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A defense of Betty Draper

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Unsurprisingly, I gobbled up all the intense amounts of hype over the third season of “Mad Men”, and I was especially pleased to see feminists all over discussing the show. But I saw one thing that drew me up short at both Feministing and Bitch’s coverage—the way they were unnerved by Betty’s use of the term “lesbian”, or more properly, “Lesbian”, since it was pretty much always capitalized in the early 60s.

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I actually wondered about Betty’s comment, was it anachronistic? I got the impression from previous seasons that homosexuality is perceived as a perversion, not really as lifestyle/sexuality. (Remember when the Russian guy at Sterling Cooper guy who comes out is called a pervert by folks around the office?) And therefore it would be weird for Betty to reference it so casually. But maybe I’m wrong. I need some schooling from a gay-rights historian! –Ann….

But we got only Peggy nagging on about her secretary for a brief scene before it was back to the men, and a bit of anachronism from Betty (I highly doubt a woman of her background and education would have had much of any kind of idea about lesbians in 1963, girls’ college or no).

I was surprised that they were surprised. The comment was absolutely not an anachronism. As Peggy’s reaction to Kurt shows, by the early 60s, even sheltered Catholic girls (at least in New York) understood that homosexuality was an orientation. My sense from reading novels and other historical materials of the time was that straight people generally grasped the idea of homosexuality, but since it was more acceptable then to discriminate against large swaths of people, they didn’t stop to consider the social and legal abuse of gay people to be anything other than what you’d expect. If anything, the idea of “the closet” was less well-defined in the public mind than homosexuality itself. The common term for female homosexuals was “Lesbian”, which I remember used to startle me in books from the mid-century, until I got used to the capitalization.

In fact, Mary McCarthy’s best-selling book The Group, a1962 satire of women that are exactly like Betty Draper (except Betty went to Bryn Mawr, and the characters in the book went to Vassar) has this whole funny situation at the end where (SPOILER) the group reunites with the woman who was their unofficial leader in college, and they have to deal with the fact that she is—always a step ahead, that one—living as a lesbian, and she goes about with her female lover. Betty, who is 20 years younger than the generation McCarthy expertly sends up, would have only been more aware of the existence of lesbians, though of course, she’d be prejudiced against them. I have very little doubt that anyone who went to a girls’ college in the 50s, as Betty is supposed to have done, would have gone without a lot of exposure to cracks about lesbianism in said schools.

I think that the whole thing was surprising because there’s a persistent sense that the character of Betty Draper is kind of a bimbo. I’m not sure where this idea comes from. I think the actress does a great job of portraying Betty, but maybe her blank blondness allows certain stereotypes to seep in. But I’d say that Betty is a much more complicated character—sophisticated and reasonably intelligent, but kind of going a bit soft because she’s bored and crippled with a naivete about people around her that doesn’t necessarily translate into naivete about the world at large. Her crack about lesbians fits right into the long-standing situation in the Draper marriage, where Betty tries to remind Don that she’s more than a wifebot, and he basically ignores her. It also fits into a great deal of characterization of Betty as someone who is crippled with the prejudices of her WASP-y upbringing, which gets touched on the most when you see how she just shoves her kids around, and she and Don battle on the subject of whipping.

But I do believe we’re supposed to assume that Betty is sophisticated. The character is a refutation of the “Leave It To Beaver” portrayal of housewives, and closer to Betty Friedan’s portrayal of women of her age and class as highly educated and bored. (I don’t think the similar names are a coincidence.) In fact, I would argue that the dark joke of the show is that Don keeps cheating on Betty with intelligent, sophisticated women, and he doesn’t realize that Betty would be the kind of woman he finds exciting if he didn’t oppress her and make her feel small all the time. Let’s look at the evidence:

