Why Betty Draper Matters

Betty Draper and Henry Francis from the AMC Show Mad Men

SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses details from the current season of Mad Men. Those catching up on DVD may want to move along.

Nominally, this is a blog about writing, pedagogy, and the whole academical experience, except for the days when I feel like writing about Mad Men.  Today is one of those days.

Folks, I must confess to something horrible, something that I know separates me from the majority of Mad Men fans out there:  I am enthralled by Betty Draper.  I know.  I know.  Everywhere I go, the Betty hate thrives.  Feminists hate the character because she’s so pitiful and unsympathetic.  Everyone else hates her because she’s just awful.  She’s childish, self-centered, and an utterly wretched parent who’s either enlisting her daughter to help bolster her shattered image or treating said daughter like her little sister, saying crap like “wait til your father hears MY side of the story” as she wrestles her away from the phone.  Betty is easily the most uncomfortable character to watch, but when the A.V. Club declared Betty a potential “showblocker,” a character “so grating—sometimes intentionally so—that even fans of the show heave a heavy sigh when they appear onscreen,” I made a “Huh?” face.  While they qualify Betty’s nomination for this list by saying that the newly divorced and remarried character simply “has all of the makings of a classic showblocker,” the implicit argument is that, untethered to Don, Betty is no longer essential.

That argument represents a particular school of Mad Men fandom that thinks this show is about the workplace (or really just wishes it were).  This school of criticism went to the refrigerator for a beer every time we found ourselves back in Ossining last season for more Betty and Don marital angst while eagerly awaiting further antics from Roger Sterling and views of Joan Holloway Harris as she departed a room.  This is also the school of criticism that groaned when the latter got married (to a reprehensible prick albeit) because we now have to deal with the fallout of Joan’s problematic (but really not all that atypical) home-life and are longer allowed to simply enjoy her as the office sexpot.  This is a school of criticism that seems to think that domestic life in the 1960’s is not as worth documenting as work life in the 1960’s, and I feel like I’m stating the forehead-smackingly obvious when I say there’s something pretty sexist about that.  From whence comes all the whinging that Betty got such substantial character arcs last season if it isn’t from a place that really sort of thinks that people like her do not deserve their own storylines?

Suburban housewives are an essential part of the story of the 1960’s.  Don’s pathetic life as a divorced man confirms how essential the pretense of a perfect home life with a princess of a homemaker was to the Don Draper ethos.   So far, S4 has given a glorious middle finger to all of the fanboys who thought that divorce would liberate Don, would allow him to become the magnetic Sex God that he was always supposed to be rather than the sad-sack self-parody he has become.  But trust me, Betty and the children and Ossining weren’t restraining Don’s mojo.  They enabled it.  Don telegraphed it multiple times in his moments of honesty with Anna:  having the adoration and support of a woman like Betty validated Don to his co-workers, his clients, his potential sexual partners (with the single possible exception of Rachel Menken), and himself.  Betty made Don more attractive in every possible way.  Think about how characters from Roger Sterling to Jimmy Barrett to that guy from McCann to Conrad Hilton suddenly saw Don differently once they saw Betty.  We even got a hint of how a wife could certify her husband’s inherent desirability when the wife of the Chief of Surgery told Joan “knowing that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel better about his future.”

And what Betty giveth, Betty taketh away.  A big part of me thinks that people started hating Betty when the writers had her stop being merely ornamental in S2, when she stopped merely representing the belittled and under-appreciated mid-century housewife and started dismantling the Don Draper auto-mythology.  Betty is the one who points out that for all his charm and charisma, Don is a horribly selfish lover.  For all his fleeting moments of passable parenting, his homelife was always a little bit dispensable to him.  For all his tender confessions to Anna Draper, he had never even attempted to atone for the myriad wrongs he has committed in his life:  against her, against the real Don Draper (whose memory he wiped away), against his brother, against his co-workers, and against his family.

