Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sexism makes me hate Betty Draper


"Mad Men" is back! Okay, I know the show's season officially started three weeks ago, but the first episodes of each season often seem painfully slow. I stick around because I know the writers are merely setting the scene for deft and nuanced exploration of character and society. In this third episode, "Arrangements," things started happening--at least in the way things gently happen on "Mad Men," where a small, seemingly unimportant event can be weighted with significance. Peggy continued to push personal (and familial) boundaries, deciding to leave the outer boroughs for an apartment in Manhattan. Kitty, who worked so hard to marry Sal, is suddenly realizing why it is that she doesn't get "tended to" by her husband. An old, rich friend of Bert Cooper's lamented the character of his failure of a son. "We just didn't know what kind of person we were raising." Pete greasily tried to soak said son, an old school chum, for $3 million worth of advertising to make jai alai "bigger than baseball." Betty...well, Betty lost her father Gene and cemented her place as the one "Mad Men" character that I absolutely, unequivocably loathe. Yes, I hate Betty Draper. And I am far from alone. But why does this particular character--this female character--provoke so much derision, while viewers see the humanity in even the most snake-like male characters (Pete, I am so looking at you.)?


The character of Betty Draper is the embodiment of pre-Feminine Mystique, upper-middle class, white womanhood. (Or at least how we have come to imagine it.) Betty was raised to be taken care of. She was raised to be a perfect trophy. She is a well-heeled Grace Kelly doppelganger-- a former model, a princess, a daddy's little girl. And she is finding, as many women do, that living on a pedestal is less than fulfilling. She is allowed no emotion--not even the right to grieve for her own mother (season one). She is bored and depressed. Her alpha male husband is distant, uncommunicative and philandering to boot. She has two children that seem little more than burdens and one on the way that she doesn't really want. She is treated like a child with little agency. When Betty sees a male psychiatrist in season one, she learns that he is reporting on her sessions to her husband. She is depressed.

The character of Betty Draper, who was fresh and hopeful in season one, is now nervous with periodically shaking hands. She is withdrawn, bitter and cold. She is alternately dismissive and cruel to her children (particularly her daughter), her friends and other family members. She is unhappy and the world knows it. Personal misery can make for an unpleasant personality.

I understand why Betty is the way she is. She was molded by her family and a society that viewed women like her as dolls not living, breathing women with needs and desires. In Sunday's episode, Betty's father Gene hints several times that he, too, didn't know what kind of person he was raising. He mentions that Betty is nothing like her independent mother, his wife, who was working when he first met her. He frets that he shielded Betty from too many things, raised her to be a princess--"Scarlett O'Hara" he calls her. After he tries to discuss his final wishes with his daughter, she huffs: (paraphrasing) I know it must be hard for you to face whatever it is your facing, but can't you keep it to yourself? It's selfish and morbid for you to talk to me about it. I'm your little girl! Later, Gene tells his grandaughter, Betty's child, that she can be whatever she wants to be..."no matter what your mother says." It is likely a message he never gave his "little girl" Betty. Nor does it seem he encouraged his wife's independent streak, as there is no mention of her working after they married.

So, I think I know what makes Betty--Betty. Yet, I find it hard to be compassionate towards her, even as I forgive her husband his dalliances, oh, and for stealing a dead man's identity. I should be more understanding of a woman--a sister who shares some of my challenges (or would have if I had been around in the early 60s...and of course, if I were a fictional Tami). But, perhaps that is the thing. I don't see Betty as a sister. She is the antithesis of black womanhood. She is the paragon of femininity that women like me have been told we should want to be, but never will be. As twisted as the late 50s/early 60s view of womanhood was, then, as now, there is privilege in embodying the ideal. Blonde and blue-eyed, conventionally beautiful and sheltered Betty is most certainly the ideal. And with her position comes privilege. That is what I see when I view Betty through the context of black women of her era--privilege.

I hate Betty Draper so, so much more whenever Carla, the family's black maid, appears on the screen. I cringe every time a po-faced Betty dons her riding attire and tosses some instruction about cooking and cleaning and child-rearing over her shoulder to Carla, a woman who is surely someone's "little girl," but who must do the things women like Betty are deemed too delicate to tackle. I bristled in season two when she tearily snapped at the black housekeeper who raised her in her father's house, berating the woman for not spending enough time managing Gene's dementia and keeping an eye on his new wife. Fix it black woman! I certainly cannot be expected to handle this!

