So, Mad Men’s over now for another season. And we have a brand-new wife to hate! Hurrah! You guys, I am sure she is going to be so much worse than we can even plan for. And then we will get to write about the not-so-coded misogyny involved in how she is awful. But before we do that, we should talk about the big news this season: The Character Assassination of Betty Draper Francis, Bitchmonster At Large.
Yes, Betty is harder and meaner and more board-certified Yikes in this season than she has ever been. Yes, Betty is verbally and physically abusing her children. Yes, everything about her, from the tone of her voice to her wardrobe choices, has become somehow less attractive; in the show’s first season, she was this delicate little flower in floral prints, all softness and pastels and sympathetic brooding, and in this season, she’s a shellacked, sniping asshole, looking almost physically as if she’s in the process of developing some brittle exoskeleton to cover up anything vulnerable or human she might still be carrying around inside.
There have been plenty of stories about this, and blog posts, and more; I’ve ended up having at least one intense debate about it in my personal life. It’s something people just need to talk about, for whatever reason. Because the consensus is that the show is “ruining” the character, or forbidding us to like her, or generally trying to turn her into a monster or a caricature or a villain, and that this is a mistake or a misogynist ploy or a flaw in the show’s normally amazing understanding of and respect for its characters. And I just don’t think any of this is true. Betty Draper made me cry more this season than she ever has. She’s truer than she ever has been. Her character reads, to me anyway, as a way more powerful indictment of sexism and of her world than ever before.
Because, let’s start here: Betty, in her own estimation, has absolutely no power. Oh, sure, she’s got the rich lady power. And the white lady power. She gets to be an unforgivably racist fuck to Carla. But this is the norm in her social circle; the list of people we have seen being unforgivable racist fucks on this show includes Bert, Roger, Pete, Joan, Peggy, Roger again but with Hiroshima jokes instead of blackface, and Lane’s father, who hit him in the head with a stick. Nothing about Betty’s grossness is excusable, but she has the power of privilege, and this power (along with her abuses of it) is invisible to her because of how privilege works. She can only see the ways she’s not privileged. You know, sort of like Peggy! Who you love!
But in her mind, in terms of her subjective experience of her life, she’s never had power. It’s been implied, many and many a time, that Betty’s mother was also abusive — that Betty’s mother, basically, was Betty. Betty, unlike Sally, didn’t rebel; she didn’t have it in her, or didn’t have the support necessary to pull it off, or she just never knew that it was an option. Like a lot of abuse survivors, she keeps referring back to clearly terrible and scarring things that her mother said or did as if they were not only normal, but positive. She’s angry when Sally cuts her own hair because her mother used to threaten to cut her hair when she was bad; to everyone who hears this, it’s a story about having control over your own body, and the constant threat that someone else is going to take that control away from you in a way that you fear and hate. Betty thinks it’s a story about hair. This is the first truth of Betty Draper Francis: For her, there are no healthy relationships. There are abusers, and there are the abused.
And then, there was her marriage. Which was really no better or worse than a lot of marriages; she didn’t trust her husband, or know him, and he didn’t trust or know her, but it looked fine and all of the outside checkpoints — money, kids, social status — were being met. The neighbors were so jealous of the handsome man who came back smelling like other women and acted like he might hit her when his boss flirted with her. You want to bounce me off the walls? But he didn’t. And how many stories is that, really? More crucially: What are the chances that any of the women she knew would share their own stories honestly enough for her to verify how normal or not-normal it was? And, even more crucially: Had Betty ever existed outside a context of abuse for long enough to know that she could or should expect more? This is the second truth of Betty: She’s never had goodness, or healthiness, but she knows what it’s supposed to look like. As far as she’s concerned, what it looks like is what it is. She can’t tell the difference between an apple and a ball of wax made to look like an apple; she’ll eat either, probably, but she’s more used to how the second one tastes.