Through Betty’s perspective we see things we really don’t want to see about characters we’ve come to love, including abuse.  So many of the Betty-haters point to child abuse as the reason for their distaste.  These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting.  These are the same people who hate Greg Harris for raping Joan but qualify what Pete did to that German au pair last season and deliver tired victim-blaming excuses for rapes that happen in the real world.  Where is your outrage when it’s happening to a character or even a real live human being that we haven’t been conditioned to empathize with through the power of professional storytelling?  I’m just saying.

I once heard the two sides of the Betty controversy described as one in which those who see Betty as a Product of Her Circumstances do battle with those who just think she’s a terrible person.  I actually don’t think those two notions are mutually exclusive.  Yes, the writers have consistently shown that Betty is a victim of sexism, but that victim status has never, in my mind, ruled out agency.  She is a fully realized character capable of making her own terrible choices.  Yes, those choices are shaped and limited by sexism, but the writers have shown her to be capable of moving within that context to try to carve out a life for herself, even if she doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

So far, this season has continued to develop the central theme of the series:  that the measures we take to re-invent ourselves will ultimately prove inadequate as long as they are used to conceal some fundamental character flaw, some deeper sadness that we would rather not face.  Even when we make drastic changes in our lives and try to free ourselves, our Lee Garner Jr.’s can rear their heads and become even more oppressive than they were before (there is so much significance in the fact that Lucky Strike is SCDP’s bread and butter as well as the cancer that threatens to destroy it).  While that theme is most evident in Don’s story, we also see it in Joan, who became conscious of the disposable quality of beautiful women when she saw The Apartment in S1 and when Marilyn died in S2.  We saw it in Peggy last night, who despite her joyous romp through the 60’s counter-culture with hunky writers and wise-cracking lesbians, was overwhelmed by how much Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy upset her (best Peggy episode ever, by the way).  And of course, Pete was reminded of the things he is giving up in order to become the man he always thought he wanted to be.  And judging by the previews for next week, we’re going to see more of that with Betty, who has married someone who seems to be simultaneously more stable and less authentic (I mean, c’mon, he’s a professional political operative) than Don, and that story is entirely in keeping with what Matthew Weiner and the rest of the show creators seem to be doing.

I also think it’s just flat out brilliant to explore the concept of divorce in this way.  Divorce, in film and television, is so often treated as either tragedy or liberation, when for Don and Betty it  is sort of both and neither at the same time.  While divorce was a progressive concept in the 1960’s, leaving a marriage isn’t necessarily a progressive act.  Both characters have, if anything, adopted grotesque versions of the lives they led before, Don in his pitiful man-cave that’s so ridiculously manly that he can quip “I think Norman Mailer shot a dear over there,” Betty having embraced her status as an ornament even more tightly than before (and as the arm candy of an even older man).  At the end of S3, they did the most modern thing two people could have done in that context and wound up even more old-fashioned than they were in the first place.  That’s a story that hasn’t really been told before, and I’m excited about going for the ride.

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22 thoughts on “Why Betty Draper Matters

  1. Excellent response to the anti-Betty crowd. They would miss her if the show “offed” her. Betty is definitely needed. She defines Don Draper’s identity.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I watch scenes with Betty with one eye covered, as I find her resemblance to my mother totally unnerving. She, representative of my mom’s generation, has little to no self-awareness, and builds up her fragile fantasy of a life, expecting everyone around them to do exactly as dictated by the “prime character” – herself.

    1. I know what you mean. My grandmother has MS, which first manifested in her 40’s as numbness in her hands, and there has always been a psychosomatic component to her illness. For that reason alone, I found the first few episodes pretty unnerving.

      And while my mother never told me to bang my head against the wall, “Only boring people are bored” sounds exactly like something my mom or grandma would say.

  3. I have always loved Betty Draper, even though her actions can be infuriating and childish. But I think the writers have done a fantastic job building her character and showing how she became the woman she is (through her relationships with her parents and her marriage to Don). I wish there were more scenes with Betty this season because I think the scenes with Don and Betty were some of the best from last season. She is the mother of Don’s children and she will always be a strong presence in his life.