Betty is enslaved, while also being the slave master. This is what I hate about her. She wants freedom and agency when it is convenient. She wants to come down off the pedestal, but she seems unwilling, at least at this point in the narrative, to give up the privilege that comes with being idealized.

I think I understand my feelings about Betty Draper. And I think they are valid. But why is she, in particular, so unforgiveable...and not just for me?

A commenter named Lgreer28 on Television Without Pity asked just this question to the Betty haters:


I find it amazing that people are always pointing out Betty's immaturity, while ignoring the immaturity of the other characters. Why do they expect her to be the perfect parent? Why is it that her flaws are not tolerated, yet the flaws of the other characters are? Why do they constantly complain about Betty's flaws and ignore Don's? Why do they ignore the fact that Don is no more a perfect parent than Betty? Why do they ignore his own immaturity or his tendencies to indulge in his own illusions?

Indeed. Betty is a bad mother, but "Mad Men" is riddled with bad fathers. Betty is selfish, but not nearly as selfish as her errant husband. As for my beef, Betty hardly created the hierarchy of race and femininity that strangles her and all of the other women on the show--black ones, included. There is scarcely a man on the show who hasn't committed Betty's "crimes" and much more and who isn't 10 times more responsible for perpetuating the inequities of the time. Yet, she is the person that gets all of our hate, which maybe proves that when it comes to sexism, we aren't so much more enlightened than folks were in Betty's day. We tut and gasp over the biased treatment of women on "Mad Men." "My God, I'm so glad things are different today!" But as we analyze the show and its characters with our 21st century eyes, a woman is still judged more harshly than a man for similar infractions. We've laid aside the mid-day gin at the office, the skinny ties and girdles. But it seems that, in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

27 comments:

Nia said...

Very interesting post, and I definitely understand where your coming from. I'm a Black woman and I must say I did feel very sympathetic towards Betty in the previous seasons. I'm not sure how I feel about her in this one yet though. All the smoking while pregnant especially has me like: What?!!?
I feel that if Carla had been given more air-time I would not feel sympathetic towards Betty at all. Carla hasn't appeared too often at all, but when she has it has been very powerful and telling.

Kjen said...

After reading reviews about Betty, I've wished that I paid more attention to her. But come another episode and a scene with Betty and -- my mind wanders. With Betty, I "understand" the problems but her character isn't compelling enough.
Would it be progressive if I revealed that I also find Pete to be a pampered prince who bores me too?

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ThirstyDancer said...

I second your post. I think January Jones plays this part to perfection. Her outward beauty and inner ugliness are hard to take. All the boys, with their secrets, schemes and lies come off as hypocritical, flawed and charming while Betty seems morally wretched and monstrous. And that judgment, like you say, reflects my internalized sexism projected onto Betty.

Tif said...

I agree with Kjen, the other characters on the show have other qualities that make them more redeemable than Betty. While every character on the show has flaws, Betty is the only one that doesn't have something else that she can excel at. She doesn't even have humor to fall back on like her friend Francine, who is just as terrible a mother, but a more endearing character.

Kate said...

I've wondered about this too! There are moments in which I kind of like Betty (when she shot the pigeons, for one), but most of the time I have absolutely no sympathy for her. She's sinking lower and lower-- she grew a spine and kicked Don out, even had an affair of her own (which showed some autonomy), but had to go back to the family life because of pregnancy. She's becoming colder and more babied. But the thing is, she is EXACTLY what she's been trained to be: by her parents, by Don, by her friends, by society. She is a racist, pampered, useless trophy wife, because that's what she was made to be-- and we hate her for it. How fair is that?

k8dee said...

Tami,
I try to see her as sympathetic, but the emotions just don't come. To me, she is the female version of Pete, he is the embodiment of white male privilege and she is his female twin. No sympathy, she simply grates. It is not sexism, I loathe them both equally.

The Rush Blog said...

As twisted as the late 50s/early 60s view of womanhood was, then, as now, there is privilege in embodying the ideal. Blonde and blue-eyed, conventionally beautiful and sheltered Betty is most certainly the ideal. And with her position comes privilege. That is what I see when I view Betty through the context of black women of her era--privilege.


