In Defense of Betty Draper

If I’d lived in the ’50s, I probably would have been Betty Draper. And you probably would have been, too.

Both the Daily Beast and Jezebel have written about Mad Men’s ice queen. In case you didn’t know, she’s loathsome and slaps her daughter around. And that’s true. But I’ve always sympathized hugely with Betty.

Because I think – if the Halloween costumes are anything to go by – everyone wants to think that if they’d lived in that era, they’d be just like Joan Holloway (Harris, but she’ll always be Holloway to me.) Or Peggy! Yeah, we could be career women, yay!

No. Odds are, no.

Peggy is exceptional. Peggy has an ability, demonstrated in the first season, to “want things she’s never seen.” Peggy had absolutely no role models going into her work. The closest she got was Joan, who told her to get married as quickly as she could, and get out of the working world. Any doubt about her potential to succeed in a completely male dominated field Peggy is able to squash down deep inside her (much like the awareness that she is pregnant). Peggy has an indomitable awe inspiring determination, coupled, of course, with extraordinary talent. Peggy’s behavior is a huge anomaly.

As for Joan, well, the Daily Beast Writes:

“Joan, as office manager, gets to flaunt her moxie and trademark curves to secure a position of power in an era where women were still mostly secretaries and housewives. She’s able to use her sexuality to achieve that end, while women like Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy used their heads.

I have only a moderate degree of moxie and few trademark curves, so even securing a position like Joan’s might have been difficult, at least for me. Much more likely I would take the socially expected path and end up a housewife like Betty, because succeeding in a career in any era is hard, and doing so without the support of many people would be super-extra-hard. Which might not be so terrible if I was just one of the many women in the ’50′s who got married right after graduating from high school and never knew anything else.

But Betty did. She was a model. She was, seemingly, quite a successful model. A fashion designer made an entire line of clothing for her, which she keeps up in the attic. And it’s pretty apparent that that was the happiest time of her life. The glee Betty shows when she’s giggling with the gay photographer for the Coca-Cola commercial is so stunning because it’s so anti-Betty. As is the time when she went to Rome and flirted with the Italian men in perfect Italian (retained from her time working in Italy). It reminds us that there was a time when Betty had her own identity, and it was an identity she was so happy in.

And then she married Don, and her mother probably stopped calling her a “whorish” model. And she was Don’s wife, and that’s about it. Don cheated, many, many times, and she was told that she had to be a good wife and accept it, and, for a long time, she did. And she started to hate him, not just because of that, but because he got to go into the world and be special, and she didn’t. But she would still retain the memory of what it was to have a job you were good at and valued for. Sure, it was a job based around her looks, but it was a job and an independent life all the same. There was a time when people saw her for her own attributes.

And now, even the memory of that time must be fading for Betty. She’s getting older. Sally is growing up enough to discover her own sexuality, and in ten years, she’ll be the pretty young one. No one is going to ask Betty to be in a Coca-Cola commercial now, even if it’s to try to woo Don. And yes, Betty can marry older, and she can try to avoid acknowledging the passage of time, but her children are like such noisy little calendars. Hell is, perhaps, not so much other people as it is the memory of other people – and Betty is cursed to remember what it was like to be her younger self.

And I don’t think that would have been an entirely uncommon story. Yes, she can be awful. But it’s the times that made her awful. Consider Betty’s own quote :”My mother wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ’til you’re in a box?” Pretty much. Betty is trapped in a world that has no more use for her. It’s no wonder she’s teetering of the edge of a nervous breakdown. That doesn’t make her a bitch. That makes her a tragic product of the era she lives in.

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    • Jenni

      I didn’t see Betty being a bitch until she divorced Don. I also don’t think she ignored his cheating. I think in season one, she had a suspicion after what her friend Francine told her but when she had more proof ( Jimmy) she confronted him and kicked him out. I always saw Betty as sweet and charming until she was mad, then she was a bratty little girl. But I don’t understand why everyone focuses on her flaws when every character ( esp. The main one) has them.

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