The tragedy of Betty Draper is that she has the potential to be happy. It’s just that dying her hair black isn’t going to be enough to accomplish it.
A male friend of mine – though women are every bit as apt to revile Betty as men – once told me that no one could ever like Betty “because she’s cold and soulless.”
Well, I like Betty, more so than ever after last night’s season six premiere of Mad Men. I also have sympathy for Disney villains and popular actors playing the devil, but I suspect my affection for her is only about 50% based on the fact that I like soulless people. And Betty herself acknowledges that she may come across as cold. There is an excellent scene on Mad Men when a young man tells her, “You’re so profoundly unhappy.” Betty stares at him for a second and then replies, “No. It’s just my people are Nordic.” She then flees, proclaiming, “I’m not unhappy. I’m grateful.”
Of course, Betty is desperately unhappy, but she has no idea why. And, of course, she is grateful. Betty has everything she has been told to want. At the beginning of the series she mentions her mother and says, “She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There's nothing wrong with that. But then what?”
Well, then, if you’re Betty, you become discontented and depressed.
She found a man. She married Don Draper. Admittedly, he proposes to half the women he meets (“Want to run away to Paris?” kind of counts as a proposal) but he did idolize Betty, at least at the beginning of their marriage. But when he returns to her, penitent for his affairs, she looks at him and says, “Honestly, things haven’t been that different without you.” Those “things” refer to Betty’s emotional state just as much as the day to day tasks around the house.
Henry Francis, her second husband, seems determined to win all the prizes in the “Best Human Husband” category. But even that caring isn’t enough.
Her success with men – and she is successful - does not make Betty happy.
There are certainly affluent married women in that era who could find great satisfaction through their children and husbands, but it’s abundantly evident that Betty doesn’t like children very much. She seems to get along with Sally better now that her daughter is older, but she simply does not relate to young children. Yes, Betty does dress like Donna Reed and yet, no, the two are not the same. There is no indication that Betty ever wanted children. The one pregnancy we’ve seen, she tentatively asks the doctor for an abortion, and then, sadly, concedes after the doctor accuses her of being concerned about losing her figure. I don’t think Betty ever willfully decided, “I’m going to be an awful mother.” I think she had children because everyone told her it was what she should do. And then she discovered she lacked the nurturing gene.
Her children do not make her glow with pride.
And yet, for all the coldness and distance, we do see moments when Betty is happy.
At one point, she wistfully tells Henry, “We all have skills we don’t use. I was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr. Can you believe that?”
It’s the skills she rarely uses that seem to produce her few moments of joy.
When she, blushing, tells her neighbor that a clothing designer once created a line around her and shows off the pieces. When she tries to go back to work modeling, and sits giggling with the Coca Cola bottle. When she travels to Italy and reveals that she speaks fluent Italian. Or when she sits with Sally’s friend, Sandy, in last night’s episode and talks about how she had to live in a dorm with five models sharing two rooms.
“I bet it was great,” Sandy responds. Betty doesn’t disagree.
In last night’s episode she even looks reasonably happy when making goulash for a group of teenagers who later tell her, “We don’t like your life any more than you do.” Again, Betty doesn’t contradict them, she just says they have bad manners (and that she hopes they get crabs).
Remember when she did a little dance around the kitchen after the Junior League saved a reservoir? And no – I don’t think that emotion was because she was in the fledging stages of her romance with Henry. Her relationships with men never make her pleased. If anything, when she finally marries Henry, as she sits on the plane to Reno, she looks profoundly bored.
Betty only seems happy when she is given the very rare opportunity to use her skills. She does not want to be prized as an ornament. She wants to be useful. She knows she could do more.
Is it any wonder then, that she goes absolutely insane when she tries to plan a multi-national dinner party for Don’s business associate? She is a woman who studied the cultures of the world, who lived overseas and who speaks fluent Italian; yet Don’s associates laugh that she is a simple housewife who has been taken in by their German beer display in the supermarket.
That patronizing attitude, as much as Don’s affairs, has filled Betty with fury.
And, as kind of Henry is, it’s not really different with him. Edith Wharton wrote that “Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.” Betty is a woman who would have enjoyed the tightrope. Henry gave her a fainting couch.
But how can she find her tightrope?
Certainly, you could look at Peggy and say, “Well, she could be more like Peggy. She could find a job.” And it’s true; Peggy was able to carve out a niche for herself, where her accomplishments are recognized. Peggy is also the kind of person who can completely ignore her own pregnancy because she is driven to be a copywriter. In addition to having a skillset that was very useful to the firm, Peggy has a unique personality. Most women can’t slice a line between career and family.
Peggy is a trailblazer. Betty isn’t. Betty is not a savant in some field, and she’s not an extreme personality type. But the fact that Betty does not have extreme talents doesn’t mean that she must forego accomplishments.
If she had been born today, Betty probably would not have cured cancer. But it’s very easy to imagine her working successfully for a fashion designer or running a PR company or having any number of jobs that would allow her to travel and socialize and generally make use of her creativity and organizational and strong work ethic skill set. She’d never have to get married, or if she did, she could have married, as Wharton wished, not a man who made life easy, but one who made life interesting. She’d certainly never have to have children.
Honestly, she probably never should have had children.
One of the fascinating aspects of Mad Men is that many of the characters seem to belong to particular eras. Roger Sterling can do all the LSD he wants, but he will always seem as though he belongs in the Paris Ritz drinking martinis and trading quips with Hemingway in the 1940’s. Pete Campbell’s unchecked ambition, obsession with work and, well, smarminess, seems out of place in the 1960’s, but will be the ideal personality in the “Greed is Good” 1980’s. Don and Joan, both the 1950’s ideal, have to meet the challenges of the 1960’s. Betty belongs in an era that she may well never meet.
Betty belongs in this age.
Just as we’re witnessing the death rattle on the world of men like Roger Sterling - I challenge you to find an executive who has daily three martini lunches - we are seeing the dawn of a world where there is a place for women like Betty. Just look at Meghan. Meghan never considers that she will have to work at something she doesn’t enjoy. And she is certainly not content to just be Don’s wife. Meghan has a successful career on a soap opera. And is upset that she’s not getting enough scenes! Betty has not had the equivalent of any scene since she was eating soup with her fellow models back in her days in the Village.
The frustration of overlooked skills and lost opportunities and too few accomplishments may explain why Betty rather eerily – gleefully – suggests her husband rape fifteen year old Sandy who has a talent for playing the violin. Later, Betty can’t believe that Sandy sold her violin so she could move to California. And then, when she drops the violin, she understands that Sandy, like her, has skills she will not use. And while Sandy might have an opportunity to change, Betty bitterly recognizes that it may be too late to change herself.
But her hair? Her hair does look lovely.