  4. I think alot of the Betty-hate, mine included, comes not in the form of how the character is written (though there is some of that surely) but in January Jones’ weaknesses as an actress.

    She’s not particularly strong dramatically, and when surrounded by some staggering talent in Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks etc…she just really comes up short. A stronger performer would likely lessen alot of the anti-Betty sentiment.

    1. You know, I’ve read that argument quite a bit as well, and I just don’t agree. I admit that I know little about the art of acting, but I find Jones’ portrayal to be compelling and believable. In some scenes she is mesmerizing. I’m thinking specifically of the episode where she spends the entire day in her party dress, “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” and “The Grown Ups,” though there are other memorable moments. Her line reading in the scene where she tells Don she doesn’t love him any more–“I want to scream at you”–was especially good.

      I also like that she plays the fight scenes with Don as if she has already been having the fight in her head for the past six hours. As a married person, I find that entirely realistic.

  5. So many of the Betty-haters point to child abuse as the reason for their distaste. These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting. These are the same people who hate Greg Harris for raping Joan but qualify what Pete did to that German au pair last season and deliver tired victim-blaming excuses for rapes that happen in the real world.

    This!

    Don’s constant philandering (especially with his daughter’s teacher) will likely have a longer-term detrimental impact on his children than Betty slapping Sally.
    Whether we approve or not, the majority of American parents in the 50s and 60s (and even today) often used physical discipline – it’s unlikely that anyone would have viewed this as child abuse at that time.

  6. Betty-hater here. I think she’s vile. BUT! She’s entirely essential to the show. First of all, if the show is trying to recreate the ’60s, then we need to see the “typical” ’60s homemaker (as opposed to Joan’s decidedly atypical married woman who works [gasp!] for a living).

    Secondly, we need an emasculating mother, if only so Sally can grow up and turn into a punk rocker once 1970 rolls around.

    Third, even if she is a horrible person, I do feel some sympathy for her. It doesn’t sound like her mother was much different. And isn’t that the story of our lives?

    1. Yeah, I don’t really want to go have a cup of coffee with her either. The character isn’t very likeable, that’s for sure, but my post was reacting to a recent turn in the criticism that seems to be saying that she no longer belongs in the show, which to me reflects a misunderstanding of what the show is about and an unwillingness to see Betty’s story–though it is the story of a character that is hard to love–as one worth telling even though other characters are regularly doing pretty vile things. There’s sort of a double standard, I guess is what I’m saying.

      So, Betty as unlikeable individual but rich narrative source is a reading I’m entirely open to.

      1. I’m not ashamed to say I love Betty Draper – warts and all. I’m saddened by the fact we are seeing less of her this season. (With the exception of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”)

        I am with you Ladysquires 100 percent. There have been some spoilers going around that Betty and politician hubby will be killed off (No, please!) and Don will get into some sort of relationship with Peggy. As compelling as that may sound, Betty is integral to the sentiments, mentality, attitudes and pysche of the the women during that era.

        And as flawed as she is, she’s part of the Don Draper myth and undoing. Some of the best eps of Mad Men are the ones with her and Don interacting heavily.

        I just hope there is some way to bring her back in further to the show.

  7. You are right on – I defend Betty but not because I actually like her, I just understand what a complex character she is. It’s easy to label her as a bitch and leave it at that, but she did not develop out of a vacuum (no one does) and her ability to bring out the worst in people makes her a valuable and necessary part of the show. We all know a Betty – some of us are Betty at times, and maybe we know why we are or maybe we don’t – it doesn’t matter. She is very real and as you say, she catches hell for her failings while Don gets praise for any little bit he manages to give to anyone, including his children. Henry’s ability to coerce the best from Betty just goes to show that Betty and Don were terrible for each other – Betty can be a good mother and a good wife, but she doesn’t know how. Her comments about her childhood make that very clear, as do her responses to her children’s needs. Learned behavior is hard to change but she is trying.

