Monday, 11 March 2013

Give Betty Draper Some Respect

If you are a member of the Mad Men fandom, you're no doubt aware that Betty, Don's first wife, is by far the most polarizing character on the entire series. But why, though? Although Betty is a deeply flawed individual- childish, petulant, and self-absorbed -she's no worse than Don, Pete Campbell, or any of the other male characters on the series. And despite her glacial exterior, she shows a great deal of depth.

I first want to address the complaint that I most often hear about Betty, which is that she's useless. "She's just a housewife," you say "and she doesn't even really raise her kids". The part about raising her kids, that's true. There's no denying that Betty's a shitty mother. But that's probably because she never wanted or intended to be one.

Consider Betty's history before she met Don. She was a well-brought-up young woman, and educated too. They didn't just hand out archeology degrees to young women back in the 1950s, you know. As a college graduate, Betty would have had to have fought tooth and nail against her male colleagues to get even a fraction of the respect she deserved from her professors.

And then you have her modelling career, which is how she met Don. She lived an incredibly glamourous life, travelling around the world, modelling haute couture, and hobnobbing with important people.

It's no surprise, then, that Dick Whitman was attracted to her, for she represented everything that he fetishized about America. Young, beautiful, accomplished, and well-to-do, Betty is the perfect Nordic model of the perfect American woman.

And yet.

Her marriage to Don completely sucked the life out of Betty. Everything that made her interesting and unique, like her degree, modelling career, and ability to speak Italian, was rendered completely useless in her life with Don Draper. Stuck inside a house all day, raising two kids that she never wanted by a husband who won't even let her wear a bikini... is it any wonder that Betty became bitter and cynical. And then, to find out that the man she gave up her entire life for was vicariously screwing around on her? Can you imagine how heartbreaking that must have been?

Betty is so sad that she confides in creepy nine-year-old Glen. That's how fucking miserable her life is.

Of course, there was no way that Betty could have gone back to her previous life after she got her divorce from Don, so she did the only logical thing to do, which was to remarry. But she was dissatisfied in that life, too, because as a woman in her 30s with two children... well, that's all she really is to anyone else.  Women today can't relate to that, because we can re-start our careers well into our thirties, go back to school, and become new people. But for women in the 1960s, that just wasn't an option.

The problem with judging Betty for her selfishness and poor parenting skills is that it assumes that she has access to resources and information which could help her become a better person, but she doesn't. She doesn't have a reliable parental figure, she doesn't have any real friends, and even her psychiatrist from Season One was reporting back to her husband.

I think a lot of people saw Betty's potential at the beginning of the series and wanted her to cast of the shackles of the patriarchy, pick up a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and become liberated. But the truth is, that wasn't a reality for most women in Betty's situation during that time period. They had to soldier through life without much to hope for or to believe in except for what their mothers taught them about husbands and housekeeping and child-rearing. Betty didn't have the luck or the ambition that Peggy and Joan had. She may have dug her own grave, but the patriarchy threw her in.


  1. Thank you for writing this, up until reading this I never fully realised how all of her past experiences have led to her behaving the way she does. Although I've always been sympathetic towards Betty, I'll definitely be viewing the way she acts in a different light.

  2. Ive never seen mad men but this post makes me want to start watching it!