Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Defending Betty Draper

with 4 comments

I didn’t know what was going on with LeBron James.

My college friends—mostly ex-Clevelanders now living in Chicago—were appalled. It was the night he was making his big announcement, and our friend Greg had canceled on dinner plans. “He probably just wanted to stay home and watch LeBron,” someone said. “What’s going on with LeBron?” I asked.

Embarrassed silence, dismay, horror spread throughout the room! I hoped never to have to meet with such abject group shaming any time soon—but it was not my night. Because later that evening, my tongue loosened from a little too much Malbec and some concoction my friend calls “Kari juice,” I let slip a far graver statement. What, you wonder, could beat the horror of telling a bunch of Cleveland kids that you, a former Ohioan yourself, have no idea what’s going on with LeBron James?

I admitted I liked Betty Draper.

With the Mad Men season four premiere this evening, the chattering classes and us that orbit them have once again begun fawning over the series, and though I know it’s not fashionable, though I know it’s downright heretical, I want to come clean once and for all: I don’t only like Betty; she is, in fact, my favorite female character on the show. I think she’s sexier than Joan. I think she’s more interesting than Peggy. Yes, we’re all supposed to admire Christina Hendrick’s brave curves, and Peggy’s ambition. And I do. But my heart belongs to Betty.

Yes, she’s  used to getting her way. Yes, she’s rich, and insular; cold, and certainly not the world’s greatest mother. Betty’s not perfect—but none of the character’s on Mad Men are. And yet none of the others seem to be met with the same audience scorn as Betty Draper. Why?

When I’ve admitted to friends, recently, my feelings about Betty, they asked me if I’d finished season 3 yet. I had not. Wait ’til you finish season three, multiple people told me. I bet you’ll change your mind.

But I finished season three last night, and I just don’t see where I’m supposed to start perceiving Betty as especially horrible. Sure, she’s leaving Don for another man, but Disney princesses get more action that Betts got during the lead-up to this affair. Meanwhile, Don has been screwing around on her since the beginning of their marriage, and hiding a secret life (which Betty finds out about at the same time as all this is happening). I’m not one to cast fidelity as the be-all end-all of marital commitment, but for what it’s worth, I think the point clearly goes to Betty here.

So what then—what is it about Betty that turns people off so? Is it that she was raised rich? That she’s pretty? That’s she’s a certain kind of pretty? That she’s not a bastion of maternal compassion? All of it together? What?

I began suspecting folks’ hatred of Betty Draper had less to do with what Betty was, and more to do with what she was not. And what she was not was behaving in the way we like our victimized mid-century housewives to behave. Justin Miller at the Atlantic just comes right out and says it:

Betty was “hazily presented as a stultified victim,” as Ben Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic last year. And victimhood requires a sort of innocence, which is destroyed when she cheats on Don with an anonymous man at a bar and sets up an affair between her married friend and another man. Betty is no longer a victim of infidelity, by the end of the second season, but a believer in it.

So when our lonely housewife heroine feels such so thoroughly isolated she can only speak candidly with an 8-year-old boy, that’s sympathetically adorable, but this sympathy is conditional on her remaining totally helpless?

Well, either that or getting all Betty Friedman on our asses! Miller continues to lament that

… Betty isn’t the agent of her own salvation. It’s another man that’s letting her escape the Draper name by seducing her, proposing to her, and convincing her to leave her family. Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism. After all, what sort of heroine needs a man?

Most heroines, I’d say, just like most heros need a leading lady. What exactly are Don’s numerous affairs but proof of his “need” of a woman?

As one commenter on Miller’s piece says:

I actually like the fact that Betty’s kind of a jerk. It would have been too easy and obvious a trope to have written her character as a more morally (and emotionally) advanced and perfect creature whose frustrations, limitations and heartbreaks have been foisted upon her by the other jerks in her life and/or by the inequities of the time.


Written by Elizabeth

July 25, 2010 at 10:52 pm

4 Responses

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  1. This is a really good post. I think it’s perfectly fine to be intrigued by Betty and to even admire her. Over the first three seasons, I like to think that she evolved from a docile housewife into someone more aware of her own needs, which in turn empowers her to stand up to her husband.

    The Atlantic piece you quoted was a bit strange I’ll admit. After all, why would you stop liking a character after they finally do what they should have done all along? Betty is certainly one of the more complex and intriguing characters on the show, particularly because she’s evolved so much with the show and because there is so much more to her than we first assume when she appears innocent and helpless.

    Anyway, that was a great post and I hope you’ll stick to it and eventually get others to come around on Betty.

    P.S. You’re not the only one is completely apathetic toward LeBron James:)

    Ravi M. Singh

    July 25, 2010 at 11:05 pm

  2. Betty is real. Who wouldn’t feel resentful when you suspect and then discover that your life is a lie? Betty’s worst moments have been clearly depicted–shutting Sally in a closet, holding hands with Glenn, drunk in bed during the day. She has very little control over things in her life and goes from distraction to distraction, hoping that one of them–modeling, alcohol, Henry, etc.– will make her happy.

    Betty may resent her children because they are evidence of the lie she lived with Don. She’s the one person who is not wondering “Who is Don Draper?” Betty doesn’t have alot of outlets for her anger and fear. If the story took place today, at least she could be on Jerry Springer.


    July 26, 2010 at 9:58 am

  3. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only woman in the world who likes Betty Draper! I find her absolutely fascinating to watch. Sure, there are times when I want to punch her in the face, but that’s part of what draws me to her. People make bad decisions every day– if we didn’t, what would have to talk about? I just happen to really enjoy watching Betty make hers. She won me over the moment she picked up that shotgun.


    August 22, 2010 at 11:00 pm

  4. I’m at a loss here; does no one seem to think that Don earns his keep? That he works his ass off, loves and provides for his family, and is the first to reconcile his imperfections? Meanwhile, for what felt like an entire season, Betty chastises him for what could have easily been an illusory thought, a transient fantasy brought to her attention by a comedian who hated his guts. A fantasy that had no backing or proof, both of which ended being unnecessary seeing as how, upon finding nothing, her assumptions didn’t change. A hatred so loosely based she herself admitted at Don’s confession that “at least I’m not crazy.” Except had she been wrong this entire feud would have been exactly that. But even then, she feels entitled to dictate Don’s relationship with his children and his home, as if these things belonged to her alone. And Don still concedes out of respect for her.

    A lot of the characters in this show are decidedly flawed, Don especially not excluded. These are a big part of understanding them as caricatures of the 1960’s American nuclear family and the social and political commentary involved in such an archetype. Watching these characters is a fun and entertaining way to explore and learn about people, society, history, and of course a lot more analytical and critical things; it’s fun to watch, plain and simple, but at the same time edifying, as one might expect of a show so often called art. But then I watch some interactions with this character Betty and I’m shouting arguments left unanswered and unaddressed as if I’m yelling at a football game. Obviously I’m frustrated, and my critical self has to take a moment to say “hold on, hold on and evaluate it for a second. Maybe there’s something to see from this character, maybe there’s something to learn from her interactions.” And then the arguments I shouted still remain unanswered and unaddressed, and I’m left with nothing.

    And really, for what? I am hard-pressed to answer that.


    September 17, 2010 at 9:07 am

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