I've rarely seen a fictional character on a TV show engender such fierce debate and disagreement. Following the third season finale of "Mad Men" last week, Betty Draper (played by actress January Jones) has been vilified, condemned, and denounced by journalists, bloggers, and countless viewers. Others, including me, have defended her vigorously, asking the haters to remember the severe social constraints Betty faced in the early 1960s, the choices she had available to her back then, and, of course, her husband's never-ending stream of infidelity and lies. My feelings about Betty were so strong during this season that I began to wonder if they were really about the TV character at all. The truth is that I wince when I hear people judging Betty Draper because I feel like they are talking about my mom.
One of the reasons I love "Mad Men" so much is that it feels like I'm watching home movies from my childhood. I'm the age of Bobby Draper and I'm astounded at the accuracy of every outfit, wallpaper pattern, kitchen clock, and ashtray that is seen on the show. There are some big differences between the Millers and the Drapers. For one, we were Jewish, they most decidedly were not. My father wasn't having endless affairs and he didn't work in advertising. But the parallels are also there. Like Don Draper, my father had a past that he wanted to forget. He came from abject poverty, had no idea who his father was, and had a mother who loved him but was mentally ill. She was institutionalized when my father was still a boy. Although he didn't assume another man's identity or keep his past life a secret from my mom (he couldn't--my grandparents had him investigated when my mother announced their engagement), my father's drive to re-invent himself mirrored Don Draper's. Like Don, he married a privileged girl from the "right" side of the tracks.
It's Betty Draper's similarities to my mother that I find even more startling. My mother was born the same year as the fictional character and had a similar upbringing. In the first season of "Mad Men," Betty states, "My mother wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There's nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go 'til you're in a box?" Everyone was shocked in the episode this season when we saw Betty speaking fluent Italian while in Rome with Don. Like Betty, my mother was extremely intelligent during an era that didn't exactly place a high value on women's intelligence. It was considered far more important to be beautiful, as both Betty and my mom were. My mother never completed her education or thought she was very smart. She met my dad spring break during her freshman year in college and impulsively quit school to get married just a few months later. She was still 19 when she had my brother Bruce. My sister Sue followed three years later and I came two years after that. Three kids by the time she was 24.
Betty Draper has been most criticized this season for the way she treats her children. Indeed, her somber detachment and frequent commands to "go outside and play" or "go watch TV" are chilling to watch, especially with our modern sensibilities of what it means to be a good parent, but so accurate to the times and to this character. My mother was not anywhere near as dour as Betty, but there's something quite familiar about the distinction Betty makes between children's roles and adult roles and her desperate desire to maintain her adult life as separate from the needs of her offspring. While I'm sure there were very hands-on parents in the 1960s who would spend hours on the floor playing with their kids, I think that was far less the norm back then than it is today. I remember with great nostalgia how we used to go out after school and every weekend, find people to play with in the neighborhood, and only return home for dinner. Our parents usually had no idea where we were or who we were with and they had no way to reach us. That would be unheard of today.
Parents of young children in the 1960s tended to be younger than such parents today but they acted "older," or let's say they seemed more focused on their own adult lives. The constant drinking and smoking around children was one aspect of this that is perfectly depicted in every "Mad Men" episode. Sending kids out of the room when daddy came home is another. By the way, it's hard to fault Betty for her heavy drinking and smoking throughout her pregnancy earlier this season since that was the case for most pregnant women during that time period, including my mother and Jackie Kennedy. And when her baby is born mid-season (the baby she at first wanted to abort before she was shamed by her horrified doctor), Betty takes care of it dutifully if unenthusiastically.
I guess the main premise of my "defense" of Betty Draper's behavior toward her children is less a defense and more a sociological observation. I think many women of that generation, my mother included, did not view having children as something that required a lot of thought or decision-making as it does (and should) for most women today. It was something that was simply expected of them--they just did it. Combine that with their youth, the modeling they received from their own parents when they were young, and the growing dissatisfaction with a society that was highly sexist and unfair to women in so many ways, and you can see why many young mothers in the 1960s were increasingly unhappy even though they were supposedly living the American Dream. Where did it all go wrong? Betty Friedan's ground-breaking "The Feminine Mystique" was published in 1963, the year this season's "Mad Men" took place, and I only hope that Betty Draper finds this book at the five and dime the next time she goes out to buy some cigarettes. As Friedan hypothesized in her book, women at that time were victims of a false belief system that required them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. Such a system inevitably caused women to completely lose their identity in that of their family.
At the end of this season (spoiler alert to those of you who haven't watched the finale!), we see Betty flying off to Reno with the new man in her life, ostensibly to get a divorce from Don (we'll see if that pans out) and marry this up-and-coming politician. She has her new baby with her but her older children, Sally and Bobby, are left to celebrate Christmas 1963 with their housekeeper. My mother also left with a new man. For Betty and my mother, only another man could provide the escape hatch from their expected roles as perfect wife and mother. But for my mother, and I'm guessing Betty, this other man will ultimately prove not to be what they needed to find themselves. Au contraire.
My own mother was a fantastic mom who loved her children more than anything despite having gone through some very difficult periods in her life. Unlike many viewers of "Mad Men," I suspect Betty Draper also loves her children far more than is evident by her behavior towards them on the show. I think that when the smoke clears following the upheavals of the 1960s and Betty's dependence on the men in her life, she will have a very close relationship with her children. And before you attack my theories, remember that I'm well aware of all that I'm projecting from my own life into my perceptions of Betty Draper.
Now shut up and go watch TV!
Follow Danny Miller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeweatyet