In Defense of Betty Draper Francis (Kind Of)

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.

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Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Betty Draper Francis (Kind Of)”

  1. Ohh, great analysis.

    I find Betty sympathetic, but not particularly likable. She has a serious mean streak (and (I’ve only just started season 5 on netflix, so I don’t know if she gets better or worse) and is downright petty and childish as a rule. And she’s just awful to Sally. But, she was raised with a very specific role in mind (like the episode where she gives birth to Gene, and dreams that her father tells her “you’re very important, and you have little to do”). And that role — pretty housewife who pays a nanny to raise her children and does social events, rides horses, and reads to keep her busy — makes her miserable. I can sympathize with that, even if I wouldn’t want to spend time with her socially.

    It’s really interesting to see the contrast between Betty and Trudy Campbell; sure, Pete’s similar to Don in some ways (ambitious, good at his job) but he’s more open-minded and treats Trudy less like a pretty doll and more like a person. I think it helps that Trudy’s family is not Old Money, so she’s more open to doing things herself (like raising the baby) and is friendlier with “lower-class” women (i.e., Peggy, Joan, the secretaries) while Betty treats anyone who isn’t at Don or Henry’s level as hired help. Plus, different personalities; Trudy seems to be kinder in general, and tries to see the best in people. Betty seems to only see the importance of people (based on social standing).

  2. This is excellent, Elfity.

    Anti-heroes, like Don Draper, Walter White, Dexter, etc. are all in vogue right now, and I’m tickled that showrunners like Weiner are willing to give us lady anti-heroes as well, even though the world-at-large seems rather ill-equipped to handle the idea of a woman in that role. I’m not sure if Betty could be classified as such (I’ve only seen a few episodes of the first season), but I’m glad she appears to have some depth beyond being an “ice queen.”

    It seems to me that Betty never realizes that she has choices, but how could she, when everything around her reinforces the picture of womanhood she has in her head?

  3. My humanities prof always taught us to analyze characters as follows: Would you like to have a hamburger with that character? And my answer when it comes to Betty Draper is “HELL NO.” Betty Draper would be a draining friend to have. It would be exhausting. That having been said, I find myself constantly rooting for Betty. I genuinely want her happiness probably more than anyone’s on the show, probably because she’s so far from finding it. In the Season 5 episode where Sally gets her period for the first time, Betty is a great mom, for what may be the first time we’ve ever seen. She’s not playing games, she’s not using her children as pawns, she’s completely unselfish. She was at her absolute best. And yes, maybe it was because her daughter chose her, but that kind of pride isn’t really a folly. I love Betty Draper, I just don’t like her AT ALL.

  4. Betty represents everything my father wanted and expected my mother to be, but everything my mother hated and never would be.

    Generationally, Betty falls between my grandmother and my mother, both of whom were “career women” even if they were in a stereotypically feminine profession — education (though both had advanced degrees in counseling, and both were specialized educators: my grandmother piloted a program for pregnant teens in her public school system, and my mother founded the Special Olympics program in our small deep south town). Betty is, however, everything my mother railed against and everything she warned me about. To me, Betty is similar to the moms of the friends I grew up with…most of whom ended up divorced, some remarried, but most didn’t “find” themselves until after that first marriage was over.

    My mother taught me to feel compassion for those “lost” women. She taught me that due to either their upbringing or ignorance, they thought that their main purpose was to be valuable to a man (as a housekeeper, a procreator, etc.), and that while that was not what I should aspire to be, I should support them and respect them, regardless of their chosen life paths.

    All along I have watched Mad Men with both my mother and grandmother in mind. I think about the factors that caused them to select education over other careers, the crap they put up with to obtain their advanced degrees (jeezus — knowing the shit I put up with in the early 90s…can you even imagine what it was like in the 40s and 60s??? [and we all went to the same school, btw]), and the way they interacted with the various men in their lives.

    From the very beginning, I have held to the idea that Mad Men is NOT about the men, but is, in fact, about the women — at different life stages, from different backgrounds, but all products of the same patriarchy. And while I may not LIKE Betty, I DO sympathize with her and believe that we all should.

    While we may not LIKE Betty,

    1. People hate Betty Draper because she isn’t smart, interesting, or in any way positive. Quite the opposite.

      Let’s compare her to Don. Don drinks too much. Don sleeps around. Don is deeply flawed, but has a joie de vivre which he has learned through hardship and a confidence he has earned through success.

      Don’s deepest love was for Anna Draper, a strong female who decided to share Don’s secret so that the real Don’s death would not be wasted.

      These are modern people making modern, “non-standard” life choices.

      Betty does not have this joy for life. All she has are flaws. Big, glaring ones.

      Let’s not forget this: the real Don draper died, in war. While Betty was coddled by WASP parents, riding horses, and going to a prep east coast college. Neither Don Draper nor Dick Whitman had a choice about that. Their circumstances were far worse than Betty’s ever were, but Don made the best of every opportunity he found. Betty let herself stagnate. And blaming gender politics for it really misses the point. The show has plenty of examples of women making the best of their situations and improving their lives, instead of blaming the men around them for their failures.

  5. I pity Betty. Yes, she can be incredibly insufferable and her children might be better off without her. But she’s always been seen as nothing more than trophy wife and she grew into that. Now she has space to go other ways, she just doesn’t know what to do with it, I really believe that.

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