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!
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