-end, regressing violently backward—even as it participates gleefully in the production of a fascist futurity.

There is something vital in the essay that remains—its attempt, perhaps, to generate an irreducible language of desire, particularly its sense of longing from the outside, looking in. Desire exceeds us. It slips the limits of our knowing. Why did I list toward submission? I knew and I didn’t. Narrative is one method of seizing control, which is another way of saying I had to write through this. I had, too, to crawl out of the awful quagmire that was my life. The inertia was killing me. It’s  hard today to rubberneck at my own wreckage, to see the body wedged half through the windshield. I see the immensity of my pain and it is a black hole. It threatens to suck me back in.

None of this is to say that I now see my trauma as my responsibility, nor is it to make the now quite commonplace argument that, if only women stopped being victims, everything would be better for us. This is the rhetoric of misogyny, and it’s being laundered into and weaponized by all sorts of participants, on the right and left, in our current anti-feminist backlash. I look upon the woman I was and think how I wish someone had taken better care of her. I wish, too, I’d been more capable of gentleness and generosity with myself. It’s  also true I had to decide whether I wanted to truly live, even or especially if that living meant ongoingness in solitude.

Last week I was reading Judy Grahn again, who looks back on her monumental poem “A Woman is Talking to Death” and says, “It is odd to think that what we make leads us, rather than the other way around,” but this truth stands. “Fucking Like a Housewife” knew, I think now, a bit more than I did: it understood that the reckoning with trauma is not an event, but processual; that, often, we want things that aren’t good for us; that the survivalist fantasy can only ever be an interregnal strategy. I wrote then that I believe the personal essay operates in the elegiac mode. Maybe it’s how we mourn the people we never were. A way of marking things we didn’t have—the things, possibly, we shouldn’t have had. Despite myself, I’m learning peace, learning how to let that girl go.

In Mad Men’s cosmology, it is Betty’s death that seems to make Sally’s brave new world possible.  “I know your life will be an adventure,” she  tells her daughter in that last, devastating note. “I love you.”