Ida Blankenship died on Sunday. At her desk at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She will be remembered as Don Draper’s secretary. As one her colleagues put, it "She died as she lived–surrounded by the people she answered phones for."
The good news is that Ida is a fictional character. Her death was therefore a fictional event. No mourning is called for. Unless of course you had grown to love her contribution to Mad Men, as many of us had.
(It tells you how absolutely, effortlessly creative the Mad Men team is that they could kill off Ida so casually and so early. Most TV shows would thrill to have a character half as rich and funny. Having created her, they would have given her up only with the greatest reluctance. The Mad Men team evidence a certain arrogance. As if to say, "Oh, there are plenty more where she came from. She was easy as anything.")
That Ida is a fictional character didn’t stop the Daily Beast from running a eulogy for her. Which is pretty charming. I think.
For starters, it plays out the Mad Men fiction. It pretends Ida Blankenship were the real thing. It’s a small act of cocreation.
But it’s more than cocreation. It’s witty. It attributes the honor given real humans to a pretend human. "Ah," we think, "clever."
Lots of wit has this quality. We take the properties of one thing and we assign them to another thing. When we say Roger, the family poodle, is considering an advance degree in opthalmology,we suppose… Well for starters we are acting as if Roger has a first degree. This is a cultural act of transposition or relocation. We are moving cultural meanings around. We are reassigning them. (Witness relocation, kinda.)
We may also think of the Ida eulogy as simple play. It’s a little "what if." As in, "what if we treated Ida is if she were a real person." As in, "let’s act as if Roger isn’t a dog." And this gets us a little closer to the mechanics of the transposition.
This movement of meanings is successful when it fails. If we attribute something to Roger that does work, "Roger is a good doggie woggie" for instance, it’s like "so?" It’s only when we say Roger is a) thinking , b) about an advanced degree, that we begin to get somewhere humor wise.
This cultural act is designed to make a small buzzer sound in our brain. It designed to forces us to say "that doesn’t go there. Roger is a dog." It’s only when we think of Roger otherwise that it’s drole (drool?).
I’m surprised. Apparently, we don’t mind it when meanings are reassigned. Apparently, we actually quite like when culture is corrupted. (Well, not stupid people. Stupid people get confused and then they blame the rest of us for their confusion.) But the rest of the world, and that’s most of the world, love this kind of play.
Maybe this is just the kind of thing that bothers an anthropologist. (It is after all only linguists who do not groan at puns. They just fall into a reverential silence.) I guess when you spend your life looking at how we build culture up, there is something astonishing at looking at the pleasure we take when someone ever so briefly tears it down.
It could also be that I am writing this at 31,000 feet courtesy of American Airlines and Go Go In Flight. It’s the oxygen debt talking. But it is weird. No? Just me? Ok, it’s just me.
To Pam DeCesare for giving me the head’s up on the Daily Beast article.
To Randee Heller, the very gifted actress who helped invent Ida.
Anonymous. 2010. A Eulogy for Don Draper’s secretary. The Daily Beast.