Betty Draper: a social commentary of women in the 50s and 60s

Search “I hate Betty Draper” into Google and you will come across hundreds of pages with fans of the show slamming her cold nature, and childish ways. Having watched all five seasons I tend to agree with such claims, however I think it’s worth looking at what role a character like Betty plays. TV critic Jason Mittel argues that “Mad Men’s genre of period drama is lodged not only within its style, but also shapes its cultural commentary, spanning both its visual and interpretive pleasures” (Mittel, 2010). Betty’s character is an obvious character commentary of American women, of the ‘housewife’ variety in the 50s and 60s. Mittel believes that it is this sophisticated form of social engagement unique to such serial forms of ‘quality’ TV that allow us to follow characters, and understand them on a deeper and more personal level. Don’s treatment of Betty throughout the five series is a social commentary of gender roles, sexism and marriage in this period in America.

As a cultural commentary of women in the 50s and 60s, sympathetic views towards Betty are justified. In her article for the Washington Post Jen Chaney acknowledges this sympathy for Betty asserting “I have, on more than one occasion, carried a measure of sympathy for her. Betty is a product of the era that preceded her current one, a simple housewife of the ’50s attempting to move through the ’60s in impossibly flouncy skirts and high heels. She has no sense of self and an existence stifled by the daily suburban grind of backyard parties, cocktail hours and, at least when she was with Don, a perpetually adulterous husband. I have felt for her. I really have” (Chaney, 2010). This idea of having no sense of self is worth exploring. Betty is often depicted as an incompetent mother, a cold wife, and disingenuous with her friends. I think this stems from deep insecurities, fuelled by her husband Don, who while charming and sexy on the surface, is in fact a serial cheater, liar, cold, and unloving man.

The season one finale ‘The Wheel’ reveals just how insecure and troubled Betty is. The episode chronicles her suspicions that Don is having an affair, and shows Betty at her most vulnerable. In fact, “Betty is so broken and lonely she turns to a nine-year-old boy for comfort in an agonizing scene” (Miller, 2010). I can’t but help thinking this moment was inappropriate, for a grown woman to place her emotional burden so heavily on a child. Betty is a seemingly immature character, who shows a lack of empathy towards others. The scene in which Francine is breaking down to Betty about Carlton’s affair, we don’t see so much as a change in tone in Betty’s voice. Hello Betty, she’s just confiding to her best friend that her husband has been having an affair. Don’t you think a hug would be reasonable at this moment?

TV critic Dawn Shanks argues that “most episodes becoming dreary chronicles of Betty’s bratty ennui” (Shanks, 2009). Playing the housewife role, Betty reflects the boredom probably experienced by many women of this time. Betty’s meeting with her psychologist in this episode reveals just this. On the surface she has it all, loving husband and children, a nice home, and no shortage of money when it comes to material things. However Bratty Betty seems, it stems from a deep frustration, and helplessness. This episode shows Betty knows exactly what kind of a man her husband in, but also shows Betty is helpless to act on this. Then again it can be seen that Betty’s character is never developed beyond this point. We often assume Betty might be upset, but behind her cold stare, and immaculate manner and persona we are given very little evidence to go by. It can be seen that Betty “pantomimes through struggle and strife some women of that time may have experienced in that era, but we never see any deeper character development in her than a flash in her eyes like she’s some angry repressed phoenix” (Shanks, 2009)

An interesting trend, that I’m not sure I entirely agree upon, has been recognized in highbrow TV is the beautiful control freak characters. Eleanor Barkhorn, writer for The Atlantic argues that Betty, like Sex and the City’s Charlotte, and Girls’ Marnie fits squarely into this character form. These “stunning women with deep neuroses…highlight a strange trend in highbrow television: with beauty comes a desire for control – which the character must lose in humiliating fashion” (Barkhorn, 2012). She believes Betty and these other characters stand out for their near physical perfection, but at the core, they are all controlling and childish. Whilst I find this an interesting comparison across these three TV shows, I don’t necessarily think when developing a character the writer thinks, oh if she is going to be beautiful she must be flawed.

However regardless of this, Betty is obviously a flawed character. Despite hr being one of those characters you love to hate, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. With a husband that struggles to show any love to her, let alone their children (He abandons his family on Thanksgiving in this episode), Betty’s situation is somewhat grim. As a period drama, Betty’s character is an excellent social commentary of women in a particular time, whose challenges, trials and tribulations are vastly different to women of today.




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2 Responses to Betty Draper: a social commentary of women in the 50s and 60s

  1. Love this post Alex. Provides some great insight into the infamous Betty Draper. I, like many, am unsympathetic to her character and think she is a pretty nasty piece of work, but acknowledge your arguments that “as a cultural commentary of women in the 50s and 60s, sympathetic views towards Betty are justified.” I also love how you draw on Miller to analyse her turn to the young boy, very insightful of her character and overall breakdown within the complex narrative. I completely agree that she is an excellent example as a social commentary of women in this era. On a side not, I read in Grazia that when January Jones had her baby there was a public expectation of her to be a bad mother like Betty – guess that proves what a convincing actor she is!

  2. Pingback: Comments « Television Cultures Online Journal

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