“You’re born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.”—Don Draper
So this is a post that has been a long time coming, ever since I started tracking the Betty Draper tag basically and was exposed to a whole new level of vitriol that I didn’t think a fandom - whom I always used to consider pretty classy - was capable of. I’ve compiled the most ridiculous criticisms of Betty that I’ve seen both here, and on other discussion boards, and tried to basically argue why I believe a lot of the hate directed towards Betty originates from people missing the point of her character and series arc.
1. I don’t see you how you can like her when she’s such a terrible mother. (Usually accompanied by a bonus variation of the following: she shouldn’t be allowed to have anymore children).
Starting with my personal favourite (and when I say personal favourite, I mean, the one that makes me most want to rip my own face off) to get the ball rolling: that if there’s one thing to make fandom instantly pounce upon a female character (and I mean fandom at large, not just for this show) it’s bad mothering. Putting aside all the rationale of the inherent unfairness of trying to judge someone’s parenting when you have no idea what you would do in their situation as well as the fact that raising a child is an incredibly personal process and we can’t judge everyone by the same strokes, no matter how much society pretends that child-rearing is the most universal of experiences, I will accept that Betty is a bad mother BUT (“but” being the operative word here), that is NOT A VALD REASON TO DISLIKE HER. Firstly, because guess what, the most important facet of a woman’s character isn’t her womb. I’ll repeat it again because fandom needs to hear it twice: the most important facet of a woman’s character isn’t her womb. Especially when, that woman doesn’t get the actual choice of deciding whether or not she wants to have children in the first place. Now, I recognise that no one puts a gun to Betty’s head and tells her to “have children or else” but we’re all mature enough to acknowledge that there are far more insidious ways to force someone into doing something they don’t want to do. In Betty’s situation, this is being inundated in a postwar American society with the idea that being a mother and wife is the most fulfilling role for a woman to play, that if she doesn’t get married and start cranking out children or worse yet, if she doesn’t even have the urge to, she’s unnatural, an anomaly, a perverse woman. Betty’s not a natural rebel so she settles down to the life chosen for her, not through her own agency but by society at large, and she’s depressed by it. She’s bored by it. She’s restless. She’s cruel to her children but she’s not cruel to them in a vacuum, ‘Mad Men’ isn’t one of the best shows on television for nothing, it understands very clearly the experiences that inform its characters’ actions. We’re given pretty strong implications throughout the series (in season one, in particular) that Betty’s mother was abusive towards her, was a retroactive copy of the woman her daughter has become. And before you judge Betty on Sally’s behalf, call her out for fucking with her daughter’s head, remember that Sally Draper is growing up in a time of seismic change, in an era where rebellion (particularly towards fusty old parents) is encouraged, with a support system that includes an understanding therapist and a father. Betty, on the other hand, grew up in a stagnant blue-blooded household, in a period that straitjacketed her, and so she not only took her mother’s abuse lying down, she internalised what she was told: that her only worth in life was contingent upon her looks, was conditional upon finding a man and locking him down. So when Betty is terrified that Sally will be left with a scar on her face after the car accident, when she fat-shames her own child, when she blows a nerve after Sally cuts her own hair, it’s cruelty, yes, but it’s cruelty grounded in years of anxiety that stem from Betty’s own childhood, from decades of pressure from an oppressive society, from always having her own physical agency denied to her - never being allowed the luxury of unfashionable clothes or hair that’s askew, never being allowed the luxury of not looking perfect because in Betty’s head, to not look perfect is equivalent to being worthless. Betty doesn’t have the tools to break through the framework of bullshit that warps her thinking so she isn’t equipped to teach Sally a way of life that’s any different from her own. Yes, she’s a bad mother - a pretty horrific one - but God if there aren’t a hundred legitimate reasons to explain the why of that fact. If you don’t like her because she’s a bad mother it’s because a) you’re being a self-righteous prick and b) you’re not acknowledging the tragedy of Betty’s own sustained childhood abuse that shapes her approach to motherhood.
2. She’s a weak character.
God, what does this criticism even mean? She’s a weak character narratively because she has no arc? Or because she doesn’t get better, she only get’s worse? Well, that’s ‘Mad Men’ for you, part of the soul-crushing brilliance of this show that it always denies us what we want. Of course, everyone wants Betty to have an arc that parallels Peggy’s - that allows her to overcome the institutionalised sexism of marriage just as Peggy overcomes the sexism of the workplace. We want Betty’s arc to go places we would like to go if we were in her shoes, to places that are positive and admirable and fulfilling. But the fact, that it goes in the reverse direction, doesn’t make the construction of her character weak. If anything, I’d argue it makes it stronger - it makes Betty more credible than if she’d been given a Lifetime movie “overcoming adversity” type arc. Not everyone changed with changing times, some people were waylaid by history, made victims of their own age - which is the central tragedy of the premise of the whole show - and that’s what we have with Betty Draper. The fact that she embodies one of the underlying messages of the show makes her one of its strongest characters in my eyes (you don’t have to agree with that, but don’t dismiss her as weak either). Unless you mean weak, as in actually a weak woman, because why? She doesn’t dismantle the patriarchy with her bare hands? Well, she doesn’t have the tools to do that. We talk about Betty’s privilege all the time - her racial privilege, her class privilege - but never address our own privilege, the privilege of 20/20 hindsight that allows us to look at the social structures of the show and censure them for misogyny. Betty, locked in within those actual structures, doesn’t share our same capacity to judge the system that subjugates her hence why she doesn’t have the capacity to tear it to pieces. So fine, she loses, she’s unlikely to end the show as a feminist icon but just because she’s one of the characters who connects least to our modern perspective, doesn’t make her less worthy of our attention, of our affection or understanding. Just because she doesn’t please our standards of what a woman in her situation should be doing doesn’t make her “weak” in the slightest.
