Brace yourselves; the Betty Draper hate is coming. Wait, I think that’s the wrong show (even though I’d love to do a Cersei post). Anyway, it’s the Mad Men time of year again, which means it’s time to hate on everyone’s favorite ice queen, Mrs. Elizabeth Hofstadt Draper Francis! Naturally, this bothers me.
First of all, let’s get something out of the way. Mad Men is not an aspirational show. I repeat, not an aspirational show. It is not some piece of nostalgia to look longingly back at, wishing for simpler times and better days. No. Not unless your aspirations are to be subjugated, mistreated, brutalized, raped, held back at work, imprisoned at home, and otherwise treated like a third-class citizen or a piece of property. Let us all hope that the aspirations of our peers are higher than that. Anyone who is watching Mad Men with wistful tears streaming down their cheeks is missing the damn point. Go back and try again. These people are all miserable. Now, moving on.
Betty is almost a universally hated character, kind of like Lori on The Walking Dead. Except Lori does a bunch of really stupid stuff on top of getting the misogynist end of the writing stick, and Betty just gets the latter. However, there is a lot to dislike. She’s neglectful, dismissive, and sometimes downright cruel to her children. She is cold. She says hurtful things with little remorse or empathy. She reinforces gender norms and constructions with an iron fist clad in a dainty lace glove. On last week’s episode, she made a series of rape “jokes” to awful to even repeat. To me, the jokes were a clear cry for help, but people see these things and damn her without doing the character analysis that the show requires of its viewers.
To some extent, the problem is less with the writers and more with the viewers. Matthew Weiner has created a sophisticated show (more so in the first few season than it is now, but whatever) that requires more thought than Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It asks more from its audience than most shows, and it is for this reason that I’ve heard it described as “a TV show for English majors.” What I have noticed is that people are willing to analyze the hell out of Don and give him the benefit of the doubt while condemning Betty. She is villainized while he is made a hero, despite him doing far more terrible things than she has. But you know, he’s our hero. Our good-looking, sexy, charismatic hero. Never mind that he’s a terrible human being – he’s just so good looking! And there’s our societal sexism problem.
Betty is also a hard character to love in that she’s not sexy like Joan or bold and ambitious like Peggy. She’s frigid and icy and probably the least empathetic character I’ve ever seen who isn’t an outright sociopath. She isn’t even aspirational to the “I’m such a Carrie! I’m such a Miranda!” types that migrated to Mad Men after Sex and the City finally vacated pop culture. Her relatability and aspirational status extends as far as her beauty look, which is yeah, quite pretty. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the aesthetics of a show that takes great pains to ensure that every detail is period-perfect, but it should hardly be the only reason for tolerating a character. Betty’s beauty look and style are the only reasons I’ve heard to like her, and I don’t think it even needs to be explained why that’s eyeroll-inducing at best and anti-feminist at worst.
Betty’s true problem is that she wanted what she was promised – a handsome husband to buy her a house, give her children, and take care of her. She got what she was promised, but it wasn’t what she wanted, probably because it didn’t turn out like everyone told her it would. That life was supposed to make her happy, and she knew it. It’s kind of like how some of us are told that we’ll grow up, go to college, and get a job. We might do that, but we’re still painfully unhappy, because it turns out it’s not all roses. The difference is that we aren’t trapped here. We can go to grad school, move to a different city, find a new significant other, anything. Betty can just get remarried and try the same thing over again. You’d probably hate life too. She does terrible things to her children because she’s hideously unhappy, and while that isn’t an excuse, it is insight.
We get these glimpses of Betty’s desires to break free, but she can’t. She’s unhappy as hell, and I have a hard time condemning someone who, in my professional clinical opinion, shows signs of some of the most severe yet subtle depression ever displayed on television. Yes, she’s done some truly awful things, particularly to her kids, but she is clearly suffering through some sort of mood disorder while being imprisoned in ’60s femininity. She’s a victim of her time, and we are judging her by our standards. I’m not saying that what she has done isn’t her fault, but I am saying that some of this hate is completely unwarranted.
If Betty is anything, she’s a feminist cause. She’s what all of our second-wave foremothers fought for back in the ’60s, even if she didn’t know it or want it.
We view this show through an interesting, 21st-century lens. We keep thinking that eventually she’ll pick up a copy of The Feminine Mystique and open up those big, batting eyes to a world of feminist possibilities. That’s what we would do, right? Well, maybe. It’s still possible that Betty might run off to NYC to become a hippie den mother and adopt a peace, love, and goulash mantra.
Something tells me, however, that Betty scoffs at feminist agitators and has no desire to be a part of such a movement, at least not yet. That’s okay, because she is still who second-wave feminists fought for, whether she and those like her wanted it or not. They just wanted her to have the option to pick up her kids (or not), move to a new state, get a job (or not), and start a new life. The fundamentalist women protesting outside my local Planned Parenthood may never, ever need or want an abortion, but I still fight for their right to have one, and I always will. We think of the characters of Mad Men as relics of the past, but they aren’t. The characters work so well because though they are set in the past, they are timeless. Betty exists all over the world today; she is not constrained to 1968. She has more decisions and freedoms now, but she may not know it. And maybe that’s the real reason the Betty hate bothers me.