Sunday, October 4, 2009

Betty Draper: Oppressed Female or Evil Disney Mother?

I'm a huge fan of Mad Men. I love the slow pacing, the top notch acting, the extreme attention to detail, and the superb writing. I also love the fact that the writers are brave enough to present well-rounded, pretty unlikable characters. Not one of the characters is all good or all bad. These complexities are not lost on the show's fans when discussing the inscrutable Don Draper, but what bothers me is that when it comes to discussing the character of Betty Draper, two words inevitably coming spewing forth almost immediately: bad mother.

This bothers me for so many reasons. Disliking Betty Draper because she is cold to her children negates so much of what is going on with her character, so much of which leads to her treating her children in such a way. It is almost unfathomable that at this point in our social landscape, some 45 years after the fight for women's rights began in earnest with the publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," that we can still judge a woman's "goodness" or "badness" in so much as how she rears a child. As if this is a woman's sole purpose in the world and her net worth is established by the amount of attention she lavishes on her progeny.

So much of Mad Men revolves around commenting on the differences in our country from just 45 years ago. Everything is shown, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, through the filtered haze of retrospect. Still, no one seems to quantify that Betty is living the quintessential empty, unfullfilling existence so many housewives were in the late 50s and early 60s (for that matter, well before that!). Don's dissatisfaction with his privileged existence leads him to adultery, lying, and manipulation. No one seems to remark on this. That's just ducky. Don is "troubled" and "complicated." But Betty, who has no outlet, no purpose other than to be the "perfect wife and mother" is vilified for her disinterest in domesticity.

Even in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, my beloved Jon Hamm (who should know better!) copped to the same attitude:

Jon Hamm: Don is sort of trying to play at this role of the father and caregiver and husband that he has no role model for. He literally has no skills in this and he’s learning them as he goes along and he knows what not to do, because that’s how he was raised. -- terribly.

Tribune: Yeah. I have to say that some of the most disturbing things for me to watch is when Betty is dismissive or contemptuous of her children. She’s kind of not a great parent, you know?

JH: She’s a terrible parent.

Trib: Yeah. And it breaks my heart because -- you know, it’s just hard to watch.

JH: Well, the saving grace is that’s the only reason why I think people are even giving Don a half a pass, because Don’s at least with good with kids.

Well, Jon Hamm, screw you. Between his day-to-day work, commute, business trips, and string of adulterous interactions, Don Draper is an absentee parent at best. Simply because he doesn't hit his kids when Betty asks him to discipline them, does that make him a hero? Ummm.... no. Betty has even explained to him about feeling "trapped" with the kids all day, "outnumbered." Clearly a comment like this, made by a privileged housewife in 1962, would not be given due consideration. In 2009, we should know better.


  1. This can also be attributed to people's attitude of Revolutionary Road. Neither character is perfect, both are flawed, stunted adults. However, whenever I ask which character bothered them more the opnion has always come down more negatively on the Winslet character. Why? The only thing I can think of is that her character was a woman dissatisfied with her station, never really wanted children and has the courage to find new options (albeit not very well thought out) to give fulfilment to both her and her husband's life.

  2. e is me-Gi. Not sure why it posted that way.

  3. I feel that sexism has played a major role in the fans' dislike of Betty. She is the only major character on the show who is a full time mother and not a career woman. Naturally, possessing mother fetishes, they expect her to be the perfect mother - early 21st century style.

    Very sexist and very hypocritical. What is even sadder about all this is that Betty is mainly vilified by the series' female fans.

  4. People don't like Betty because she is miserable and does nothing about it. Her likability is not entirely dependent upon her role as a mother. I suspect Betty would be better liked if she took the cash from Don's drawer and skipped out on her family.

    Mad Men is great because it goes beyond a simple feminist critique of 1960's gender roles and relations. Betty dug her own grave. She didn't have to marry Don. She could have moved to the city and worked like the other female characters. She chose to be a homemaker and then found out she didn't like it. Now she is bitter but too accustomed to her fancy lifestyle to take a chance and start over. Boo hoo. Go crawl in bed and cry about it while your husband is at work and the nanny watches the kids.