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Looking at Betty Draper

By (July 1, 2010) 11 Comments

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.

—Edith Wharton

In retrospect, perhaps the biggest reason my mother was cared for but not helped for twenty years was the simplest: Her functioning was not that necessary to the world.

—Gloria Steinem, “Ruth’s Song (Because She Could Not Sing it)”

When Mad Men debuted in 2007, between its exploration of Madison Avenue and the differing paths of women trying to make it in a male-dominated work place, it seemed to me that the most promising story lines centered around those women: Peggy Olson, the doe-eyed outer-borough secretary who becomes the agency’s first woman copywriter; Rachel Menken, the department store heiress and the first of the show’s many foils for advertising star Don Draper; and Midge, the bohemian copywriter and Don’s first mistress. Don’s wife Betty Draper seemed a less interesting creation: an unhappy but slightly spoiled housewife and mother with puffy hair and a puffier dress: how many times had we seen that before? Yet, as the series enters its fourth season this month, January Jones’ incarnation of Betty has become even more central, and the poignancy of her suffering been made more acute by the fact that the frivolity that destroys her is her own.

Edith Wharton made her observation about frivolous societies and their victims as she was working to create Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth who misplays her hand at the marriage market and ends up dying alone in a boarding house. Although Betty has played the game with exquisite perfection, she too has an aura of doom about her. In the person of Betty Draper, Mad Men has resurrected a beautiful neo-Victorian horror that brings to mind the cruelest moments of Wharton’s The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence: the crushing weight of unearned privilege, the vanity, cruelty, and boredom of women always on display, the Puritanism and decadence of old money: all of it embodied in a type we thought had been deconstructed and clichéd into irrelevance: the pre-feminist suburban housewife. Even as viewers root for the rise of aspiring career girl Peggy Olson and trace Don Draper’s ambivalent and self-loathing ambition, the show transforms itself into an elegy for a long line of seemingly fortunate women suffering beautifully from the most gilded of cages.

Betty is easy to dislike: she’s stuck up, petulant, self-absorbed. She’s a racist who is blindly cruel to Carla, African-American woman who does much of the household and childrearing work, and clueless and incurious about the Civil Rights movement. In one particularly devastating scene, Carla is listening to Martin Luther King’s elegy for the girls killed in the Birmingham Church bombing. When Betty comes in, Carla turns the dial. “It’s okay,” Betty says, “You can listen to your program.”

Betty is also, significantly, a terrible mother. The ideology of female helplessness extended into the home as well as out. For viewers used to seeing Bettys depicted as either contented or spaced-out Donna Reeds, the shock comes from Betty’s indifference to domestic life and to her own children, on her reliance upon Carla for the most rudimentary household or childrearing tasks. In an age where the family wage is long dead, Betty’s a hard sell, sympathy-wise. When I’ve taught Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a mother suffering from post-partum depression is forced to stay in a room and kept from work or writing, the working-class students I teach often see her as a figure of envy rather than pity. There’s an old story here: from Marie Antoinette to Paris Hilton wealthy women serve as the scapegoats for people with far more power than them – symbols of consumption, excess and vanity; all the things about the wealthy the rest of us disdain, or know we should, without possessing any of the power, authority and audacity of people like Don, whom we cannot help but to excuse and envy.

At one point in season three, on the verge of her first real affair after a one-time encounter in the second season, Betty tells her older suitor, “We all have skills we don’t use. I was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr. Can you believe that?”

If you take a look at what Bryn Mawr and its fellow Seven Sisters schools of the period were like, it’s not at all hard to believe. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan devotes a chapter to Margaret Mead, who would have been all the rage in Betty’s department. As in her chapter on Freud, she argues that Mead’s influence on the curriculum of women’s colleges helped propagate the mystique. Mead wrote rapturously of the rituals of Tahitians, who taught their daughters about the centrality of motherhood from an early age, leading them to walk around pretending to have pregnant bellies. Within the logic of the period, this made them models of the “adjustment” to the female role that therapists – like the one Betty visits in the first season – saw as their goal. Friedan, whose constant deference to the value of marriage and motherhood of course did nothing to stop critics of the movement from accusing her of devaluing them, made the argument that what might be an integrative ritual in another context was profoundly alienating in a capitalist one which had deemed the marketplace as the central theater of human affairs.

