Bon Voyage, Betty! And Other Meditations On Mad Men

Watching Betty and Don's final fight on Sunday night, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with a sense of glee. Hasta La Vista, Betty!

This isn't going to be a big "I hate Betty Draper" screed. I agree with my co-blogger Tami, who, in September, wrote in a piece called "Sexism Makes Me Hate Betty Draper:"

The character of Betty Draper, who was fresh and hopeful in season one, is now nervous with periodically shaking hands. She is withdrawn, bitter and cold. She is alternately dismissive and cruel to her children (particularly her daughter), her friends and other family members. She is unhappy and the world knows it. Personal misery can make for an unpleasant personality.

I understand why Betty is the way she is. She was molded by her family and a society that viewed women like her as dolls not living, breathing women with needs and desires. In Sunday's episode, Betty's father Gene hints several times that he, too, didn't know what kind of person he was raising. He mentions that Betty is nothing like her independent mother, his wife, who was working when he first met her. He frets that he shielded Betty from too many things, raised her to be a princess—"Scarlett O'Hara" he calls her. After he tries to discuss his final wishes with his daughter, she huffs: (paraphrasing) I know it must be hard for you to face whatever it is your facing, but can't you keep it to yourself? It's selfish and morbid for you to talk to me about it. I'm your little girl! Later, Gene tells his grandaughter, Betty's child, that she can be whatever she wants to be..."no matter what your mother says." It is likely a message he never gave his "little girl" Betty. Nor does it seem he encouraged his wife's independent streak, as there is no mention of her working after they married. [...]

A commenter named Lgreer28 on Television Without Pity asked just this question to the Betty haters:

I find it amazing that people are always pointing out Betty's immaturity, while ignoring the immaturity of the other characters. Why do they expect her to be the perfect parent? Why is it that her flaws are not tolerated, yet the flaws of the other characters are? Why do they constantly complain about Betty's flaws and ignore Don's? Why do they ignore the fact that Don is no more a perfect parent than Betty? Why do they ignore his own immaturity or his tendencies to indulge in his own illusions?

Indeed. Betty is a bad mother, but "Mad Men" is riddled with bad fathers. Betty is selfish, but not nearly as selfish as her errant husband. As for my beef, Betty hardly created the hierarchy of race and femininity that strangles her and all of the other women on the show—black ones, included. There is scarcely a man on the show who hasn't committed Betty's "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. We tut and gasp over the biased treatment of women on "Mad Men." "My God, I'm so glad things are different today!" But as we analyze the show and its characters with our 21st century eyes, a woman is still judged more harshly than a man for similar infractions. We've laid aside the mid-day gin at the office, the skinny ties and girdles. But it seems that, in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to Tami's take, Amanda Marcotte writes about the ire of some conservatives that so much focus is given to Betty's unhappiness:

Oh, I can't imagine what it must be like to be a social conservative invested in that show. You must flinch every time Betty walks onscreen, looking pained, bored, and miserable. That she herself is a petulant brat doesn't make up for that, because the show is making the point that oppression isn't suddenly right because the oppressed aren't perfect people. And the show implies that certain ugly character traits are the result of oppressive systems, that Betty Draper is a miserable person because she's been turned into one. How dare the show suggest that bitchy women might be more pleasant if they weren't treated like second class citizens? And so [Benjamin Schwartz, writing for the Atlantic] gave you an out: Betty's character makes you uncomfortable because it's not realistic, and January Jones is a bad actress, and women in the 50s were never bored because being someone's sex-and-domestic appliance is what every woman really wants! It's not you, it's January Jones and the evils of feminism. [...]

And really, Schwartz's contempt for the character and his scapegoating of the actress—-and especially the applause he got from social conservatives for it—-shows the underlying contempt for women in the paternalistic platitudes about how women were happier when being a housewife was mandatory. Dreher's being upfront about it. Asking us to spend time on the feelings and thoughts and fantasies of Betty Draper is boring, because the whole point of wives is that they're in the background, making it possible for the real actors—-mostly men—-to make things happen.

