This Week on Dear Television:
In Defense of Betty Draper
By Anne Helen Petersen
April 19, 2014
EVERYONE KNOWS how easy it is to hate Betty. She’s temperamental, unfair, childish, a total bitch. But one of Mad Men’s many genius moves is allowing us to stay with Betty and her Francis life even after she’s ostensibly out of Don’s. They’re both victims of the ideological imperatives of the 1950s, implicitly forced to conform to certain ideals that alienate them from their desires and selves, but their victimhood plays out in markedly different ways.
Don, of course, loses his shit. The seemingly interminable spiral of Season Five was all about Don’s inability to hold the pieces of his performance of Don-dom in place. But Betty’s a planner. As Don astutely observed, when their marriage fell apart, she was busy building herself a life raft in the form of Henry Francis. But a life raft isn’t a cruise ship: it may save us from drowning in the despair of our lives, but a life raft can’t take you anywhere. Instead, you’re left floating in the middle of the ocean, slowly wasting away as you search for the glittering shore and salvation.
Back in Season Two, Arthur Case, who lives in my mind as tall, blonde, tweeded, horseriding dude, perceived, correctly, that Betty was “so profoundly sad.” Betty was reared on the idea that there’s always an explanation for everything — “It’s just that my people are Nordic” — but this was back when she was with Don, when her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, when it was clear she was suffering from what another Betty (Friedan) famously dubbed “the problem that has no name.”
Betty was bored and sexually frustrated, but it was more than that. When she schemes to set up Arthur and her friend, it’s clear that what she really wants is complication. Action. Plot points. Something to look forward to that’s not pressing herself against the washing machine while the kids are upstairs playing. In light of Don’s creative genius, it’s easy to forget that Betty’s far better educated. It’s unclear if Don even finished high school, but Betty has a B.A. from Bryn Mawr. Not in Psychology, clearly, which would suggest a sense of self-reflection, but Anthropology: she’s fascinated by other ways of living.
But Betty’s Anthropology wasn’t the ethically-minded study of culture you can take on campuses today. 1950s Anthropology was obsessed with the truly exotic — think Pygmies — and was unabashedly fetishistic, working, above all else, to classify and label these cultures that defied (Western) reason. Along with her (almost certainly male) professors, Anthropology aligned Betty with the (active) (masculine) gaze, with the power to discern and judge the (passive) (feminine) subject. Put differently, Betty didn’t get an M.R.S. degree, but she learned a more destructive skill usually associated with women: she learned how to judge others, especially those less powerful than she is, without judging herself.
The scenario flips when Betty moves to Manhattan. As a model, she becomes subject to the gaze of the camera and, eventually, Don, who first meets her while she’s modeling for the fur company. Betty always speaks of that time as if it were a fantasy land, when, in that slim space between college and marriage, her only job was to be an object of desire. Those are the moments when she feels empowered: picking up the stranger in the bar during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when she gets hit on by the Italian men sitting at the cafe in Rome, when Glenn asks for a lock of her hair.
But those moments come once a season, if that. Most of the time, she’s paralyzed with unspeakable boredom. Which is why she begins to wield that anthropological, judging gaze on others: it’s the only way to make her boring life interesting. In Season One, she uses it against Helen Bishop, the first threat of otherness in their bedroom community. Her friends naturally model the same behavior: when Francine remarks on watching Helen Bishop go on long walks with no where to go, she’s essentially been watching her and taking notes, like an anthropologist, in her natural habitat. Betty naturalizes the threat of otherness by labeling her: she’s not only a slut, but a bad mother. Other women might ignore or dismiss Helen, but she becomes the source of Betty’s dark amusement; she plays with Glen for many reasons, but one of them is absolutely to see how Helen will respond.
Betty judges Sarabeth for finding Arthur attractive, and continues to judge her when she sets them up. She judges her former roommate, Juanita, for going on to a life as a “party girl.” She judges Carla for offering a different sort of love to her children; she judges Gloria for being a different sort of wife to her father. She judges her brother for valuing the wrong things about their past and Helen, yet again, for working on the Kennedy campaign and thus having political opinions of her own.