I'm also a black woman, but I cannot view Betty the same way you do. I don't know. Perhaps I can see beyond the ideal. Behind the ideal and priviledged life, I think that Betty is a prisoner, due to her parents, her husband and her own fears. So far, she is the only character on this show I have actually shed tears for.

I guess I feel that despite race, creed, color, gender, class, religion, etc., we're all oppressed on one level or another. We're all prisoners of society.

Melissa said...

My theory is that we tend to fetishize motherhood. We did it back in Betty's day, too, but the ideals were different. Once those kids pop out, it's supposed to magically transform a woman into whatever the maternal ideal du jour is. And if it doesn't, then, there must be something horribly, horribly wrong with her - some kind of mental or emotional defect.

In Betty's day (not far removed from my own mother's) the ideal was that the house was well-kept and the kids were well-behaved and turned out to be good, moral citizens. My mother was conditioned to believe her own mother was a bad mother because she worked outside the home and fought with her husband in front of the kids.

Nowadays, the ideal is geared more toward expressing feelings and making children feel like equals. So now, Betty is a bad mother because she doesn't do those things. And we know that if a woman who has children isn't an ideal mother, there's something horribly, horribly wrong with her.

vicariousrising said...

This is a terrific post and I also love what Rush Blog wrote in response.

I feel sympathetic for Betty, which surprises me for a number of personal reasons. But I am also surprised that other women are reacting so negatively to her. What I wonder is if the reaction is because Betty is bringing up something the viewer doesn't want to face about herself, whether it is a personal bias or a broken belief. I know when I have a particularly negative reaction to someone, it usually is because he or she is showing me something I dislike about myself.

Just a thought. After last night's episode, I felt terrible for Betty. I don't necessarily like her -- I doubt I'd hang out with her -- but I wish I could hug her. Like I wish there had been someone to hug me when I couldn't see that there were any ways out of situations I felt completely trapped in, even if partly by my own doing.

dkellergrl said...

This is a very interesting post, because I've always been sympathetic towards Betty Draper and I'm a mid 30's single Black woman that has never had a child.

I don't think it's odd that she doesn't really like (or even love) her children at times. I don't think it's odd that she feels like she's been lied to, in regards to "her end of the bargin" in marrying Don Draper and fulfilling her duties as his wife and mother of his 3 children.

I like that she's not the "perfect wife", because that's an impossible thing to be and she wants it so bad, that she's willing to delude herself into thinking that if she just hopes for it to happen, then it will. She's not any different than Don, except that she's just not able to take on another dead woman's identity in order to try and achieve that goal.

Yes, the show is called "Mad Men", but I'm also intrigued by the "Mad Women" on the show.

My theory is that we tend to fetishize motherhood. We did it back in Betty's day, too, but the ideals were different. Once those kids pop out, it's supposed to magically transform a woman into whatever the maternal ideal du jour is. And if it doesn't, then, there must be something horribly, horribly wrong with her - some kind of mental or emotional defect.

Juanita's Journal said...

I like that she's not the "perfect wife", because that's an impossible thing to be and she wants it so bad, that she's willing to delude herself into thinking that if she just hopes for it to happen, then it will. She's not any different than Don, except that she's just not able to take on another dead woman's identity in order to try and achieve that goal.

Actually, Betty is not that different from the other characters. If you take a close look at all of the major characters, nearly every one of them either has some ideal or illusion they want to attain or wallow in. Characters like Roger, Pete, Peggy, Joan, Paul and even Cooper.

dkellergrl said...

Exactly, which is why I've grown to become sympathetic towards Betty and her situation, that's why I agree with you on how sexism "colors" how some viewers react towards this character.

Betty seems to never be able to catch a break.

NY/NJ Attorney said...

