Part 4: Mad Housewife: The Edible Identity of Betty Draper

This is the final installment of my look at Betty Draper’s disordered eating and psychology. It ends abruptly, due to having been over the page limit and out of time. I intend to continue looking at Mad Men through this lens, as season 6 showed evidence of Sally’s budding eating disorder, and Betty’s return to the denial of food, this time with less of a need to control and more of a need to feel her power.


Betty, hiding. 6:1-2, “The Doorway”

“I don’t know why I’m here. I mean, I do, I’m nervous, I guess. Anxious. I don’t sleep that well. And my hands… – Betty Draper (Ladies Room, 1:2)

Early in the series, when Betty begins experiencing numbness and an inability to use her hands, she seeks medical attention, but there is nothing physically wrong with her and the physician recommends a psychiatrist. This is a magnificent shock to both Betty and Don. After some hedging and fear, Don eventually relents to let her see seek help, but not before reminding her that she has everything, and nothing could possibly be wrong with her? (He later tells her that he realized that she doesn’t have everything and gives her a gold watch, so that she can apparently measure all of the time that she has that’s filled with nothing.) (Ladies Room 1:2).

Her psychiatrist is a stereotype, straight from the church of Freud and then some. He speaks to Betty only once, and is otherwise silent, sitting behind her head, jotting everything in a notebook while she lays vulnerably on a chaise lounge. She soon finds out he is reporting to Don all about their meetings; yet another trust broken. Typical to the school of Freud as well, her doctor, Dr. Wayne, minimizes her troubles and reports to Don: “Mostly she seems consumed with petty jealousies and overwhelmed with daily responsibilities. Basically we are dealing with the emotions of a child here. We’re finding that this kind of anxiety isn’t uncommon in housewives” (Red in the Face, 1:7). Susan Bordo notes: “Yet Freud never makes the connection between the monotonous domestic lives these women were expected to lead after they completed their schooling, and the emergence of compulsive daydreaming , hallucinations, dissociations, and hysterical conversions.” (Bordo 240)

The symptoms that Betty describes, nervousness, anxiety, insomnia and especially sudden numbness of the hands might be easily diagnosed as Conversion Disorder, which at that time would have been a new diagnosis. If Betty had experienced these symptoms even 40 years earlier there is a good chance she would have been diagnosed with “Hysteria”. Hysteria was a catch-all diagnosis that was employed for thousands of years. In the Victorian era one physician sat down to list all of the symptoms which might be present in Hysteria. He stopped at 75 pages and called it “incomplete”.

“During the repressed Victorian era, hysteria reached its apex. It was joined by chlorosis or “green sickness” (which would probably be called anemia or Anorexia today) and neurasthensia—a new disease believed to brought about by the stress of modern life—to make a triad of women’s ailments known as hysteroneurasthenic disorders. The French physician Pierre Briquet claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria.” (Dusenbery)

It is striking then, when shortly after Betty and Henry Francis meet, (the man she marries after divorcing Don) they are walking by an antique store and Henry points at the fainting couch in the window. Henry: “THAT’S what you need. A fainting couch!” Betty, “What’s that?” Henry, “Victorian ladies would get overwhelmed, with corsets and things, they’d need a place to lay down.” Betty, “How do you know that? Henry, “I used to move furniture.”  (Seven Twenty Three, 3:7)

Betty has found a man that sees her as fragile, and needing to be shielded. Since Betty is caught between the Victorian-minded teachings of her mother, and her confident, outspoken daughter Sally, she isn’t sure where she belongs. She is emotionally adept enough to not settle into the marriage with Don, who continually breaks her trust and manipulates her love, but she stumbles immediately when she creates a chance at independence for herself. She doubts herself and her abilities, buying into the lie that she cannot take care of herself. Her need to be loved, and parented, trumps her desire for independence and chance at learning how to parent herself.

Whether or not Betty will learn to parent herself and love herself remains to be seen. As season 5 is ending, we see her living in Henry’s monstrous Victorian mansion, which seems to have a life of its own. It’s almost as if she is bulking up so that she doesn’t disappear. Combined with Don’s inability to stay current, baulking at modern music and trends, he and Betty are out of time, both belonging to another period of history, one that’s passing.

Viewers seem to be holding fast to their perceptions that Betty is a villain and Don is a-okay because he’s handsome enough and the standards for men are different. But both characters are ill. And both characters represent the illness of society, which perpetuates the double standards that prevent real and lasting positive change to take place for both men, and women.

10. Dusenbery, Maya. “Timeline: Female Hysteria and the Sex Toys Used to Treat It.” Mother Jones. N.p., 1 June 2012. Web. 11 June 2012.

11. Stern, Marlow. “‘Hysteria’ and the Long, Strange History of the Vibrator.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 June 2012.

12. Staff. “The Arc of Joan: The Secrets Behind ‘Mad Men’s’ Most Divisive, Decisive and Delicious Character.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 6 June 2012. Web. 11 June 2012.