All of these people, however, are in Betty’s orbit — they touch her life in some way. Their practices are also exotic, whether sexually, intellectually, or emotionally. She sees what’s compelling about their way of life, but it threatens the ideal she believes she has to fulfill and thus, like a caricature of the lusty 19th century anthropologist, she must forcefully reject what she’s ashamed to desire. It’s fucked up and confused, but it’s the only dramatic frisson she can muster from her life.
It makes sense that the person Betty judges most harshly is also the one whom she most desires. Betty fell for Don because he desired her, but I’d argue that she was also compelled by his lack of history. An unknown tribe, waiting to be discovered. She convinced herself that that unknownness was just poverty, but the way that Betty had observed poverty in her textbooks and slideshows (primitivism, exoticism) was the opposite of the utterly demoralizing way Don had experienced it. She thought learning about Don’s past would be fun — or at least exciting — whereas Don knew it would disgust her.
Which might be why Betty is ultimately so disillusioned after the revelation of Don’s true identity — it’s not nearly as sexy or dramatic as she wanted it to be. When she leaves Don for Henry, it’s for a life that promises to be more dramatic and to provide a new culture to explore. As the politician’s wife, she’ll again be the object of desire and wonder; she won’t have to resort to judging other people because others will be so busy observing her and her fascinating new life.
Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. She’s going through the motions of a different subculture — she wears the boxy Chanel suits and lives in the musty giant house — but it’s even more stultifying than before. She doesn’t seem to have neighbors or, for that matter, friends, which leaves her no one to observe, be fascinated by, reject, judge.
So the gaze turns inward. You could read the development of Fat Betty as a psychosomatic manifestation of the need to judge something, be distracted by something. She’s physically and emotionally pained by the experience, but at least she has something to think about, some goal to achieve, something to talk about. Can you imagine that degree of boredom? And not even being able to articulate your sadness, let alone its source?
Sally’s the other target of Betty’s judging gaze, and hints abound that she’s simply reproducing Betty’s own mother’s interactions with her. Don’t get fat; don’t be sexual; be a lady — and if you don’t, I’ll show my distaste by withholding my love. But it’s more complicated than simple disapproval: there’s a freedom and whimsy and pleasure to the way that Sally experiences the world and her own body, one for which Betty cannot help but mourn the loss. Again, she observes, feels desire, yet shuts down that desire by mapping her self-disgust onto Sally.
There are moments of respite — the heady interactions between her and Don at Bobby’s camp, for example, are animated by her excitement in her “new” body and Don’s desire of it, which liberates her to play with Bobby (“Father Abraham had many sons!”) without her usual disdain for his childish joy. And Henry remains unexpectedly emotionally generous with her, perhaps because he’s well-trained in placating his own bored and judging mother. (It’s no coincidence that Betty hates her: Pauline's frumpy, harping present telegraphs Betty’s frumpy, harping future).
Since the divorce, Mad Men has delayed the first Betty sighting. She never pops up in early scenes, or even necessarily the first few episodes. Instead, she first appears in a scene that functions as a revelation as to her current mental state. Sally trying to zip up her dress in Season Five is our first glimpse of self-loathing Fat Betty; in Season Six, it’s her interactions with Sally’s violin-playing friend. The odd, rapey suggestion Betty makes to Henry about going downstairs to take advantage of the girl evidences the perverse pathways her mind has started to meander in order to relieve the tedium of the everyday.
This season, we see Betty sitting across from Francine, her former partner-in-judging-crime. Only Francine has better things to do than talk shit about the neighbors or talk about her husband’s job: she has her own job that clearly thrills and satisfies her. Her children are the afterthought; she even wears a pantsuit with bold, masculine lapels. Betty tries to subtly engage the judging machine that previously policed Francine so efficiently, deliberately forgetting her actual occupation. She gets defensive (“Gene’s still a few years away from that”) at the suggestion that the children could be self-sufficient.
When Francine explains that “she just needed a reward,” she’s essentially saying that she needed a reason to live — one that wasn’t manufacturing mini-dramas vis-a-vis the judgement of others. When Betty responds that “I thought they [the kids] were the reward. I don’t know. Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” the phrasing is telling. She thought “they” were the reward — a “they” that could stand in not only for children, but husbands. They’re the reward not only for living, but for living the “right” way: for being a paragon of 1950s femininity.