And so at the Bryn Mawr of Betty’s time, upper middle class girls could join the rich in receiving the kind of education Wharton had received from her tutors, heavy on arts and languages. A few of these girls might be so fortunate as to mingle with and become actual members of the ruling and leisure classes. Jackie Kennedy, just a few years older than Betty would have been, studied French at Vassar, and took her Junior Year in Paris, refining the French she’d bring out at state functions. Midway through the third season, the Draper’s suffering marriage gets a brief reprieve when hotel magnate Conrad Hilton sends Don to Rome, where Betty’s Italian is used not to woo diplomats but to flirt with local men. This gives rise to a scene in which she and Don pretend to be strangers, and the viewers enjoy a taste of their once powerful attraction. Of course, liberal arts graduates, like the comic would-be bohemian Sterling Cooper copy writer Paul Kinsey, have long found themselves in the position of trying to reconcile their refinement with life at the office, but there’s a particular poignancy in the double displacement Betty faces: she dutifully channels her learning and culture through her husband, only to find the European salon of her imagination transformed into a dinner party where Don’s colleagues chuckle over the way she’s fallen for Heineken’s marketing strategy at the Ossining grocery store.

Betty and Don Draper in the Rome Hilton

Also just a few years older than Betty was Gloria Steinem, who graduated from Smith in 1956. As she would later recall, during her time there the course catalogue bragged that the faculty were predominately male – a sign of academic seriousness. The justification for this seriousness was that “If we’re ever to have educated children, we must have educated mothers.” Her own transformation was slow in coming. She struggled as a freelance writer of magazine features. “Ladies love their magazines,” a waiter tells Don in the first episode, as they lament the damage a Reader’s Digest article on the dangers of smoking is doing to the cigarette business. “Yes they do,” Don replies, his contempt cool as always, but complete.

Steinem was writing for those kinds of magazines – in the archives at Smith you can find among her papers these early articles full of advice on dating and summer dresses. From the start she was struggling against the notion that writing directed at women had to be junk, a bit of copy to go between the ads, or, as Don puts it in the first episode, an idea of romance “made up by guys like me to sell nylons.” Later, as a founder and editor of Ms. magazine, she struggled to find suitable advertisers. Sellers of cars and appliances weren’t interested in women, while makeup companies complained of “an unfriendly editorial environment”: not enough articles about how to use makeup, or, worse yet, photographs of noteworthy women who weren’t wearing makeup at all.

But all this came later – first came the moment in 1969 when Steinem was sent to cover a hearing being held in New York about the liberalization of abortion laws. Called on to testify were four men and one nun. For the first time, she wondered why she had never told anyone about her own illegal abortion – silence would have been the norm, speaking the thing that demanded explanation. She would later write about how, at her Smith reunion, her classmates were barred from carrying signs at a procession commemorating their classmates who had died of illegal abortions. The approved signs were full of jokes about aging and waistlines. Many academically-inclined feminists have found Steinem’s writings on self-esteem somewhat embarrassing, but challenging the notion of self-deprecation as a safe, non-controversial bond shared by all women seems as necessary as ever.

Since the start of Mad Men, viewers have speculated as to when Friedan’s book will make an appearance and which character might read it. Betty Draper would be the obvious choice, even as her name contributes to the sense that such a scene would be a bit too on the nose for the show’s subtle grasp of its world and its hold over its characters. Retrospective condemnations of injustice often rely on victims whose dignity remains intact, who in their private lives are already the people that external forces prevent them from becoming in the world. But of course oppression rarely leaves the soul unscathed. As the feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte notes, “the show is making the point that oppression isn’t suddenly right because the oppressed aren’t perfect people. And the show implies that certain ugly character traits are the result of oppressive systems.”