    Thanks for a thoughtful, well-written piece.

  8. Betty is an essential planet orbiting around Don. I think that we are witnessing the growing pains of the evolution of marriage and that much of Don’s escapades were his acting out on his inability to be who he really is in public so he does it in private. He tried to reinvent himself as a new person desperately trying to escape a tortured past and in many ways Betty helped to create her own demise. She never delved into who the man her husband really is and once it was revealed that his past included a prostitute mother and abusive father she never took the time to help heal the wounds that were obviously so raw right under Don’s surface. Betty should have embraced the challenge of helping Don through his ordeal.

  9. I was reading this rather pssively until the line about how Betty deconstructed the Don Draper mythology and then it became, for me, truly clear how essential Betty is. Certainly, her petulance can be grating but she is essential to revealing Don Draper which is really what the show is about.

  10. After Season 4, I have come to the conclusion that all of the characters are pretty much in some kind of rut. Yes, I include Golden Girl Peggy Olson. And if I must be brutally honest, I don’t have a high opinion of the Draper children – at least Sally. I realize that Sally is stuck with parents like Don and Betty. But she isn’t exactly a bundle of joy. She’s a wannabe Daddy’s girl. Like her parents, she has a habit of using those close to her as scapegoats for her anger – especially younger brother Bobby. In fact, Sally sometimes comes off as something of a bully, like her Grandpa Whitman.

    I’ve always been a major fan of Betty. Not because I think she’s perfect. I just think she’s fascinating in a complex way.

  11. [“Betty is an essential planet orbiting around Don. I think that we are witnessing the growing pains of the evolution of marriage and that much of Don’s escapades were his acting out on his inability to be who he really is in public so he does it in private. He tried to reinvent himself as a new person desperately trying to escape a tortured past and in many ways Betty helped to create her own demise. She never delved into who the man her husband really is and once it was revealed that his past included a prostitute mother and abusive father she never took the time to help heal the wounds that were obviously so raw right under Don’s surface. Betty should have embraced the challenge of helping Don through his ordeal.”]

    Why should she? Because Betty is a woman and should nurture him or something? Don had lied about himself throughout their entire marriage. That’s ten years of lies. Even I could never forgive a guy for doing that to me. And through those ten years of lies, Betty suffered emotional abuse at his hands. She is not blameless. She made the choice to marry Don without really thinking this through. And she probably married him for shallow reasons. But I don’t blame her for divorcing him.

    Nor do I agree with your assessment or Matt Weiner’s assessment that Betty dumped Don for snobbish reasons. One, I recall her bitterly commenting to Henry Francis about how Don had lied to her for years in “The Grown Ups”. And during their last fight in “”Shut the Door. Have a Seat”, Betty screamed about how she had tried to understand Don for years and how he always kept her shut out, after he accused her of being a snob. But Weiner disregarded what he had shown on the television screen and claimed that Betty had divorced Don for snobbish reasons. Why? I don’t know. Because he didn’t bother to show this. And many anti-Betty fans have been using this as an excuse to dump all of the blame on the Draper breakup on Betty.

    1. I completely agree with the sentiment that she is an integral crux to Don Draper’s identity and mythology – because no one can ever be defined without the reflection of others, particularly in television shows like this. And in a world in which advertising is King, so it is a reflective of the simultaneous showmanship and shams of not only Don Draper’s marriage and entire constructed identity, but every marriage and / or relationship in the show. In the end, it is all a bout of advertising and image – this is the age in which people are quite literally living, breathing reflections of the lifestyle Ad-Men live.

