So, Mad Men has begun. And, this weekend, we finally got our first look at Betty Draper. For those not spoiled by the Internet and its countless “Fat Betty” jokes: She’s gained weight. And I am beginning to fear that I may have to redact my previously stated love of Betty Draper Francis, Bitchmonster at Large. I’m starting to hate her, nowadays, in the precise same way that I hated the characterization of Vera on Downton Abbey.
Now, let us be clear, here: I’m still in favor of making Betty a miserable, stunted, mean person. I’m even in favor of making her a terrible mother. I still think that’s more realistic, and interesting, than “redeeming” her or keeping her around as a passive, pitiable victim. Betty’s culture infantilizes women — particularly pretty, middle-class white women — and rewards them for infantilizing themselves. In her society, she is the ideal, and her defects as a person aren’t solely her fault; they’re built into the ideal itself. I mean, this is not my idea. This is Mary Wollstonecraft’s idea:
It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish, and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness of spaniel-like affection, have not much delicacy… Men are not aware of the misery they cause, and the vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves pleasing[.]
So, there you go.
And, aside from this, I selfishly want Betty to be awful because I just really enjoy unsympathetic female characters. I think they challenge the idea that women in the public eye should never be ugly; that a woman’s first duty, at all times, is to be merely “pleasing.” I enjoy a story that makes you hang out with flawed women, and forces you to value them for something other than conventional lovability. It’s why I’m obsessed with Katniss Everdeen, why I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on repeat in college, why I praised Bridesmaids. It’s why I like Season 6 of Buffy, despite every single argument against it. It’s why I like Britta Perry more than Leslie Knope: They’re both great. But if I had to choose, I’d choose Britta, simply because she’s the one that would legitimately drive you up the wall, the one whose flaws aren’t just cutely awkward, but socially catastrophic. The one who isn’t just quirky, but actually sort of ugly. On some level, I just love Betty Draper Francis, Bitchmonster at Large because of sheer, silly personal taste.
But there’s a difference between an unsympathetic female character, and a woman-shaped narrative punching bag. And, at this point, as more than one person has pointed out, Betty is beginning to cross that line.
The weight gain itself isn’t the issue. Making Betty “lose her looks,” depriving her of the one tool she’s reliably used to navigate the culture and attain some illusory security within it, could pay off narratively. (This is not to say that gaining weight makes you objectively “less desirable,” but in 1966, I doubt that many people would be willing to have that conversation. They aren’t especially willing to have it in 2012.) It’s the spite with which her weight was presented: Cutting from a shot of Betty struggling to zip her dress to a shot of Don easily running a zipper along his new wife’s lithe French-Canadian frame. Or revealing, at the end of the episode, that Betty isn’t REALLY sick — she just can’t help stealing her daughter’s ice cream sundaes! I mean, come on. There’s a way to present a character’s weight gain in a way that makes me think you are not mocking the very concept of a woman gaining weight. Having her STEAL A LITTLE GIRL’S ICE CREAM, SO THAT SHE CAN HAVE MORE ICE CREAM, BECAUSE SHE IS FAT NOW, BECAUSE SHE EATS ALL OF THE ICE CREAM, is not that way.
It’s not that Betty is unsympathetic. It’s that, at least in this week’s episode, the show isn’t trying to make the ugliness of her personality interesting as anything other than a punchline. “Unsympathetic” does not have to mean — shouldn’t mean — “unworthy of your time.” Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. The great thing about ugly characters is that they push you to broaden the limits of your identification.
For evidence, I present: Don Draper. He’s a fraud and a philanderer. Last season, he was also a drunk. He habitually gaslighted his first wife, and he’s already starting to treat his second wife badly — going sullen and cold and insulting because she threw him a party, of all things. As a father, he’s distant, unreliable, and mostly absent. He is, as one wise and freshly-banged secretary pointed out, “not a good person.” But the show can hold a space for this complexity — make him compellingly wounded, and brilliant, and charismatic, and human, and even capable of deep and genuine love — rather than flattening him into some caricature of a shitheel. This show has a protagonist who spent its first three seasons psychologically destroying his wife, and we still love him. That used to be the sort of uncomfortable proposition the show excelled at making.
Except that now, we’re seemingly supposed to hate his ex-wife so thoroughly that we don’t even need to see her as human. Which makes Don far less interesting. If you flatten Betty into a pure villain, and make her an object of unmitigated contempt, then Don becomes just some guy who screwed up while dealing with an impossibly awful woman. Really, the show is saying, if you think about it, wasn’t she asking for it? What would you do, in his place?
Which brings me to Vera. If there’s one thing I hated about Downton Abbey, it was Vera. It wasn’t because I disliked Vera’s personality. It was because Vera didn’t actually have a personality; for the most part, she was just some vague woman-shaped ball of malice, with no inner life or personal history that did not revolve around destroying her ex-husband.
