I was reading a post that referenced a recent article about "show stopper" characters (characters the author felt killed the show dead when they were onscreen for various reasons) and in the course of the discussion somebody made the mistake of asking me what I think about Betty Draper on Mad Men post-divorce. I immediately realized I had way to much that I thought to burden somebody else's entry with! So within,

A lot of people hate Betty. I like her, at least as a character. Some people feel they made her into a monster last season, perhaps partly to make Don look good. I don't agree.

At the end of Season 3, when Betty was divorcing Don, there was a lot of talk on the board I was on about Betty potentially becoming a feminist. I couldn't imagine it. Then there was a lot of talk this year about how certain characters were "dinosaurs" now. Usually it was Don and Joan, telegraphing their extinct nature in their fashion. Joan wasn't changing her style with the times, Don was still wearing his hat. The 60s as we know them were coming and these characters were left behind.

I found this a disturbing and inaccurate thought. Part of it might have been because Don is just about the age of my dad, and he has stayed firmly on the 1950s side of the divide his whole life. He stopped wearing hats before my time (I only recently came across a picture of him wearing one so I know he wore them once!) but he's remained a conservative dresser. (In the 80s he scheduled client meetings every Friday to avoid business casual day.) So when people talk about Don being over in his 30s I find myself thinking that my dad would have been extinct before I was even born. Yet I'm pretty sure the time of his life when he was unhip was in some ways his prime. When people talked about all these characters being left behind I found myself wondering if I was the only person who remembered the 80s were coming. All those conservative people didn't go away when the hippies arrived. They continued influencing society and living their lives. There were a lot of great parts for male 50s movie stars in the 70s.

It seemed mean-spirited to judge characters to be "out of it" just because they weren't on trend—how many people in the real world are that trendy all the time? Like with Joan, there's a great fashion blog that looks at all the costumes and she *is* changing her wardrobe. She's just sticking to the look that works with her body, like most adult women. A real society would look like this, with characters mixing current trends with variations on older trends and older pieces.

So what does this have to do with Betty? I think sometimes when we watch historical TV we expect the characters to parade through the types that we recognize from the time. Women were liberated, thus Betty will be liberated. But of course all women weren't, and Betty to me seems like she wouldn't be. This crystallized for me in a conversation at the end of S3. Soon-to-be second husband Henry tells Betty he'd like to take her to her favorite movie, which she supplies is Singin' in the Rain. There was a conversation on the board about who Betty "was" in SitR: Lena or Cathy? My first thought was that she was neither, as SitR is very much a story about people in the workplace with romance secondary to careers.

But here's where I think there is a parallel and why it's a brilliant choice for Betty. Not only is it one of the last movies of its genre and set even further in the past than the decade it was made, it's a movie about dealing with a world in violent transition. The invention of talkies causes upheaval in the lives of the characters, just as events in the 60s will cause an upheaval in the MM world. Of the four main characters in SitT, Cathy represents the new star, the one who can speak and sing, who didn't have a career in talkies. Cosmo did work in talkies, but as a musician he was stuck playing mood music on set. Talkies give him a chance to come into his own. It's the stars Don and Lena who have to change; what they've been doing is obsolete. Don initially freaks out about this until Cathy and Cosmo remind him that not only has he reinvented himself once before, but he has skills (from vaudeville) he can tap to make the leap. Lena is the one character at a loss, her meager skills non-transferrable, unable to see the change, much less negotiate it. I'd totally believe a fanfic where Lena managed to come out on top some way, but the movie ends with her defeated.

That's where I see a connection to Betty. Where Don (who like Don Lockwood has already reinvented himself at least once and has skills valuable to the new order) spent S4 self-destructing and rebuilding, Betty simply gripped her old patterns more tightly. She married a man older and even more paternal than Don, a guy who thinks she’d look good on a Victorian fainting couch. She avoided being Helen Bishop by marrying immediately and so kept her standing in the suburban community she lived in with Don. Imo Betty very clearly chose to double down her bet on the values with which she was raised: find yourself a respectable husband and be his dream wife. Even her fashion sense took a turn for the older generation. She adopted a Ladybird look. It was the husband that was the problem, not the plan.