When you said that Betty doesn't want to give up her privilege, you made me think of "The Sopranos", because that's exactly what I used to think about Carmela - despite all the "issues" with being married to a philandering mobster, she didn't want to leave him because that would mean giving up the privilege, which in her case, meant money and power. I don't see Betty as benefiting from very much privilege. She has money but no real security (the same could be said about Carmela in The Sopranos). Unlike Carmela, Betty doesn't have any real power at all. Sure she tosses out orders to Carla, but Carla is working and earning her own money - in that sense, Carla has an independence and power that Betty will never have. Being able to tell Carla what to do gives Betty a false sense of power, and I think she knows it. Carla knows it, too, which is probably one of the things that makes Carla sympathetic toward Betty. Carla probably sees how Betty is stuck in this "life" that is entirely not of her own making. Of course, everyone on this show is trapped in a role, but Betty seems to have the least ability to flex her own muscles. About the best she can do is snap at the kids and growl at Don. And that gets real old, real fast.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for this article. I too found it hard to place a finger on why exactly i so despise Betty Draper. And i realized it doesn't matter why. I'm not looking for a deep esoteric reason pin pointing exactly why shes so deeply unlikable. It is the way it is. Again i agree that it may be a little irrational, but it doesn't matter to me. She's painfully cold, yet passionately demanding (when she threw that box at Henry for not showing up to the 'fundraiser'???), she is the embodiment of how to portray a character that the masses will despise. The fact that she gets so much screen time just adds fuel to the fire. I truly believe that people would be able to stand her more if only she was reverted to a secondary character, one we needn't have spent every single episode watching.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for this article. I too found it hard to place a finger on why exactly i so despise Betty Draper. And i realized it doesn't matter why. I'm not looking for a deep esoteric reason pin pointing exactly why shes so deeply unlikable. It is the way it is. Again i agree that it may be a little irrational, but it doesn't matter to me. She's painfully cold, yet passionately demanding (when she threw that box at Henry for not showing up to the 'fundraiser'???), she is the embodiment of how to portray a character that the masses will despise. The fact that she gets so much screen time just adds fuel to the fire. I truly believe that people would be able to stand her more if only she was reverted to a secondary character, one we needn't have spent every single episode watching.

Kate said...

Excellent analysis. Thank you!

I've come to think that part of the problem is actually with January Jones' acting. The final episode of the season 3 did it for me. She seemed so outclassed by the other actors. Perhaps that's why Weiner is divorcing them -- to get her out of the picture!

Anonymous said...

I think Tami's original analysis here is made even more interesting by the resolution of the season. Betty found a way to escape her life from Don ... by walking into another cage made by Henry Francis. Betty's still not wililng to make a life of her own or wililng to face the world without the security provided by a man. Think about it, if she had divorced Don, she would still have gotten alimony and child support from him. Should wouldn't be starving. However, she still didn't have it within her to even try life with even a smidgin less of material comfort. She was building a life raft, as Don said, with another wealthy man.

I think what this really shows is that Betty's living in a trap that exists in her own mind. In 1963, there were plenty of women on their own, supporting themselves. Half of all adult women were working. But, oh no, not Betty. It's going to be from a grand house in Ossining straight into another country estate in Albany.

There are more reasons to hate Betty than just sexism.

Anonymous said...

Betty found a way to escape her life from Don ... by walking into another cage made by Henry Francis.


Just about every female divorced character on MAD MEN has moved on to another man . . . including Mona Sterling and Helen Bishop. You don't even know whether Betty will immediately marry Henry Francis or not. This is why I find your argument irrevelant.

Someone had complained about Betty smoking and drinking during her pregnancy. That was practically normal before the late 20th century. Betty's neighbor, Francine, had drank and smoked during her pregnancy in S1. I don't recall many people complaining about her. They did express surprise that such a thing happened with women in the 60s.

I think many of the complaints about Betty - including this article - is laced with a lot of hypocrisy.

Nia said...

It was me who mentioned about Betty's smoking. I never said it made me hate her, I said it was shocking to see. My exact words simply were: "All the smoking while pregnant especially has me like: What?!!?"
While I am aware that that habit was the norm during that time and prior, in the time-frame and era that I am currently in, seeing her do it is nevertheless shocking because it is something you just really do not see these days.
Also if you read my post I state quite clearly that I actually felt very sympathetic towards Betty. I do sympathize with her as a victim of sexism, but I would have no sympathy towards her in the context of her racist interactions with Carla.
And I didn't mention anything about her neighbour Francine because I wasn't aware at all of that character, not because I was being hypocritical. I did not watch Mad Men too closely or too frequently at the beginning, so I guess I missed that particular character.

SweaterFreak said...

I think you are getting too personal here. Betty hasn't actually done anything wrong yet (aside from one kiss with Harry). She hasn't committed a crime (like Don), hasn't cheated on her spouse multiple times (like Don), hasn't conspired schemes to throw people over and blackmail them(Pete)....So what gives?
There is logically no reason to despise her. She is a product of her upbringing/era. Nothing else, nothing more.