This wasn’t just boring. It made her ex-husband, Bates, boring. Bates could have been a great character. He was an an ex-alcoholic who’d done jail time and had a weird habit of disappearing for weeks at a time over minor bullshit related to His Honor. (Bates, let us acknowledge right now, is basically a Klingon.) He was also a stand-up guy who had to deal with discrimination in the workplace. That could have been a fantastic take on redemption. But the show couldn’t follow through; it couldn’t make Bates a fuck-up and a hero. Instead, it insisted that Bates was a saint, and that all of his problems were related to his ex-wife being pure evil.
Every time Vera came on-screen, I wanted to punch a Downton Abbey writer. Like, yes, yes, this is how ex-wives of ex-drunks totally are, dudes! They’re harpies bent on revenge who will never let their men be happy, ever ever ever, and they hound their men and torment them and just want all their money, and also want to steal their exes’ genitals and keep them in a box somewhere, and those men are TRYING to get Saved By The Love Of A Good Woman but those bitches WON’T LET THEM, and sometimes they try to get their ex-husbands to hit them so that they can, like, pretend to have been abused and shit, and do you know why their ex-husbands had to go to jail in the first place? THOSE BITCHES, they did it, EVERYTHING IS ALL THEIR FAULT. And also if those women kill themselves it’s out of revenge. Because that’s plausible. Don’t be sad! They totally just did it to frame their exes for murder! That is a thing, that happens, that human beings could or would conceivably have any fucking reason to do!
Ugh. I mean: You may like the Vera story. It was campy and soapy and all of the fun things that I normally like about Downton Abbey. But it wasn’t just that Vera hated Bates. It was that she explicitly hated him for no goddamned reason whatsoever. Nothing about her behavior made any sense, if Bates had always been a nice guy. She might as well have killed herself to take revenge on her wallpaper. And despite my love of a well-executed female villain, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how great the show might have become if Vera had showed up, and had actually been totally nice. If Bates — lovable, stand-up dude Bates — had actually treated her badly, and was re-inventing his life, but had this one woman hanging around asking him to be accountable to who he once was. Some part of his past that couldn’t be erased. How would that have problematized the currently boring-as-hell relationship between Bates and Anna? (“My wife’s a bitch.” “I know!” “I’m going to destroy myself, For Honor.” “Please don’t!” — Every Conversation Between Bates And Anna, Ever.) How would that have made his bizarre Klingon Honor routine more understandable? What if Bates was obsessive about personal morality precisely because he was actually capable of being a terrible person? That’s an idea that Downton Abbey flirted with, once, and it was a good one. But then it decided to make Vera a bitchmonster from Planet Blackmail, and all of that went away. Bates was actually a stand-up dude all along. He just had a terrible wife, and is Klingon. Problem solved.
These stories don’t exist in a void. They actually mimic — and reinforce — the stories we tell ourselves about male accountability in the real world. Men have more of an assumed right to recover from and forget their mistakes; this is true for things like abuse and unintended pregnancy, obviously, but it’s also true for the basic, petty moral failings of day-to-day life. The result is these tales of men who just so happen to have married women who have subsequently sworn eternal vows of rat-poison-swallowing revenge, for no apparent reason whatsoever. And the result is also angry women who can’t express or deal with their anger appropriately, because they feel guilty about having it in the first place.
Yes, Betty is an asshole. And I like that about her character. But the truth we keep avoiding, about assholes — male and female — is that they usually don’t get to be that way because they’re happy and fulfilled and have always been treated well. Usually, assholes have their reasons for believing that they won’t benefit from acting nicely. Unhappiness and unfairness don’t make people more noble. Typically, they just make them angry. And angry people tend to be jerks.
Which is the other reason I love unsympathetic female characters. I don’t endorse being a shitty person, obviously. But there have been plenty of times, in my life, when I found myself to be unsympathetic — angry, or bitter, or self-pitying, or just worn raw. And I suspect this is the case for many women; we get caught between pain, and guilt for feeling that pain, until we become unable to take care of ourselves, or accept ourselves. One thing that I think women need, even more than they need strong role models, is realistic representations of female unhappiness. Pictures that include ugliness, and don’t shy away from it. That keeps us from isolating ourselves, shaming ourselves; it keeps us from becoming Betties, choking our anger so far down that we can’t even name it, and find it leaking out all over, or fermenting into pure poison. Sympathy isn’t empathy. But a good female villain can, ultimately, make you feel both. Both for her and, maybe, for your own worst self.
Or, you know, you could just put her in a fat suit and have her prance around stealing people’s ice cream. That works, too.