By avoiding too much commotion, Betty suppressed a lot of anger. Things aren't the same, because she isn't. Many people were put off by how vicious Betty seemed in S4, feeling like it was character-bashing and one-note, but I thought it was really believable because at every turn Betty's confronted by the limitations of her position. Don, whatever he claimed when trying to win her back, is not destroyed by the loss of his marriage. There are plenty of women ready to care for him. He's got other worlds where he can succeed besides the home. His divorce didn't hurt him at all socially, or professionally. Francine says Betty has "everything to lose" where Don has nothing, and that's because Don lost the wife and kids and had more to spare. (Think of that scene where he got his stuff out of the garage and realized he didn't need it.) Betty still only has the home, only she's more vulnerable because she's older and already once divorced. Plus the thing that was supposed to make it all satisfying--the husband who does have a place for a wife on his "team" as a hostess--isn't always all that fulfilling.

So she takes out her anger on the people in her life that are more vulnerable than she is: Carla, Glen, Sally. I admit when he finally confessed the truth to her I was hoping they'd stay together; I was interested in how that relationship would work when they were more equal. That didn't happen, but it did still change things between them. I wonder if Betty finds it freeing to talk to Don now.

With Sally in particular, Betty's viciousness, as hard as it is to watch, seems almost logical. If Betty grew up being taught she couldn't be herself then Sally sure can't--that would be unfair. One of the weird advantages to Don's horrible childhood is that he grew up being told nothing he did could ever make him acceptable. Betty was constantly criticized, but had the chance to succeed if she made herself into what she was supposed to be. She cherishes tiny rebellions--being a model, going to Italy-- because they were a big deal in her world. Unfortunately they were still based on her beauty. By Season 1 she'd already lost the confidence (and was too old) to try that again. Over and over I think we see Betty recommitting to the role of suburban mom no matter how little happiness she gets out it, because she fears the alternative of rejection. I don't think she'd embrace a women's movement that gave her independence.

To me, that's a compelling and believable character, and a good addition to the central female triumvirate on the show. (The show is mostly about the inequality between men and women, imo, as opposed to the many inequalities that exist on which the show doesn't focus.) Peggy never fit into the old mold; she almost can't help leading the way into feminism. Joan is in many ways committed to the old povs like Betty, but I think she's shown she can adapt somewhat. I can see her becoming one of those women who embraces some of the women's movement while sticking with some of her old thinking. Joan's a survivor who at least sees women as responsible for their own destiny, however destructively she understands that concept. Peggy was always fully professional, Joan was equally focused on work and winning a husband.

Betty, it seems to me, seems destined to be the woman who did everything right, according to the rules, and will forever feel cheated that it didn't pan out.

I feel like that was part of what her relationship with Sally this season was showing. Along with becoming a near-adolescent force to be reckoned with, Sally became more committed to emotional integrity. Think back on all the clashes of the season: Sally saying she doesn't like Thanksgiving dinner and declaring to the room that she's being pinched in secret. Sally asking the babysitter and Faye if they're sleeping with her father. Sally trying out masturbation when watching Man from U.N.C.L.E. Sally hitching a ride on a train to see her dad when she wants. Sally asking Don to live with him. Sally publically yelling and running when he says no. Sally experimenting with her own appearance by chopping off her hair. Sally telling Faye to shut up. Sally talking to Glen because he understands. Sally screaming over Beatles tickets.