The conservative reaction to the Draper marriage shows exactly how effective that storyline is in making its point. A lot of liberals, I've found, are bored with Betty for another reason entirely. They can't understand why she doesn't just pick up and leave already, if she's so unhappy. We're on the other side of it—-so feminist that it's hard to wrap our minds around the psychology of someone who isn't. But conservatives flip the fuck out, get defensive and start scapegoating January Jones, going so far as to argue that her dull affect is evidence that she can't act, when in fact it's evidence that the actress is being fearless in her portrayal of someone whose entire personality has been flattened out by boredom.

I have to admit that part of the Betty hatred comes from the fact that I can empathize with Carla. Betty is, as Tami explains, "the embodiment of pre-Feminine Mystique, upper-middle class, white womanhood." It's part of the same reason I also hate Pete Campbell.

But more than that, there is another element at play. More than just Betty's character flaws, what makes her unwatchable is the painful lack of an inner life.

As I wrote about the fate of minorities on the series in season one, the third season has been categorized by stripping away at the inner lives of all the women on the show, Betty most markedly. Betty, from seasons one and two, had a strong inner life outside of Don. Even while she was confused as to the general reason for her shakes and malaise, she was curious and introspective. She maintained arm's length relationships with other women, but still revealed much of herself. On occasion, she acted out of character, expressing her protective streak by shooting the neighbor's birds, or when she decided to take out her aggression sexually, using a sexy stranger.

For most of season three, Betty's been pouty and insolent. The shades of insight into her motivations and personality have generally vanished, as Betty is mainly used to help advance the plot, at the expense of her own development. (Weiner, in an interview with the Daily Beast today, appears to view her childlike nature as key to her character.) Now, again, this isn't unique to Betty - Peggy and Joan also lost their inner lives this season, appearing mostly in the context of the men they were involved with (romantically or professionally).

But watching Betty go through the motions of finding out Don's secret and falling for another man while stripped of her inner life was something like watching her die a slow, painful death. Gone are the casual conversations with Francine, just hurried discussions about the reservoir. The look into the inner workings of Betty Draper achieved with the psychiatrist are a memory. Without her inner life providing insights to her behavior, we are left with a direct reading of Betty: spoiled, selfish, cruel. The only time a glimpse of the season one and two Betty surfaces is during her finale fight with Don, his careful facade smashed to pieces. They attack each other, brutally, Don focusing in on their class differences and Betty dredging up the scorn, confusion, and anger that's plagued her for the last three years:

In the end, Betty flies off to Reno, leaving behind the suburbs, the failed marriage, and the lingering doubts of her own sanity. She's moving forward with a man she doesn't know, in order to escape another man she doesn't know. Fitting, really.

So while I hate Betty, I kind of can't help to see her for who she is - a flawed, miserable person stuck in an increasingly desperate gilded cage. The marriage was already poisoning the two children - having it end will probably be for the best. Perhaps Betty's story line could have been salvaged. Perhaps Matthew Weiner could have humanized her more, given her more space to experience grief and rage before she got the upper hand by finding Dick Whitman's box of secrets. Perhaps then, instead of being a tangle of privilege and petulance, Betty Draper would have been seen as a woman in an impossible position, seeking a savior, instead of looking like an opportunist.

But either way, it's over. The Draper family is dead. Long live the Drapers.

Related: Sexism Makes Me Hate Betty Draper [What Tami Said]
Why Does Betty Draper Have To Make Wingnuts Feel Guilty? [Pandagon]
"Fuck Pete Campbell!": Mediations On Mad Men And Whiteness [Racialicious]
Why "Mad Men" Is Afraid Of Race [Double X]
On Mad Men And Race [Racialicious]
"Shoot" Wins ADG, Matt Weiner's Visions, Birds [Basket of Kisses]