Tube Tied: Betty Agonistes

Michelle Dean
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Tami at What Tami Said recently had a great post about, among other things, why she doesn't like Mad Men's Betty Draper, noting that buried in Betty's blonde, blue-haired Grace Kellyesque perfection lies the "antithesis of black

Betty is enslaved, while also being the slave master. This is what I hate about her. She wants freedom and agency when it is convenient. She wants to come down off the pedestal, but she seems unwilling, at least at this point in the narrative, to give up the privilege that comes with being idealized.

I, too, have been bristling at Betty's bad behaviour for some time.  I don't think I'm alone in that; there has been something altogether vicious about the way the show has been writing her character of late, something biting and mean about every word that comes out of her mouth.  Until about the middle of season two, I could have chalked this up to what I personally felt were the subpar talents of January Jones, but she has grown into Betty's shoes.  And in that context I'm starting to blame both the viewers and the writers for all the vitriol hurled Betty's way.

The feminism of Mad Men, such as it may be said to exist, is quite heavily second wave, and owes its debt to Betty Friedan.  It is the first kind of feminism I think we all end up ascribing to when we have just begun to taste it.  It is a feminism that imagines women to be in cages of fixed size but ample square footage, comfortable couches, and the Joy of Cooking on the kitchen counter.  Working outside the home, as Peggy does, is progress; being a mere wife and mother, as Betty does, is just acquiescence.  It is capitulation.  It is, in short, kind of infuriating.

There is a lot in this feminism that I still agree with.  I think it's a risk to rely on another person for income, in this culture, at this time. I think that a cage is a cage even if you choose to live in it.  I wish more people would see the trap of emulating some kind of ideal of domesticity; I certainly wish more women would.

But I guess I've moved away from the hard line on this, which is where I understand Mad Men to be residing in the question of Betty.  See, Betty has gone from tragic housewife - admittedly, in itself, a stereotype - to a harpy of sorts who is determined to make everyone else as miserable as she is.  In the first season Don told Betty he wished she would stop being a child.  At the time it was an insult; now it's just a description - check out the dream she has this week in which literally, her subconscious is depicted as her parents scolding her.  It seems even the writers have stopped thinking of Betty as a person with a rich internal dialogue; it is much easier, one supposes, for both audience and writers to see her as a spoiled brat, a princess atop a pedestal.

Tami also points out that people's antipathy towards Betty isn't without a tinge of sexism itself:

There is scarcely a man on the show who hasn't committed Betty's quot;crimes" and much more and who isn't 10 times more responsible for perpetuating the inequities of the time. Yet, she is the person that gets all of our hate, which maybe proves that when it comes to sexism, we aren't so much more enlightened than folks were in Betty's day.

I'm not sure I'd go this far, but I certainly agree that the vitriol that both audience and writing staff currently hold for Betty seems out of all proportion with who she is in context.  It is sexism for sure, and it is also, I think, a certain degree of misplaced rage inspired by how gilded one's cage is - why can't, in short, Betty see how great she has it? For me, though, it's a question of the roundness of Betty's portrayal, which I suppose comes back to the same thing: I want the writers, and the audience, to see Betty as human.  Right now she's flat, like cardboard, scheming and unhappy but wholly without the critique of the bars that hold her in that one would imagine she must have.  In short, I guess what I'd like to know more about is what Betty's account is of herself.  I'd like to know what she thinks about being the angel in the house.  I'd like
to know what she thinks of Peggy, or Joan.  I'd like her to be, in short, something other than the Gossip Girl of Mad Men, hard and shellacked into cold perfection without any deep character work.  And then, I think, people would find it much harder to hate her.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

While Betty maybe very

While Betty maybe very difficult to like, I believe she is a very well crafted character. We see her as she presents herself to everyone in the program - a very protected individual. She hardly reveals her feelings to her family, and we've been informed many times that Betty is absolutely unable to relate to anyone around her specifically because she is trapped by present circumstances.

So yes, she is cold, cruel, and quick to make people around her just as miserable as she is. Probably because they have the means to escape, whereas Betty is pretty tied down. She doesn't have Peggy's optimistic future or Joan's escape plan. She is fixed in a situation with no friends or relatable characters, chained to a man who hasn't learned to stop cheating on her. Betty is bored to gosh darn tears with absolutely no outlet beyond harassing her kids.

I think I gained respect for the writer's attitude towards Betty when we see her visiting her father after his health problems begin, and she has a very sad, heartfelt moment with her childhood nursemaid - the one and only human being she has ever felt a connection and bond with.

Its hard to really get to know Betty's vulnerabilities when her self defense mechanism is always turned on around others and by herself.

I figure it is just a matter of time until she finally has a nervous breakdown.

I feel like this describes the entire season, though...

All the characters are playing their parts, but there's really no commentary on what they're doing coming from them. A few words from the black housekeeper. A few interesting moments with Sal. But for the most part, the characters seemed to have all resigned themselves to the roles they play...they're all unhappy, but with no point of view.

I'm kind of frustrated with third season.


From a dramatic standpoint, this season seems to be the rising action of Betty's arc, introducing her to the realities of Friedan's Feminine Mystique. She is, as her father tells her in her epidural dream, "a house cat. You're very important and you have little to do." To me, this is the writers telegraphing very explicitly that Betty is coming to recognize her confinement rather than fighting an unidentified source of frustration.

Rather than hate her, I pity her, watching her attempt to escape her cage at the end of the second season but lacking the ability to do so. This was a fact of life for many women who were college educated housewives in this era. That said, were I writing the show, I would give Betty the epiphany she needs during this season's finale, perhaps with Betty being forced into the workplace or finally leaving Don.

Mad Men is Really About Women

If good story-telling is about change, then the only characters on the show who will leave differently than when they entered are the gals. As Roger Sterling said to his new wife, "I have to keep you in line or I'll lose you." That seems to sum up the twisted dynamic between men and women then, and today. The reason I think we watch Mad Men is because it's really about women.

Check out my blog post, "Mad Men or Mad Women":

Would love to know what you think!

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