Mad Men: Betty Draper and the gender politics of period television
June 23, 2012
By: Emily Ives-Keeler
WARNING! Contains spoilers!
AMC’s Mad Men is set on Madison Avenue, New York, in the offices of the fictional advertising agency, Sterling Cooper. Since its first airing in July 2007, the show has gone on to become a massive success for writer and producer, Matthew Weiner. During the course of its five enthralling seasons, Mad Men has spanned the years 1960-67, faithfully depicting some of modern history’s most momentous events, and vividly foregrounding the gender prejudices of the era in doing so. Amidst the excitement of the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential election (the Sterling Cooper staff mischievously wheeling out liquor and a television as soon as the elevator doors close on a stern Don Draper), we see Ken Cosgrove drag receptionist Allison to the ground, pull up her skirt and reveal her underwear to his colleagues. In season three, the emotional aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 is interwoven with the breakdown of Don and Betty Draper’s marriage due to his perpetual lies, infidelity and disrespect. But following the fifth season finale which aired on Sunday evening, I can’t help but look back regretfully at the disintegration of Betty’s character since that climactic divorce from Don, and wonder whether the writing of this character itself hasn’t got wrapped up in some of that pervasive sixties sexism.
Betty Draper is the trophy housewife, the “Buick you keep in the garage,” the beautiful ex-model who keeps the house, takes care of the kids, and stays where she is to be picked up and put down again whenever you might need her to play hostess or impress a client (“you are one indecently lucky man,” Connie Hilton tells Don). She performs the duties of the middle-class suburban housewife flawlessly, yet we quickly learn that she “has never been enough” for Don, who has affairs almost indiscriminately with any woman willing (needless to say this rules out exactly….well, nobody), be they Sterling Cooper clientele or otherwise. Betty is of course unaware of this infidelity, and there are moments where the marriage seems loving and healthy. Don shows genuine concern for his wife in her moments of need: he pays for her to see a psychiatrist when she crashes the car in a fit of nervous agitation, and after her father suffers a stroke he is invited to live with them to put Betty’s mind at ease. Ultimately though, this only feeds into an ongoing comparison between Betty and the “little girl” that Don feels he actually lives with. Her pampered, sheltered lifestyle has stunted her emotional development and left her entirely dependent on Don for every kind of support. Her childlike qualities are made most apparent by her complicated friendship with ten year-old Glen Bishop, whom she finds herself turning to when she is unable to find comfort in those her own age. This is Betty Draper then, as an isolated housewife, the pitied victim of the patriarchal society she partakes in.
Betty is finally pushed to divorce Don after discovering his infidelity, as well as his hidden identity as Dick Whitman. Despite unexpectedly bearing his third child, Betty is able to secure the only circumstances under which divorce might have been viable for her in sixties society: an offer of second marriage, and therefore financial provision, to immediately fall into. Of course, Betty’s reasons for divorcing Don are utterly justified: on the same night she discovers that the Donald Draper she married is in fact the identity of a dead soldier, falsely inhabited by war deserter Dick Whitman, her children’s school-teacher waits unnoticed in a car parked in front of the house for Don to emerge and take her on the romantic trip they planned together. Though Betty remains unaware of this, it is just one example of Don’s outrageously disrespectful behaviour during the course of his marriage, so that when Don comes home and shakes Betty violently awake after learning of her only affair with Henry Francis, his hypocritical accusation: “Whore!” only reminds us of his own sexual promiscuity. With Betty’s request for divorce and her liberation from this poisonous relationship, we feel liberated with her and vindicated in Don’s getting the punishment he deserves. However, throughout the course of the fourth season, we see a broken and lonely Don Draper appear as the victim. He drinks too much, doesn’t know how to entertain his kids when they visit, and lives in a dark and depressing bachelor pad. For the first time we even see him struggling with his work: he is forced to employ a barely talented relative of Roger Sterling’s wife, after accidentally using a tag-line of his in a meeting with potential client, Life cereal. We realise that Don is “pathetic” and we no longer like him. Confusedly, we come to understand that we had actually been quite fond of the violent, dishonest, abusive Don Draper of his married years.
Conversely, newlywed Betty Francis takes on the role of the token detestable ex-wife, who is constantly nagging and whining in the background of Don’s ‘tragedy.’ She is demanding and unreasonable, refusing to move out of Don’s house which she and Henry don’t pay rent for, and slapping her daughter Sally across the face in disgust at finding she has cut her own hair. Later on, actress January Jones’ actual pregnancy requires that Betty develop a serious weight problem, so that even her intense beauty cannot be left to her as a redeeming quality. During the fifth season, she has been jealous and insecure in the face of Don’s marriage to a young and slim Megan. This is not the sensitive, delicate Betty that we have known for the first three seasons. She becomes a barely believable character, comprised of just one or two undesirable attributes, and we feel that she now only exists as a source of provocation to Don and as a means of facilitating Sally’s more substantial appearances in the plot. This is Betty Draper then, as a female character whose integrity and appeal has been sacrificed in order to foreground the viewer’s involvement with Don. In this representation of gender prejudice, Betty has not been marginalised by another character, one whose world is also coloured by the patriarchal blue of sixties society, but by the writing itself. While Mad Men has also given us the strong, independent Peggy Olsens and Joan Holloways of the sixties, it is disappointing to see the deterioration of one woman throughout these seasons, at the hands of those outside the set, rather than within it.