Every single season of Mad Men, prior to this one — every one — climaxed with Betty figuring out that Don wasn’t who he seemed to be. She knew that he was spying on her therapy sessions and that he was cheating on her; it wasn’t enough to make her leave him. She knew that he was cheating on her, and that other people knew he was cheating on her; that was very nearly enough. She figured out that literally everything about him was a lie or the omission of a critical truth; that was what broke it. And even then, it only broke because she actually had an escape route. She had another stranger that looked good from the outside, another big wax apple. But imagine that your life has been Betty’s life; abused, lied to, “disrespected,” disappointed, betrayed. And now there is someone you are actually allowed to be angry at. Now, finally, you have someone that it’s okay to blame. That’s the third truth: Betty has always been this angry. She’s always wanted to just stand there and scream that she hates somebody, that she wants him (her, them) dead. But now, she has an excuse. It’s him, Don, that bastard, that cheating drunk lying fraud son of a fucking bitch, the one place in the world that she is allowed to aim her anger. It’s all his fault.
And she just can’t stop doing it, the screaming and the blaming, even though it’s been going on way too loudly for way too long and no-one has any sympathy for it any more. Betty can’t let it go; now that she knows how to be angry, and how to let people know that she’s angry, she just can’t stop. I mean, consider: It took her several years, three kids, and countless life-altering, scandalous revelations for her to be able to talk to Don the way she now talks to Henry Francis pretty much every day. In previous seasons, when Betty was upset in the middle of a business dinner, her hands just went numb, or she threw up in the car on the way home. This season, she stomps off to the bathroom and has an out-and-out fit. She’s hit the mother load. We all said we wanted Betty to get in touch with her anger, but we expected that anger to look admirable and positive and feminist. We didn’t consider that it might just be anger. That she might just not bother to think about how she was serving the world or women or the audience when she finally got to the point of rage.
And it’s not Don’s fault. Maybe it was, but that’s over now; what happens to Betty is pretty much exclusively Betty’s fault from here on out. She grew up thinking that there were two roles to play, abuser and abused. Now that she wants power, now that she’s sick of being abused, she’s chosen to become an abuser. She honestly does see that as her only other option. She’s angry at something that happened to her so long ago she can’t even exactly name it, but she’s playing that thing out with her children, and especially with her daughter, every single damn day. She’s become her own worst problem; every single time, every single time, she screams at Sally or hits her or threatens to cut her fingers off, she makes it that much less likely that she will ever be able to face how fucked up she is and get over it. It’s not easy to come to terms with what was done to you. But it’s much, much harder to come to terms with what you do.
That’s why Betty makes me cry so much this season, why her scenes make me sick to my stomach and why I feel for her more than ever: We talk a lot, in feminist communities, about abuse. And we talk a lot about how oppression can warp your understanding of self, about how some people raised in an oppressive system will internalize that system. We talk about how people who are victims of abuse often perpetrate it. I just don’t think we were prepared to see that play itself out on Mad Men. We wanted Betty to read The Feminine Mystique and get her mind blown and rise above; or, we wanted her to stay a victim, so we could relate to her better, or at least keep feeling sorry for her. But sometimes, people just get damaged until they start damaging. Sometimes, people are lost. We hate Betty now because she’s not going to stay a victim, but the truth is, she’s also not going to be saved.
It was the scenes with the child psychiatrist that did it for me. Some will argue that January Jones is a terrible actress, and to them I submit: The scenes in the child psychiatrist’s office. She became an entirely different person for those few minutes of film; you could see her getting softer, and sweeter, and more human, every second. All because someone — a woman, older than her, an authority figure — talked to her gently, and quietly, and responded to her worst, yikesiest statements only with, “that must be a terrible feeling.” You know: It really must be. All of Betty’s feelings must be so, so terrible. But it was clear, even then, that this woman was scared of her, and scared for her daughter. You could see the potential for Betty to heal, in those few scenes. But that wasn’t the message of the scenes themselves. The message was that her chance was gone; she wasn’t a child any more, and she had to be judged by adult standards. She still needs love, so badly, but she just doesn’t deserve it any more, and giving it to her is just too risky. Help came too late. And how many stories is that, really?