In her relationship with Betty Sally must be dishonest: Sally discussing with her therapist how she can be angry without showing it. Sally hiding her friendship with Glen. Sally saying her mother only cares about what she thinks, not the truth. Sally pretending she wants to eat dinner with Henry to make her mother happy. Glen advising Sally to do just that. Betty asking "what's wrong with you?" about the masturbation and threatening to cut off her fingers. Betty slapping Sally for cutting her hair. Betty firing Carla for letting Glen say good-bye to Sally and moving to keep her away from him. (This last bit done in front of Henry without him understanding she's stabbing her daughter in the heart at the table.)

I can see why people find Betty disturbing, or think that the show's turned her into a one-note monster. But I feel like there would be a lot of women like Betty, especially ones clashing with baby boomer daughters in the women's movement. In some ways she's a true face of misogyny in society. She made herself into the perfect woman men want, a woman who can't really stand on her own, and it turned out nobody really wants that woman enough to make it worth it. That makes her angry, frustrated and spiteful. In the first season she was numb and survived behind a wall of denial. She was more sympathetic when she was sad, but what was behind the wall was anger, not sadness. And Betty's not angry at herself, she's angry at everyone else.

A lot of people point out that Betty has a lot going for her. It's not physically impossible for her to figure out she and only she has the power to make herself happy and change. But it's not easy to just throw off things that molded your personality from a young age. It's like people who think Don needs to realize it's no big deal he's a whorechild. Kind of hardwired into his personality at this point.

Betty's the sad and angry human equivalent of a bound foot. If the foot could do it, it would slap people around too. Even if it hurt the foot to do it. It would probably be less painful than trying to uncurl itself.

The lesson here is: never ask me what I think about something on Mad Men!

From: [identity profile] ptyx.livejournal.com

Ooops. Betty, not Sally!

Wow, great essay. I'm impressed. I hadn't thought of many of those things before, but I think I agree with you on most of them. But I also think that Betty is very immature. It's like she has never grown up. The scenes with the children's psychologist are very revealing.

I'm also a bit puzzled by something you didn't mention: the creepy relationship between Betty and Glen in the previous seasons. Betty has reasons not to want Glen around Sally, even if she seems to be wrong about Glen's intentions towards Sally. Anyway, there are many layers in this storyline, it's not just that Betty is being an asshole.

ext_6866: (Gorgeous)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Re: Ooops. Betty, not Sally!

Thanks! I hadn't thought of a lot of it until I started really thinking about it, especially the Sally stuff. But oh yeah, Glen. What to even do with that? I always remember Betty telling Glen she had no one to talk to in that first season and it was so sad. But it's like because he saw her like that she has to destroy him or something.

And I agree, sometimes Betty is so childlike it's almost disturbing. The child psychologist makes that even more clear, but even before that she was so childlike. But in a way that I think really showed the reality that she had been brought up to be a child and be treated like one.

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

Sounds like you're reading the forums at TWoP. Lots of insipid "analysis" over there.

I think a lot of people really don't get Mad Men at all because they simply can't put themselves into the minds of those characters or that era. Anyone who says that Betty still has a lot going for her is someone who really doesn't understand Betty or her world at all.

I recently read a blog whose writer was critcizing a review he'd read of Mad Men, in which the reviewer complained that the show never explored things fully -- he mentioned one of the agency guy's black girlfriend as an example of something that was just "left there." The blogger correctly noted that this show is about an entire era when things like that were never explored, they were either never mentioned again or just whispered about.

It would be dishonest and silly for the show to "explore" big issues like race and gender the way we do today. The show works in its own brilliant way by showing us the exact way those issues impacted people's lives at that time...and thereby giving us incredible insight into why all the upheavals of the 60s and 70s became inevitable.

I can honestly say that Mad Men is so well written that I don't hate ANY of the characters. They are all so incredibly real and human and even when they do something horrible you can see where it's coming from. I can think of AT LEAST ONE OTHER SHOW that could sure learn from its example.

Great post -- and I can't wait for Mad Men to come back!

From: [identity profile] slytherincesss.livejournal.com

Yeah, I can't stand the insipid analysis at TWoP either. I have to totally avoid the Mad Men forums. It's torture enough that I read the American Idol boards.

