Is Betty Draper Loathsome — Or Just Misunderstood?

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With her Ice Princess demeanor and penchant for shaming her daughter, Betty Draper is one of Mad Men's most despised characters. But are viewers just failing to understand her complexity?

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Today on The Daily Beast, writer Jace Lacob considers why,

...Many viewers (and critics, too, for that matter) seize the opportunity to trample on Betty Draper as a character, to denigrate her coolness and sublimated emotions, while simultaneously celebrating the effervescent Joan Harris (née Holloway), putting the curvy redhead on a pedestal.

Every character on Mad Men has flaws, but perhaps the Betty hate stems from the fact that hers are some of the least glamorous and most realistic. While Joan is unhappily married to a man who raped her, she hasn't lost her effervescent personality. Joan may make mistakes, but audiences are still on her side because she's witty, talented, and expresses her emotions freely (the incredible clothing doesn't hurt either).

In contrast, January Jones is "forced to play the part of a dark cloud, something today's society chafes against with its female icons." Though Jones is probably the most conventionally attractive actress on the show, Betty's inner life is one of the ugliest. Just as Betty rarely gets a break from the world of the '60s housewife, we don't get to see her cut lose in another arena, successfully dancing in a conga line at the SCDP Christmas party. From The Daily Beast:

"I thought this show would be an opportunity for people to see me as something else, something darker. Betty is such an interesting character. Now, I might not be interesting," Jones said, laughing, in an interview with Jack Nicholson for Interview magazine before the start of Season 3. "I honestly get more nervous when it comes to the emotional, less physical scenes. Betty is always feeling one thing but then goes and does something completely different. She goes through a bunch of different emotions that I act more with my face than through what I'm saying. But the physical is just physical."

Is it that lack of physicality that drives the audience's disdain for her character? Whereas Betty's emotional complexity gets buried under irrational behavior, Hendricks' Joan is held up as a woman deeply in touch with both her body and her inner desires.

Betty's emotional problems are deeper than most of the other characters' and less soap opera-y, but that also makes them less fun to watch. Most of us have probably dealt with sadness by wandering around the house in the same outfit for a few days or lashing out at a loved one inappropriately, but it's more enjoyable to watch Don disappear to California or see Peggy have an inappropriate fling with a coworker.

If Betty has any redeeming qualities, they aren't easy to spot — and that makes her far less lovable than the other main characters. But creator Matthew Weiner strives for accuracy, and in all likelihood a woman raised to be a quiet, attractive doll would come off as "an unhappy killjoy, a woman who can't express her emotions in healthy ways and who instead acts out when the repression becomes too much to bear," as Lacob writes.

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While she isn't the most entertaining character on Mad Men, Betty is one of the most interesting. In any other show about the '60s, the bored housewife would have already stumbled on a copy of The Feminine Mystique and started on her journey to self-actualization. Sometimes it seems like we're just waiting for feminism to sweep in and save the female characters, and then Peggy can professionally succeed, Joan will dump her rapist husband, and Betty might develop a personality. But the whole point of Mad Men is to understand how individuals actually experienced the social changes of the '60s. Viewers may have to work harder to understand January Jones' subtle portrayal of Betty's unglamorous inner life, but her journey will probably prove to be the show's most honest and revealing story.

Mad Men's Ice Queen [The Daily Beast]

DISCUSSION

By
Morbidda Destiny

After reading and thinking about this post and some of the comments, I'm just going to throw this out there.

I think people like Joan more because she's very good at presenting the illusion that the pre-feminist era was all groovy hairdos and martinis, totally fun and innocent, and none of that bad stuff really had consequences and nobody really got hurt.

Joan is just SO GOOD at letting all the horrible things of those Bad Old Days roll off. She puts up with foundation garments and having to fuck the boss, the stigma of working after you get married, discovering that you love your job only to have it yanked away from you in favor of a dude, the spectre of illegal abortions, every goddamn thing those times had to throw at a woman.

On contrast, Betty has to put up with the same shit, but she can't handle it at all. And we don't like that. We can't look Betty in the face without asking ourselves some pretty hard questions about gender and "back in the day" and especially the women who came before us, many of whom are still in our lives. It's much easier to assume they just surfed through it all like Joan.