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*Betty got the same level of education as the young men like Pete Campbell did. A great irony of the show is that while Don treats her like she’s dumb, she’s actually better educated than he is, though she doesn’t know it, because he’s faking a college education.
*Not only did Betty graduate from Bryn Mawr, she kept a Manhattan apartment with a roommate while she worked as a model. The odds that being a model in Manhattan was the sort of existence that you could maintain while being sheltered are low indeed.
*Subsequently, Betty moves around the city with ease, whereas I get the impression that some of her friends, especially Francine, would be scared to do things that Betty has no problem with, such as going into a Manhattan bar by herself and ordering a drink. It’s 2009, and still I’d guess that there’s huge numbers of women that would be unnerved by that.
*Betty was surprised when Don called her old roommate a “party girl”, but not because she didn’t know what that meant. She was surprised for the same reason any of us would be surprised if we encountered an old friend out about town prostituting herself, at least if we wouldn’t have thought that she’s the kind of woman who would do that. But he didn’t have to spell out “party girl” for her; I imagine that Betty encountered plenty before she she was shuffled off to the suburbs.
*Betty’s portrayed as relatively sexually sophisticated. She’s not ashamed of having desires and pressing for them. She’s dissatisfied not because she doesn’t know what she wants, but because her cheating skunk of a husband never comes home to service his bored wife.
*The only time you see Don pick up a literary work is when pressed to. But Betty’s a reader. At one point, you see her reading Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which had just come out (like The Group) in 1962. It’s possible that it’s a Book of the Month Club selection, but my guess is we’re supposed to be reminded that Betty’s the kind of person who tries to keep up with the literary world. That she reads novels like that means that she wouldn’t be the sort of person who would be unaware of the existence of lesbians.
*Betty makes a comment to her brother about how their father fined them for small talk. We in the audience are supposed to gasp at yet more evidence of the harsh way that rich WASPs treat their children, but I smiled in sympathy for her father’s intentions. The comment conjures up an image of Betty’s youth, which was no doubt geared towards educating her about the arts, so she would be an able and charming conversationalist. After smiling in sympathy for her father, I found the comment crushingly sad, because you can tell how much work went into making Betty educated, sophisticated, and interesting—all so she could catch a rich husband and then waste away in a kitchen with no one to talk to.
*The incident with Betty and the bikini is all about how Betty is still interested in cutting-edge fashion.
*The fight that Betty and Don have that really starts to break things up is over her “around the world” dinner, where she served Heineken beer. With all the Julia Child retrospectives, I think it’s more clear that this sort of thing would have actually felt pretty sophisticated in 1962, and it’s certainly evidence that Betty is far from the Jello mold pushing housewife. It also must have been a ton of work, and probably took her at least a week to plan and execute. Don’s condescending attitudes towards her work and her creativity reveal him to be provincial, not that she’s dim. That he thinks he has a “read” on her is sad. He’s like the people who snarl at fans of modern art or indie rock, assuming that because they can predict your taste means that they’ve got your figured out, and that there’s no real substance to your tastes. In reality, they’re just covering up for their own limitations, and Don is an expert at covering up his own limitations. I think that would have been a fun dinner, at least if Betty can cook, and I assume we’re meant to believe she can.

The clincher for me is this: We find out in flashbacks towards the end of the second season that contrary to what you might expect, Don didn’t just gather up Betty as a trophy wife. He was head over heels in love with her initially. And we know a lot about Don’s taste in women—he likes smart, savvy, charming, sophisticated women, the sort of women who find small talk boring. So it’s safe to assume that Betty was all these things, to make him so gaga for her. None of this is to detract from Betty’s immense privilege. All of her education and tastes go straight back to the fact that she comes from wealth. But you can buy a lot of smart if you’ve got the money, and I think the audience is supposed to assume that Betty’s family bought her a lot of smart.

Betty Draper, in other words, is supposed to be a classic victim of the feminine mystique. Friedan, after all, wasn’t inspired by the legions of women whose potential was snuffed out in the cradle by sexism. She wrote her book after being inspired by women who came from immense privilege, and who were educated and given a taste of the world before being shut off in the suburbs.

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That’s the story I’ve pieced from the long silences and pointed comments of the Draper marriage on “Mad Men”. There was a point in the past where Don and Betty were actually a fun couple around town, and Betty had plenty of interesting conversations with interesting people. And then she got pregnant, they got married, and they moved to the suburbs, and everything about her that was interesting and erotic to Don started to wither as she molded herself into the wifey. And now they’re both casting around listlessly for the life they tasted briefly and lost. Hey, it still happens—there’s still a million jokes about how marriage, babies and the ‘burbs turns interesting people into dullards. It’s just beefed up on the steroids of the 60s-era patriarchy.

Which is why I was a little confused when I read some people suggest that the stewardess Don sleeps with is a younger version of Betty. She’s really not. She’s a dumb bunny, and some of her comments (like how she was almost a model) are meant to bring home how much she’s not a threat to the Draper marriage, because Don’s limiting himself to sleeping with women who don’t hold a candle to Betty.

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