Agree with you re: the 60s being an era in which things were not explored in general. The turning point was in sight, but the 60s was still an era of deep repression. I was born in 1969 and, yeah, things were not talked about back then. I think for men and women of that era, the inability to deal with things lasted way into the 90s even. Confrontation was considered incredibly uncouth.
Edited Date: 2011-02-25 12:52 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

LOL, if you think the Mad Men forums are bad, you should check out the Supernatural forums. Talk about insipid.

From: [identity profile] slytherincesss.livejournal.com

OMG, I can only imagine the horror. I gave up on Supernatural after season four. I just couldn't take it anymore! I'm almost at that point with The Mentalist.

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

I gave up on Supernatural after season four.

Smart move.
ext_6866: (Hanging on a branch)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

That was the forum! And ugh, yeah. Sometimes there was a lot of Betty vs. Don that was always making them so black and white. I can get somebody not being able to really understand Betty just because she's so different. But accept that you can't understand her, don't judge her like she's you and just lazy. Like don't dismiss lines about her mother's criticism as not really having an effect on her. (Similarly I remember people defending Don's stepmother as a good, loving Mom since we didn't see her do anything that bad and what we did see was just his pov. Like Don was an ungrateful man who slandered the woman in his own flashbacks.)

It's funny--this reminds me of a couple of convos I've read online about All in the Family with people born after it went off the air who are totally unable to get it. It's the same type thing--except this was a show actually made in this other time. But when you try to use a 2011 perspective to understand that show stuff that seems so obvious to me you couldn't miss it is invisible. Especially Archie.

That also reminds me of another MM exchange--the time when Don tells Peggy she was "a secretary" and now had a job "a grown man would be grateful for" when she wants a promotion. There was all this horror over the sexism in the statement as if it was this big reveal of Don's 'true feelings' about Peggy or something. And I was like...okay, first "secretary" wasn't the insult it is now. Second, the sexism isn't a reveal. All the characters are steeped in sexism all the time. Don't not making a point about Peggy being a woman there, he's making an entirely different point. The sexism's background noise.

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

Why am I not surprised that you're picking up black-and-white thinking at TWoP, the same place where many SPN posters genuinely think Sam's a great guy who's been suffocated by his selfish asshole of a brother.

Don's remarkable lack of sexism (towards Peggy, at least) is constantly highlighted in his actions, not his words. If he were truly sexist he'd never have helped Peggy rise to the rank she's at -- I wish with all my heart I'd had a "sexist" like Don Draper in my corner at some point in my career. No, instead I had guys like a former boss who once told me point blank that I was just "a worker bee"...and this was nearly the year 2000, and the guy himself was not even forty years old.
ext_6866: (WTF?)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Exactly! It was like the fact that he was the person who gave her the job was erased by him using that phrase. I think it was supposed to mean that he obviously only gave her the job for his ego or because he thought he'd own her afterwards or something.

Which just...has nothing to do with their relationship. Most of the time he really treats her the same way he'd treat a man. Like when he advised her to fire Joey because that's what male execs do. It's like people assume the characters are by default unbigoted by modern standards when the show practically jumps up and down to remind you that they are very much not.

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

Remember when Peggy wanted a thank-you from Don because she had inspired the award-winning floorwax commercial and Don roared, "Your paycheck is your thank-you!" You could totally see where both characters were coming from -- Don can't fathom the value of a meaningless "thank-you" and Peggy's in a lonely place where she needs that emotional support and recognition in a way her male colleagues don't.

It's just so good.
ext_6866: (Diving in)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Best episode ever! I remember, too, that Peggy had earlier mentioned the commercial being "her idea" and a bunch of people jumped on it as proof that Don had no talent and was plagiarizing her. (Even though Peggy herself didn't go that far.) But when it came out it was, like you said, a totally believable situation where of course it wasn't that simple. A lot of the frustration was coming from the hierarchy of the office, Peggy's inexperience, Don's cluelessness about what she needed and sometimes his self-absorbtion getting in the way. (Like sending her to the hotel room to work for a weekend and not remembering it because he was drunk.)

