WARNING: Herein lie massive spoilers for pretty much every episode of Mad Men that has ever aired.
An awesome season of Mad Men has just ended, and I’m sad that I have to wait until next summer to see more of Don Draper & company. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? While the whole season was leading up to at least some characters leaving, that was completely not how I thought it would happen.
However, there’s one thing I keep hearing from all over the place that’s been bugging me, and I want to address it here. People on the Internet, people I know in real life, and professional columnists have all been bashing Betty Draper. Sometimes their dislike of the character extends to January Jones, the actress who plays her.
I think Betty deserves a post in her favor, and that’s what I’m going to offer here.
I could point out the worse things that other characters on the show have done, but I think that would be pointless. If you watch the show, you know that no one is completely likable. Virtually every main character has had an affair or said or done something offensive at some point.
But Betty seems to get on people’s nerves like none other. I actually think one of the main functions of her character is to make the viewer uncomfortable, and the writers accomplish this by making her more than a stereotypical 1960s housewife. The stifled-in-the-suburbs thing has been done to death, both in mid-20th-century settings (see: Revolutionary Road, the “Mrs. Brown” parts of The Hours) and modern times (Little Children, American Beauty, even Desperate Housewives, to some extent). The idea that a 1960s woman could feel unfulfilled as a mother and housewife is hardly new. So the writers didn’t make her someone obsessed with making the perfect dinner, feeling pressure to always have a spotless house, wishing for an occupation in which she’d get to use her brains, etc.
Instead, Betty’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not that she sits around pining for a life other than that of a suburban housewife—it’s that she’s unhappy but doesn’t quite know what to wish for.
Betty did go to college and had a career before she met Don. The significance is in what her career was—a model. This past season, Betty’s father mentioned that she was a fat child, but I’d forgotten that Betty herself mentioned that in the first season while recounting how she didn’t realize how much weight she’d lost until her high school home ec teacher pointed out that the pajamas she was making were too big. Betty’s mother, who died shortly before the start of the show, was apparently very concerned with appearances, and I think Betty’s career as a model was a reaction to that—validation that she was beautiful to other people. Betty talks to her shrink in the first season about her mother , saying, “She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man- there’s nothing wrong with that.” She’d been taught that beauty was all she needed to get by, and when she landed a gorgeous, successful, smooth-talking husband, she likely thought that was her happy ending. But that, of course, wouldn’t have led to the backlash against her that inspired this post.
It amazes me that some people think Betty is a dumb bimbo. Is it just because she’s blonde and pretty? She can be childish and naïve, but we’ve seen plenty of evidence of her intelligence. She reads books like Mary McCarthy’s The Group, she majored in anthropology at Bryn Mawr, and she speaks fluent Italian. She said herself in one episode, “We all have skills we don’t use.” The thing is, though, I don’t think Betty consciously wishes for a life that’s more intellectually fulfilling, and that’s because she can’t fathom a life without a man. We saw something similar with Joan in the first season—Joan was genuinely surprised when she realized that Peggy wanted to become a copywriter for her career’s sake rather than to spend more time with Paul. It had just never occurred to Joan that she could find fulfillment in a career rather than marriage, and I don’t think it’s occurred to Betty yet, either. Subconsciously, I think she might want more out of life than being a housewife—after all, the happiest we’ve seen her all season was when she and the Junior League were successful at stopping the water tank, small as that accomplishment was. But that’s not really the point.
Shortly after her victory with the Junior League, she and Don travel to Rome, where she impresses everyone with both her looks and her charming command of Italian. Upon their return home, though, it’s back to her regular, boring routine. Don tells her flat-out, although he means it as a compliment, that he wants to “show her off” at an awards ceremony. This is just before Don reveals the truth about his identity, which in some ways adds insult to injury. Don has come from nothing to achieve this life that he’s carefully constructed for himself—successful Madison Avenue career, house in the suburbs, gorgeous wife, cute kids—and she’s merely a prop in it.
The problem is that she’s not quite sure how to be anything else. In the first season, while divorcee Helen Bishop intrigued her, Betty didn’t envy her. In fact, she and her friends seemed disdainful of everything about Helen. While she kicked Don out in Season 2, I don’t think she would have divorced him even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant because I don’t think she knows how she’d function as an unmarried woman. It’s not until she meets Henry Francis, someone who she feels could rescue her—symbolized by the fainting couch he convinces her to put in her living room—that she seriously considers leaving Don. Henry is actually a pretty boring character, especially compared to Don, and I don’t think Betty is in love with him as much as the idea of him as her knight in shining armor.
The interesting thing is that I think that people’s disdain toward Betty increased as the show went on. In the first season, she was childish and anxious and sad, and I think people were more sympathetic toward her then. She had a lot of emotions that she didn’t know how to express, which manifested themselves through her lack of control over her hands or her sobbing to a child that she had no one to talk to. She couldn’t even trust her psychiatrist, who was sharing everything she said with Don. Who wouldn’t sympathize with her?
But between the first and second season, a little over a year passed, and in Season 2, Betty gradually starts asserting herself more. Through most of the first season, she was in denial about Don’s affairs, and when she finally acknowledged them, she was more sad than angry, but in the second season she confronts Don directly when she gets wind of his affair with Bobbie. We also see a lot more open resentment towards Don and her children in general, and she becomes more and more unpleasant.
This is the wrong time to be writing this, seeing as how she just bombed as a host on Saturday Night Live, but personally, I think January Jones does a great job portraying Betty. That she’s made people dislike her character is, I think, almost an indication that she’s doing her job successfully. Sexism is big theme on Mad Men, and most of the time it’s much more overt—we get Pete telling Peggy to wear shorter skirts on her first day and Joan, lacking a term like “spousal rape” to label her experience, quietly going on with her life after her fiancé sexually assaults her. The sexism in Betty’s situation is subtler. We’re not hit with “OMG life as a suburban housewife is so oppressive!” because Betty hasn’t quite formulated that thought herself, so it’s easy to dismiss Betty’s unpleasantness as a character trait instead of a manifestation of the sexist world she lives in.
The great thing about this show is that you keep thinking about the episodes for a long time after they air. I actually wasn’t crazy about the Rome episode when I first watched it, but when it was over, I began to realize its significance. The episode gave us a glimpse of the intelligent, sophisticated woman Betty could be in another life. Ironically, most of the women Don has cheated on her with have, in fact, been intelligent, sophisticated women. If that’s what Don really wants, he could have had it if he hadn’t forced Betty into suburban conformity.
Off to watch the special features on the Season 1 DVDs now. Is it summer yet?