I have mixed feelings re feminism, overall women should have the same rights as men. But are they equal in all senses? No. Whether people like it or not, men and women are vastly different.

Betty's problem is not that she doesn't have a job that she needs to get up for every day or that she doesn't have deadlines to worry about. Her problem is poor upbringing and cheating husband.

Don't kid yourself - there were a lot of happy housewives in the 50's 60's and today that don't work, take care of the kids and cook 3 meals a day. The issue is not her beauty or lack of a job - it's her circumstances.

As a note: I am a f/t employed in a male dominated field.

illustratethis said...

this is some of the most interesting and intelligent blogging i've read in a while...even if it is only about a TV show. Thanks for sharing.

Amy... Pixie said...

Betty is one of my favourite characters. What her life has become, her reactions to it and the reasons behind it make me feel very grateful for the risks people took for gender equality. I didn't even realise that there she was such an unpopular character until I googled her. Her interaction with black servants annoyed me but I do expect to be annoyed by a presentation of race relations from that time period.

That said I am a privileged white girl who went to a private school where some of the staff were trying to mould its students into modern day Bettys. I can imagine how easy it is to become her. Beautiful, clever and with the ability to charm but trapped because she was never taught to self analyse and too afraid of rejection to break free.

Carla said...

The problem I have with Betty is that she doesn't seem to have any inner life. With all the other flawed characters there are times that I see a glimmer of self-awareness - Don's guilt, Pete's uncomfortable-ness in his own skin, Peggy's yearning for "different".

Betty is unhappy and uncomfortable and she just wants it to stop. I don't get a feeling from her that she's thinking about why she's unhappy, just that she wants to be happy and doesn't know how to get there. She careens from one thing to the next hoping that will be the magic "thing".

I just finished watching the third season over the holidays. I'm coming very late to this show and I'm enjoying it more than any show since The West Wing.

Anonymous said...

In response to the above comment I agree. I do not hate Betty, and I do sympathise with her situation and at times even feel sad for her. However my real issue is not that I dislike her, I simply find her so incredibly frustrating. I want to reach out and shake her into actually analysising her situation and cause for unhappiness.

She lacks the ability to self critique or analyze. Despite being intensely self absorbed she is unable to recognise her won role in her unhappiness. She simply wants happiness, freedom, power yet seems incapable of mustering the mental strength to figure out that she is able to make decisions about her own future, rather than making decisions about who will decide her future for her.

She chooses Don to look after her, then choose Henry to look after her. Rather than trying to look after herself and take control of her own happiness.

I don't want to put it all down to 'the problem is you' but I just wish she'd do more than sigh, have a tantrum and sleep. She needs to wake up out of her fantasy that something will magically make her life perfect. Like Joan, Peggy and other women of Mad Men she needs to accept her faults and fight for her self worth. And accept that with that comes failure and self judgement. Rather than trying to hide inside her own made up fantasy of life and ignoring any element which threatens to shatter that fantasy, such as Sally's misbehavior.

MaryMarinkovich said...

Betty/Don and their upper middle class peers were simultaneously their own creators and objects. A self involved generation, that was trying on new roles like kids playing at 'house' and 'going to work' in grown up clothes. "Women's" colleges like Bryn Mawr were still no more than glorified finishing schools producing the perfect socialite wives. Ill prepared for parenthood, when pregnant--women smoked, drank. Married women, bored and disillusioned with their appliances, and clubs and thier socialite lives, flirted without knowing that men had become more dangerous and brutish than ever in their own leering view of the female role in the world as toys to be used and discarded. These men/women 'grownups' are mostly the kids of a privilege and wealth they never earned. It is a world portrayed almost letter perfect by Mad Men. A tawdry, sorrowful world...empty, adrift, hellish in its own way...Like ee cummings poem...'the center will not hold.' Civil rights, vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Marilyn' death, the assassinations are the context in which one imperfect world is replaced with another in a time of chaos.

Anonymous said...

I love your writing and analysis, Tami. I think Betty can turn on the charm, but we don't see her being charming as often as we see that side of Don, etc. Maybe it's because charm is such a social, public thing, and Betty is usually shown in the domestic, private sphere.

A note on MaryM's comment: "The centre cannot hold" is definitely Yeats, not cummings.

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