LOL! But now I'm remembering how after they had that fight Don called her in to listen to the notes for Sterling's Gold.

From: [identity profile] oselle.livejournal.com

But now I'm remembering how after they had that fight Don called her in to listen to the notes for Sterling's Gold.

All I remember is, "Ida was a hellcat? Cooper got his balls shot off? Roger's writing A BOOK!?!"

Dear God. I've hardly ever laughed at anything on TV so hard. The title along: Sterling's Gold. STFU, Roger! (I love the way John Slattery is basically playing Roger Sterling -- right down to the glasses! -- in those Lincoln commercials.)
ext_6866: (Cute)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

And Roger totally is gold in that episode even though he's only in it for a few minutes. Every time I think of Alcoholics Anonymous now I think, "They're self so righteous!"

From: [identity profile] alula-auburn.livejournal.com

Oh, TWOP. I used to spend so much time there. I'm gritting my teeth through the Big Love forum, because my other sites seem to be defunct, and a lot of the analysis of Nicki in particular comes from the same place of unrealistic demands.

Actually, idk if you watch Big Love, but there's a lot of similarity, IMO, in how Nicki (in particular) of the wives and Betty Draper are specifically characters who have a history that specifically discourages change, both in terms of specific oppressive childhood dysfunction, but also of their being multiple examples throughout the series of each woman tentatively trying to step a little out and generally getting slapped back.

Not to derail further by talking about Big Love, but it's interesting (and kind of sad) to me that a lot of the criticism right now comes from Nicki's interactions with her daughter. (If you're not familiar with the show, this child is a fifteen-year-old who she was forcibly separated from in exchange for being "allowed" out of a forced teen marriage with a creep, who was raised on a polygamist compound across the country and who Nicki never spoke of for most of the intervening years.) Because to me, yeah, it's obvious that Nicki's mothering is clumsy as hell, but she's deeply sincere in wanting Cara Lynn to have the education Nicki was denied (Nicki in previous seasons has been shown to have an intuitive knack for engineering/gadgetry/construction kinds of tasks; Cara Lynn is gifted in mathematics) and to shield her from what Nicki can only just barely acknowledge as sexual predation--and it's like everyone on the board is obsessed with the idea that Nicki is a selfish controlling bitch who won't let her daughter go on dates. Or as it's a sign of her selfishness that she's simultaneously coming to terms with what she has denied about her own past (she's always been incredibly resistant to having her own teenage marriage labeled as rape) via her daughter's presence. (Oddly, though, TWOPpers tend to love Adaleen (as do I, as a character, and Mary Kay Place has rocked the role), but they loathe the younger, prettier Nicki and Rhonda as morally deficient, and not working the system in the exact same way Adaleen did in past seasons.)

I think I have a tendency to be sympathetic to "controlling" characters when they come from places where their lives have been defined by lack of control. I mean, it wouldn't make them pleasant to live with, but I think that's a really interesting narrative phenomena that can't realistically be swept away.

From: [identity profile] alula-auburn.livejournal.com

Also, regarding Betty--I just recently, as an adult, read The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh, which is a very different book, imo, than Harriet the Spy or Sport. (It's much more akin to the other Fitzhugh book, with the depressingly apt title, Nobody's Family is Going to Change.) I think I had this book as a child and couldn't get into it, because even in first person narration, mousy, easily bullied, tongue-tied Beth Ellen Hansen is somewhat opaque and static, especially coming after exploding-off-the-page Harriet.