Certainly viewers may be tempted to yearn for a Betty transformed. After all, Friedan’s book, which started as a questionnaire for her Smith reunion, didn’t become a bestseller by appealing to a few radicals in waiting. But we understand early on that Betty, like Don, is someone history is likely to leave behind. She will make note of the discussions, perhaps change her way of describing herself a bit, but she will not, it seems safe to predict, do what Bryn Mawr educations are theoretically designed to equip people to do: to take tools of cultural or psychological analysis, and to apply them to one’s own situation and surroundings.

Betty and her therapist

This is the lesson we take from Betty’s encounter with therapy in the first season. Suffering from one of those mysterious ailments that so often plague upper-class wives and mothers, she visits a therapist who succinctly diagnoses her problem as childishness, and drives home the point by discussing his diagnosis with Don but not with her. We are outraged at Betty’s treatment, but it’s unclear whether a less destructive, or even a good, therapist would make a difference. Roger Sterling, Don’s comic foil, speaks a truth when he says that for the wives, therapy is just this year’s accessory. Everything about Betty – her femininity, her childishness, her beauty, her money – has been constructed to make her resistant to anything resembling true self-examination. It comes then as the perfect touch when, in season three (set the year Freidan’s book was published), we see her reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a novel that traces the lives of eight Vassar graduates from a half a generation before – all of Friedan is there, but in such a form that it becomes a housewife’s leisure-time reading rather than a challenge to her being.

By 1971, Gloria Steinem would argue in her Smith commencement that “The wife of a rich man is not usually a powerful person; she is often an ornament and a child. She often comes to realize in the middle of the movement that she may have more in common with her maid than she does with her husband.” But the power of Betty as a character exists only insofar as she embodies rather than understands her powerlessness: she will never have this revelation or make common cause with Carla; instead, by the end of season three, after losing her rich father and discovering Don’s true origins, she clings all the more desperately to the symbolic power of her family’s wealth.

It comes as no surprise that her attempted separation in season two fails; only when she attaches herself to a wealthier and more well-connected man does divorce become a possibility. Friedan devotes one of her most scathing chapters to the uses of adultery among her suburban subjects – she saw in its ubiquity and casualness no stirrings of a potentially liberating freedom, however inchoate, but as a particularly unoriginal response to boredom and enforced childishness, as if the coeds of Smith and Bryn Mawr were existing in the same moral universe as their dorm rooms, playing a game with only slightly higher stakes. This was the case of one thirty-year-old mother of five who reported that only a love affair can give her a feeling of excitement. “She did take off for Mexico with that shadowy, faceless man,” Friedan wrote,

taking her five children with her; but six months later, she was back, children and all. Evidently she did not find her phantom “feeling.” And whatever happened, it was not real enough to affect her marriage, which went on as before.

If many of the cultural touchstones and icons of Mad Men are staples of our popular culture – Betty as fifties housewife, Sex and the Single Girl, The Apartment, Marilyn, Jackie – the show has quietly introduced a number of less well known elements of women’s history, from the Betty’s horrific medicated birth to Peggy’s coerced relinquishment of her child and her invocation of the newly passed Equal Pay Act of 1963. At the end of that season, Betty runs up against another piece of realpolitik: New York’s no fault divorce laws (which are, unbelievably, just now in the process of being overhauled). If she wants to leave Don, the lawyer tells her, she will be left with nothing and her children will be taken away. I’ll take care of everything, her rich suitor Henry Francis tells her, and we leave that season with the horrifying scene of he and Betty, with baby on her lap, headed to Vegas for a quick divorce. It seems unlikely her life with Henry will bring her much in the way of feeling, phantom or otherwise. As the series moves into its post-JFK assassination high-sixties moment, we don’t know where it’s taking us, but we’re fairly certain it will be leaving Betty behind.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray. Her writing for Open Letters can be found here.