Look like the woman in the Coca-Cola ad, she was promised, and you’ll find all of life’s rewards. The only explanation she can articulate for her loyalty to that broken promise is that she’s “old-fashioned,” which is another way of saying that she’s alienated from the realities of life. When Francine replies “Betty Draper, that is indeed how I would describe you,” she’s reminding Betty that even if she is a Francis, she’s still stuck in the aimless routines, armed with the same unfulfilling strategies, that structured her time as a Draper.
When Betty returns home and declares her intention to accompany Bobby on his fieldtrip, she’s trying to make him “the reward.” Accompanying your son on his trip to an idyllic farm — what could be more fulfilling? But she’s reached the point where she doesn’t know how to function without judging: first Bobby’s teacher and then, most hilariously, Bobby’s taxonomy of monsters.
When she offers to drink the cow’s milk, she revels in being the center of attention. The cross-cutting of the farm scene with Don’s return to the office effectively aligns Bobby and Don, and the camera invites us to see Betty through Bobby/Don’s eyes: beautiful, smiling, fun, perfect in the natural light. They sit down on picnic blanket, with its visual echoes of the picnic in the Coca-Cola ad, but the scene is priming to break bad.
For as much as Betty professes the desire for a “perfect day,” she can’t really stomach one — it’d be too disappointing in its blandness. She has to get mad at Bobby for trading her sandwich. I’ve seen others read Bobby’s trade — and Betty’s anger — as that of a jealous girlfriend, vindictive that he traded with another girl, and that’s part of it. But anyone who’s closely observed Betty’s eating habits, especially around children, will understand that Bobby’s trade was absolutely logical. She never eats; why would she eat now?
It’s the perfect reason to pick a fight — and the perfect fuel for Betty’s larger argument that her children don’t love her. With that belief in hand, she can feel better about how very unrewarded she’s felt with her life. What’s more, the onus of that failure isn’t on her — it’s on them, and their lack of love. It’s that incredible lack of self-awareness, these accumulated acts of self-deception, that make Betty such a tragic character.
One of the main defenses of any abhorrent character, whether in Game of Thrones, True Detective, or All in the Family, is that they’re a “product of their times.” This argument is usually wielded as a means of recuperating misogynistic, racist, and/or homophobic men: of course he sexually assaulted/manipulated/destroyed that woman; that’s how men operated then! To some extent, I actually buy this argument: there’s no “outside” of ideology, even in fictional television, and all men must wallow in the moral imperatives set forth by their narratives.
What strikes me, then, is how seldom this defense is used to exonerate unlikable women. Their actions are just as circumscribed by the ideologies that inform their cultures, but instead of explaining why they are the way they are, we call them bitches and shrews, harpies and sluts.
Which is precisely why I think it’s so critical to defend Betty: she is absolutely a product of pre-feminist sensibilities. All of horribleness, all of the judging — it’s all her sad, broken way of flailing against the quiet yet overwhelming disappointment of her life. She’s immature; she lacks introspection — but it’s difficult to blame her when the one attempt at gaining it culminated in a man looking down her shirt and reporting her confessions directly to her husband. I’ve written elsewhere about the postfeminist dystopia of texts like Girls and Bachelorette, in which women who should be reveling in their achievement of the postfeminist ideal find themselves wholly dissatisfied. Betty, then, lives in a sort of pre-feminist dystopia: everything may look perfect, but it’s rotting from the inside out.
That’s the reality of living in a world without feminism. But the problem is that even those who have embraced the fruits of feminism are still trapped by the overarching ideologies of the patriarchy. Peggy may wear pants, but she’s miserable; Joan’s on the second floor, but people still treat her like a secretary, and she’s so thoroughly internalized her status as a sex object that it’s difficult for her to fathom a man who treats her otherwise.
It’s fine to say that Roger and Bert are racists from another time, that the subtle yet pervasive sexism was “just how things were.” Gross, okay; repugnant, sure — but we can’t blame them for acting like everyone and everything told them to. Betty, Peggy, and Joan are all caught between two ages, with markedly different messages about how they should and can act and be. Their attempts to navigate those contradictions come off as confused, emotional, inconsistent, shrill, misplaced. But they, too, are products of their time — and our insistence on framing their struggles against that time as annoying, or evil, or immature only underlines the eviscerating, demoralizing struggle faced by the women of the 1960s. And, because every narrative about the past is also a commentary on the present, the women of today.
Eat Your Candy,