It’s striking that subversive illnesses such as eating disorders and “nervous conditions” continued to manifest in a culture that was so invested in fertility, nourishment, youth, and living “the good life.” When I began writing this paper, it was with the intention of writing about the eating identities of the three main female characters in Mad Men. As I began rewatching the series however, it became obvious that not only is Betty Draper’s eating identity at a point of extreme crisis, more so than Joan or Peggy’s, but that Betty is outright ill. Betty can easily be called an anorectic. In behavior, upbringing, relationships and self-conduct, Betty is a classic case.
Much like the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s resonant, classic novella, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Betty Draper is prevented from herself by the community she lives in and grew up among. This is evident when we see Betty, in an attempt to invigorate herself and her life, seize the opportunity to return to modeling after asking Don’s permission to do so (The Shoot 1:9). It turns out the opportunity was only given to her as an attempt to attract Don to a rival ad agency. Though she hides her disappointment, Betty is crushed. To console her Don states, “You (already) have a job, taking care of these kids.” Betty smiles weakly.
Before she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman was advised by her physician to, “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.” The pervading idea that mental or individual pursuits would destroy a woman, only served to reinforce the mentality men perpetuated that women were little more than children and needed to be protected from their own instincts. This is how Betty was raised to experience life and how she continues to experience it with Don. Though she is allowed to have a past time, riding horses and spending time at the stables, this fact is used by Don against her when she attempts to get her needs met emotionally. She has everything, right? What else could she want? (3 Sundays, 2:4).
The advice Gilman was given conjures up the image of Virginia Woolf, who by Gilman’s doctor’s estimation, and being prone to depression, was literally taking her life in her own hands by writing. Woolf is reported to have struggled with Anorexia Nervosa for much of her life. Fans and scholars still debate what precisely contributed to her suicide by drowning in 1941, but what Virginia Woolf displayed, Gilman outlined, and Betty depicts is that a woman must be allowed to live her own life. And we also have to wonder if Virginia Woolf had not written, might she have taken her own life much sooner?
It is widely reported that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was strongly influenced by Betty Friedan’s 1963 seminal book, “The Feminine Mystique” which took Woolf and Gilman’s assertion much further. Most of that book serves as nearly a direct argument for why “Betty Draper,” as a product and determined construct for women to then aspire to, is a failure of society. The book sparked second-wave feminism, broadening feminist rhetoric from focusing on legal obstacles, inclusion, and legal specificity around gender, to including attention on reproductive rights, family needs, and social inequalities (among other areas of focus). Thus, a broader discussion began, and the character of Betty Draper typifies why it needed to happen.
Betty must undergo a daily suppression of personality, one that she is trained to perform from her earliest days. We can only imagine that her mother, likely born just as the last corner from Victorianism was being turned, was an amped up version of Betty. (Ruth’s abusiveness is hinted at and mentioned throughout the series despite Betty’s confused insistence that, “She was really beautiful…”.) This contributes to Betty’s constant sense of failure. Betty is really only a full generation away from corsets (girdles are still widely in use), “Hysteria” being diagnosed as a blanket term for any behavior men didn’t like, and fainting couches being employed with regularity. Stephanie Newman cites Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” when talking about Betty, citing, “Betty ‘is the dead heart of the family… the best thing that can happen is that she can take up again where she left off and go back to work at a job which was only a stopgap when she began it; she can expect no promotion, no significant remuneration, no widening of her horizons. Her work becomes a hypnotic. She cleans, she knits, she embroiders.’ ” (Newell 108).
As an educated, upper class, Main Line Philadelphia socialite, Betty was raised to accomplish two things: attract a husband by being a “lady,” and marry well. Even the raising of children by Betty’s time was less important due to the common practice among the upper middle class of hiring nannies and housekeepers. In the Draper household the children’s nanny is the loving, patient, and sad Carla.
Once Betty has married well to Don (at that time an upwardly mobile copywriter for a fur company), Betty’s duties, aside from staying attractive, maintaining Don’s household, and performing perfectly as a hostess and at social functions, are done. In season 1, episode 9: “Shoot,” Betty explains to her new therapist her mother’s instructions to her for life after marriage: “She 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?” She faces years ahead of her with nothing in them aside from socially reflecting well upon Don.
In the 1967 novel “The Edible Woman,” by Margaret Atwood, the anorexic main character, Marian, begins down the same path Betty is on. Her successful and upwardly mobile fiance, Peter, is everything she has been told she should aim for in life, but as the time for the wedding draws closer, Marian’s body begins to betray her. She can no longer eat most foods and she suddenly starts displaying odd behavior such as spontaneously fleeing from a dinner with friends and being unaware that she has been crying. This is the same sort of behavior Betty displays when she is preparing for a very important dinner party at home for Don’s business relations and boss. Preparing the dining room, Betty finds one of the chairs is off balance. After trying to fix it, she picks it up and smashes it apart without a word, in front of the children. She does it with no more remarkable expression than one would have if they were washing their hands while thinking about something else. Both Marian and Betty’s behavior shows that the emotional and mental space created for women to live in was grotesquely too small, and there was no reachable degree to which a woman could shut herself down emotionally enough to maintain health, let alone thrive.
Early in the series, during the process of grieving for her mother who recently passed away, Betty attempts to make Don her whole life. That is, she attempts to do what her mother and society have instructed her to do and invest all she is in him and their home. We see Betty with a voracious sexual appetite to the extent that Don even turns her down, preferring to read in bed (Don Draper turning down sex!?). She tells Don that all she waits for each day is for him to return home so that they can be together (have sex). She is in a fog with only one thing to look forward to and as regular viewers know, half of the time Don does not come home at all. While Betty is investing in her husband and her home, Don is destroying those bonds via adultery and lying. He can’t give her what the culture has told her will ultimately fulfill her, and as she has no ability or tools to fulfill herself, we see an incredibly destructive pattern unfold.
3. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997. Print.
4. “The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wallpaper”” U.S.National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 10 June 2012. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/literatureofprescription/b1Literature.html>.
5. Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. New York: Anchor, 1998. Print.
6. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Ringwood, Vic.; Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965. Print.