      As much as I enjoy Don’s complexity and resourcefulness, many of his exploits boil down to his charisma to escape his own lies. Frankly, blaming Betty for not “discovering” the man Don Draper was – let’s begin with the fact that is not and never was the real Don Draper, and his life is a constructed mess of emotional abuse and cunning that is slipping through his fingers without his desired image. It may her job to raise children and cook and clean – it is not her job to be his psychiatrist. Entering (in this age) marriage creates a pact and it goes without saying that honesty would be a part of this. By the logic I see perpetuated in hatred of Betty … they justify Don’s betrayal and behavior. She has tried, but Don has always taken great lengths to convince her that he is fine, he is normal, and doesn’t have anything to hide even when he always has. In fact, he consistently turned it on her to shove all of her questions back into her crevasses of insecurity – and he always knew that, because he knows people well. He always caught her barbs and shoved them deep in to hurt her, make her question herself, make her seem stupid. And in that way, she is a product of the emotional abuse that Don endured and he turned it on her, and now it bleeds into the rearing of children. This pattern has no fault nor any precise blame, but it doesn’t absolve anyone of their actions.

      Don Draper contributes to her being snobby and aloof (which it is reasonable to say that she had at least part of this attitude before) by keeping her in the dark and definitely keeping her from acting like “other women”, such as Joan or even other wives on the show. He treats her as a child which reinforces her childish behavior, keeps her at arm’s length regarding work and almost any other personal expression or desire he has. He caught her in a cycle of insecurity to keep his own at bay – it was a battle of wills and due to the macro-level societal sexism at play, Betty lost.

      Not only that, but I rarely hear a word of criticism toward any of the other women in the show – Bobbie Barrett, in particular, disgusted me beyond all reason. And while I love Joan, probably the most, I can definitely say she has her fair share of moments that make me cringe. Betty comes on the screen once and it evokes a powerful, defensive, and swift reaction, and I cannot help wondering if that comes from our own rooted issues – because I do believe we have all been in her position once. Feeling powerless, out of step, recognizing that we are being forced into a position but not sure how to change it, silly and jealous … it happens. It’s normal. I refrain from calling anyone a victim in this show, but her psychological issues stemmed from the beginning of her life and were greatly exacerbated by her terrible marriage – and it always takes two to tango.

  12. Great article. I actually love Betty. I mean, she is kind of terrible, but she is in a way we all are when we are selfish and childish. And I keep thinking there is something redeeming about her. She does care for her children, even if her parenting style is not the best (and I agree Don is much, much worse). And I can’t help thinking that is her husband loves her (and it appears he truly does) it is because he sees something in her.

    I also think JJ is a fine actress. We all feel Betty!

    I also think it is hypocritical to hate Betty and not hate all the other pathologically self-centered characters on the show. It isn’t like Peggy Olson is the perfect citizen either!

  13. Love this article “These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting.” I would further say that most women who hate her are the ones who crybaby about how a “deeply unhappy,” crazy woman their mother was… and their Father? “Sigh.. he just wanted a little peace and happiness in his home”…poor Dad… poor, withholding, passive- aggressive Dad. Poor Don. Barf.

    I don’t get it. I Love Betty. And January Jones. How people can say she has everything is beyond me. She had a husband she adored, who slept with any woman in his path, (I’m amazed they didn’t have a STD story line) a husband who lied to her constantly and remorselessly and starved her emotionally.

    And though some how, people again and again forgive Don his disgusting behavior, they cannot forgive Betty for being unhappy about it. They cannot forgive her for being destroyed by loneliness by a heartless and selfish man.

    It saddens me that even women seem to despise Betty. I think this culture simply hates women. I think that this culture wants women to be either be happy or shut up about it.

    I have to say I admired Betty’s restraint. I would have taken a baseball bat to his car, found out about the teacher and had them fire her asap. Would have loved to see Betty take that on at a PTA meeting. Would have revolted me to see Don squirm and feel sorry for himself again.

  14. Betty is my favorite character on the show. She, like DOn is so fascinating. I wish Betty never left Don. It was his lie that caused him to cheat and I loved seeing them together when they were happy.

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