3. January Jones is a terrible actress.
Look, I can’t speak for JJ’s versatility outside ‘Mad Men’ because I’ve never seen her given a role outside the show with the same kind of depth and complexity as Betty has. But as far as the show is concerned, you can’t look at the anxiety that fuels Betty during season one or the cracks that begin to show in season two or that moment last season between her and Don in their old house during the finale and tell me she’s a bad actress because it’s objectively untrue. As for those charming people who like to launch a double back handed compliment upon JJ and Betty by saying she’s “perfect” for the role because she’s exactly that frigid/petty/mean in real life as well, well a) you don’t actually know January Jones, b) like I’ve said before, Betty is one of the least modern characters in the show, she’s one of the characters who presumably the actor really has to time travel for in order to tap into her consciousness so saying she and January are one and the same makes no actual sense and c) fuck you.
4. She’s irrelevant to the show, not that she’s no longer married to Don.
My knee-jerk response to this is always “lol whut, do you even watch the show?” The tragedy of ‘Mad Men’ is set up in the very opening sequence with a man falling through space: the tragedy of the fall, the tragedy of starting off the decade as someone who’s relevant to to the zeitgeist and ending it with your own obsolescence. We know that’s where we’re headed with Don, it’s partly what makes his bullshit easier to take because we know he’s going to lose. Through being narratively lumped with him, Betty’s fated for a similar end. We already know these men view their wives as materialistic objects - we know they go through their wives in serialised order, upgrading them according to the aesthetic tastes of the day: Jane is basically Roger’s 1960s Joan and Megan is Don’s 1960s Betty (a little more gamine, a little more Hepburn and less Grace Kelly). Betty’s irrelevance in 1970 is as sealed as Don’s is and as I said before, she sums up one of the basic tenets of the show so how can we dismiss her as being narratively irrelevant just because she’s no longer wed to the main character? In fact, Betty’s tragedy is even greater than Don’s in my opinion - they both construct their images according to a postwar ideal and then get stuck in them, they can’t adapt when they need to - because Betty’s self-worth rests upon being seen therefore being replaced by a new female ideal that she can’t access and is henceforth made invisible by is one of the most heart-breaking things that could potentially happen to her.
5. I liked S1 Betty but ever since she started getting her own ideas, I’ve started to hate her.
Okay, this is about anger. It’s about Betty’s anger which is where a lot of her antagonistic behaviour in season four originates from. Betty starts off season one as a victim and that’s nice and comforting for the audience because we can sympathise with her and then expect a bad-ass lady to rise from the ashes of the oppressed wife. That kind of transition naturally has to be fuelled by anger, by realising the ways in which society and marriage have fucked her over and then escaping those very bonds. And Betty gets angry but not in the way we want. She gets angry when she finally realises who Don is, behind the fraudulent mask, and when she finally lets her temper out at him, she can’t stuff it back in. She rebels, she finally lets herself express the full ugliness of her anger but it’s too late now because most of the people responsible for it are gone: her mother’s dead, she’s gotten the divorce from the awful, sexist husband so she’s left frothing at the mouth at people like Carla and Henry and Sally who don’t deserve it but she doesn’t have any alternative because that well’s finally been broken inside her and nobody else is around anymore. It’s not purposeful anger, the kind of political anger that moulds feminist movements and transforms power structures, its childish anger that’s baseless and aimless and bottomless. But it’s all she has left now. She can’t go back to being that sweet, perfect wife and daughter again. Yeah I know of all the things we want from female characters, anger is usually at the bottom of the list because it’s not attractive, we can’t marry it in our heads, particularly to our image of sweet, lovely Betty who we met in season one, the Betty capable of softness and healing. But Betty’s anger exits, it’s real and raw and I think that’s why it affects people and makes them uncomfortable and we need to understand where it comes from, that like everything else about her, it doesn’t appear in a vacuum. I’m going to wrap this up quickly now because it’s descending into incoherence but Betty does become a difficult character to deal with in the later seasons of the show. That’s fine. We should be intelligent enough as a viewership to appreciate the difficulties of her character, see how the rough edges of her character get there and love her for it anyway - or at the very least, not hate her for it.