Mrs. Hansen folded her paper and took off her reading glasses. “I’ve thought a great deal about yesterday, as I’m sure you have too.” Mrs. Hansen seemed to get embarrassed suddenly, because she looked out the window. “But we’ll talk about that in a minute.” She turned and looked directly into Beth Ellen’s eyes. Over the hawk nose the large eyes were violet in the morning light. “You’re very timid, aren’t you?”

“What?” Beth Ellen was caught completely unaware.

Her grandmother looked away. “I suppose you’re timid because you’ve had to grow up here with an old lady. You haven’t had any real life. But there’s something I want to tell you about timidity, about shyness.”

Beth Ellen searched her grandmother’s face to see if she were angry, but the face looked impassive. I’m going to be told I’m bad, she thought.

“Shy people are angry people,” said Mrs. Hansen and snapped her head around to see Beth Ellen’s reaction.

I am not a lady, thought Beth Ellen. It’s coming now. She’s going to say I am not a lady.

“You know,” said her grandmother, smiling, “it’s important to be a lady, but not if you lose everything else, not if you lose yourself in the process.”

Beth Ellen felt her mouth drop open.

“There are times when we must express what we feel even if it is anger. If you can feel it and not express it … it might be better, but you must try to know what you feel. If we don’t know what we feel, we get into trouble.” She looked hard at Beth Ellen. “You’re a very angry little girl. I have no idea what you’ve been doing about it because you’ve never shown any of it before yesterday, to my knowledge.”

(I just checked and The Long Secret came out in 1965--can we be sure to get Sally a copy, please? But seriously, I wonder now if I could have understood that if I read it as a painfully shy child in the 80s rather than as an adult. But it certainly made me think of Betty, too.)

From: [identity profile] slytherincesss.livejournal.com

I always love reading your thoughts and this was no exception! Loved everything you said about Betty. I agree that she is not a one-dimensional character. She's a pretty horrid person, but, you know, you just explained why. Because she's horrid doesn't mean she's not a good character.

I still can't believe the woman who threatened to cut off Sally's fingers is the same woman who fucked her washing machine. I mean really. Excuse my French!

Love what you said about her being the face of misogyny.
ext_6866: (Magpye)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

LOL! OMG, I had forgotten that for a moment! So typically Betty! I love how often we see Betty having a true story and then a different story for the public. There are times and places for masturbation, Sally! Betty knows the right time!

I loved Don's reaction to the whole thing. She did it in front of a friend? Boy or girl?

From: [identity profile] matitablu.livejournal.com

Thanks for this post - I don't feel I can provide any interesting insight atm as it's 4 AM and I don't trust my judgment (lol!), but as a Betty fan, I think it was a very poignant analysys.

Betty, it seems to me, seems destined to be the woman who did everything right, according to the rules, and will forever feel cheated that it didn't pan out.

This, so much. I still (delusionally?) hope she finds a way to cope with at least some of her problems and find a measure of happiness in her life, but yeah, that really describes the Betty we have known so far.
ext_6866: (Fly this way)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

I do too. She just seemed to be in such a bad place last season--and she still has no one to talk to. Her therapist was talking to her husband!

That's the perfect icon for this conversation.

From: [identity profile] nmalfoy.livejournal.com

Very nicely put! I am not a Betty Draper fan, because of how she treats her daughter, although I understand why she does. And I understand how desperately lonely and afraid she is inside, knowing she'll never be good enough for anyone.

I do love me some MM but January Jones' portrayal of Betty is just too remote and one-note for me. I just don't think she's a good actress, and it takes a lot of thinking (as you've done) to see any sort of nuance in her characterization.
ext_6866: (Baby magpies)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Yeah, I think she does things that are so serious that it's easy to see why people just can't like her. One of the things on the board was some people were really defending Betty (perhaps sometimes to get at Don) and they were trying to defend a lot of her behavior with Sally as regular discipline, which I think is obviously not true. Like it's not just that slaps Sally (we've seen adults slap kids on the show before with it being taken as a normal thing then) it's that she seems to discipline to take out her own hostility on the poor girl.



sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)

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