Will the Real Betty Draper Please Stand Up?

In Mad Men’s new season, we need the slap-in-the-face Betty back.

Sady Doyle

Mad Men's Betty Draper (January Jones) is an inoculation against post-feminism.

The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique is now 50 years old. And, since no fem­i­nist land­mark can be observed with­out a cer­e­mo­ni­al dump­ing of blood on the prom queen’s head, New York mag­a­zine elect­ed to cel­e­brate by run­ning a trend piece on the fem­i­nist house­wife.” In sum, the arti­cle revealed that some straight women have noticed that work­ing out­side the home is hard and not always fun, and that get­ting mar­ried to a rich guy is a way to avoid it.

For a generation of artisanal cupcake-bakers. Betty’s photorealistic self-oppression stripped all the irony away, reminded us how privileged we had to be to enjoy those vintage aprons.

But all the earnest speechi­fy­ing about gen­der roles in the world couldn’t dis­guise the fact that this was pri­mar­i­ly a sto­ry about class priv­i­lege. There are no fem­i­nist house­wives in a house­hold where both incomes are nec­es­sary — nor, I imag­ine, is the ultra-lib­er­at­ing fem­i­nist house­wifery trend much embraced among sin­gle moms. New York was res­ur­rect­ing a time-worn fan­ta­sy about sleep­ing your way out of a crap job and into the leisure class, the hottest new lifestyle trend since 1811 (next up: Sen­si­bil­i­ty! Is it real­ly bet­ter than sense?”), and deserves no more seri­ous consideration.

Except as a reminder of this fact: Fifty years is a long time. It’s long enough, his­to­ry reli­ably tells us, for a cul­ture to stop remem­ber­ing cer­tain trau­mas and to start fetishiz­ing them instead. 

There is a gen­er­a­tion of women — OK, mine — for whom the sig­ni­fiers of old-school oppres­sion have become sig­ni­fiers of cool. Bet­ty Friedan and her gen­er­a­tion wrote about the chains of domes­tic­i­ty, the mind-numb­ing bore­dom of spend­ing your entire day with no human com­pa­ny but a tod­dler and no work more intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing than knit­ting a new pair of socks. Friedan depict­ed house­wives going insane from iso­la­tion and intel­lec­tu­al atro­phy, women fresh out of top col­leges start­ing to sleep all day or take heavy tran­quil­iz­ers upon wak­ing, or some­times break­ing out into huge, bloody blis­ters all over their bod­ies because, my God, there was noth­ing to fuck­ing do. 

By the time I was in my twen­ties, the co-founder of the hip fem­i­nist mag­a­zine Bust had pub­lished a book of knit­ting pat­terns. It sold quite well. I owned it. Girls my age per­fect­ed knit­ting, and cup­cakes, and apron-wear­ing, all of it re-appro­pri­at­ed into twee/​ironic (tweeron­ic?) fem­i­nist sig­ni­fiers. I once knew a woman who wore noth­ing but vin­tage house­dress­es. As in, dress­es you don’t wear out­side the house.” I thought it was an amaz­ing look, and began to copy it at once.

There was some­thing potent in it — the term we used, when we had to come up with a defense, was reclaim­ing.” Most­ly it was about fac­ing fears of being stereo­typed: declar­ing that we could bake cup­cakes all we liked with­out being weak. But late­ly, I’ve begun to won­der if all that the­o­riz­ing was just for­get­ful­ness. Friedan had tran­quil­iz­ers and bloody blis­ters; we have trend pieces on the fem­i­nist house­wife. Friedan had anomie; we have irony. Friedan had The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique; we have Mad Men. Which began again in April, and which, at one point, promised to be our most potent safe­guard against for­get­ful­ness and fetishism, in the mem­o­rably stunt­ed — and Friedan-ish­ly named — per­son of Bet­ty Fran­cis (for­mer­ly Draper). 

It was a vis­cer­al shock to see a char­ac­ter like her on-screen. Because, yes, Bet­ty was crazy. One of her first big scenes on Mad Men showed her acci­den­tal­ly-not-acci­den­tal­ly crash­ing her car onto a neighbor’s lawn. Bet­ty was also hate­ful: a warped, inar­tic­u­late, vain child-woman with a ten­den­cy toward vio­lent rage and a heart that beat pure ice water. And (this was the bril­liant part) the show rou­tine­ly made the point that Bet­ty was so crazy and awful because, accord­ing to the val­ue sys­tem of her time, Bet­ty was per­fect. She was hideous, a mon­ster, and she nev­er had a choice to be any­thing else.

The extent to which Bet­ty was infan­tilized and dimin­ished by her per­fect mid-cen­tu­ry fem­i­nin­i­ty, and the extent to which she com­plied with her own oppres­sion, was vis­cer­al­ly dis­turb­ing. And it should have been, espe­cial­ly for a gen­er­a­tion of arti­sanal cup­cake-bak­ers. Betty’s pho­to-real­is­tic self-oppres­sion stripped all the irony away, remind­ed us how priv­i­leged we had to be to enjoy those vin­tage aprons; she was a con­tin­u­al slap in the face to our com­pla­cen­cy. Hate her? If no one had spo­ken up, you would have been her. Mad Men used to be a show that reli­ably made you want to be kinder to your grandmother. 

That’s a risky, com­pli­cat­ed point to make — a lit­tle too rich, in fact, for many view­ers of even good” TV to digest, which is why Bet­ty was always one of the most-hat­ed char­ac­ters on the show even when she wasn’t writ­ten to be. It’s prob­a­bly also why, over the course of five sea­sons, Bet­ty became a car­toon­ish vil­lain that her poor, sweet, chron­i­cal­ly phi­lan­der­ing and lying hus­band had to ditch for a chance at hap­pi­ness. The show has set­tled for a less nuanced fem­i­nist mes­sage by turn­ing Bet­ty into Volde­mort and dol­ing out more crowd-pleas­ing tales of female cor­po­rate suc­cess via Joan and Peggy.

Here’s hop­ing the series recov­ers in its sixth sea­son. Cre­ator Matthew Wein­er, at least, seems to see what has always been great about Bet­ty. Explain­ing why she was so wide­ly hat­ed by the audi­ence, Wein­er told Details, It’s like peo­ple are look­ing in the mir­ror and see­ing a wart that they don’t want to look at.”

If the trend pieces in New York mag­a­zine are any indi­ca­tion, we sore­ly need a good, hard, ugly look right about now. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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