Part 1: Mad Housewife: The Edible Identity of Betty Draper

tumblr_m6pqx1Lybd1r17y54o1_1280
Betty’s go-to meal for 4 seasons.

Following is the first portion of a paper I wrote for a class called “The Aesthetics of Hunger.” I will post the other sections in coming days. This was a consideration of Betty Draper up through season 5. Seasons 5 & 6 give me reason to want to revisit these ideas, especially as Betty is back to her “fighting weight” (as Tom and Lorenzo put it on their blog), and Sally is more strongly exhibiting characteristics that are often found in people with eating disorders.

“As a feminist protest, the obsession with slenderness is hopelessly counterproductive.” – Susan Bordo

Betty Draper. What a villain, right? Everyone loves to hate Betty… the cold mothering, the simmering rage, always ruining the fun. She’s so troublesome and needy, but why? In early seasons she has a maid who cares for the children and cleans the home. She doesn’t have to work. She is beautiful, her husband is wealthy, and she lives in his beautiful house (which he reminds her of). So why can’t she just shut up and be nice already?

Compared to good-time-gal Joan on Mad Men, who knows exactly where, and what, her sex appeal will get her and how to keep the rampant misogyny to a manageable tone (well, sort of), and tomboy Peggy who can hit from the whiskey bottle shot for shot with the fellas, Betty’s such a drag. But it takes a commitment to selective memory to maintain this popular stance. Early on Joan is driven to achieve marriage to a successful man, “viewed as a way out, the key to an enviable existence” (Newman, 103). Joan’s goal is to achieve what Betty has by finding, and entering a gilded cage as it were, and she is willing to pursue it so far as to marry a man that rapes her.

Similarly, Peggy is often praised for being driven, fearless, and masculine in her pursuit for success. But while Betty is disparaged for being a distant and cold mother, Peggy has given her only child up to her sister and plays virtually no role in his life. Not only is there a double standard for the women depicted on Mad Men, there is a double standard by viewers towards Betty.

A Google search result for “Hate Betty Draper” returns an avalanche of bizarrely fierce vitriol aimed at the character, most of it authored by women. A similar search for “Hate Don Draper,” is far less dramatic. Dislike of his lying and misogyny only sometimes pops up; mostly the results are about how he would likely disdain modern advertising or how a viewer wants the “old Don” back, versus the new, more balanced one being seen in season 5.

Why do women particularly hate Betty? And why, when Betty gained weight in season 5, have viewers relished in it, devoting hundreds if not thousands of tumblr pages, memes, and forum posts to her weight gain, especially since Betty has gone for 4 seasons being a functioning Anorexic?

The search term “Betty Draper anorexic,” results in very little, just a few forum posts calling her mildly anorexic and wondering if the show is hinting at her having an eating disorder. But even passing attention to the construct of her character yields a fairly shocking portrayal of a woman with severely disordered eating who is consuming herself from the inside, in an attempt to digest her feelings of rage, unfulfillment, isolation, and loneliness. One online commenter states, “According to Tumblr, now that Betty (Draper) Francis has gained weight she is no longer a valid or interesting character. It turns out fans were only willing to tolerate her when she was mildly anorexic. Nice.”

The public dislike for Betty as a character elucidates the ongoing impossible standard for women in our culture, one often perpetuated by women towards other women. It also outlines the discomfort women experience when looking at the history of gender dynamics. While women like to think they would be a marginally empowered Joan or androgynous, power-seeking Peggy, by numbers the vast majority of women were having Betty’s experience: living in some sort of version of the gilded cage as well, raised by their family to simply get married. While women today believe they are standing on the shoulders of the Joan and Peggy-types of previous generations, it can’t be ignored that both feet are equally, firmly planted on the hem of Betty’s shirtwaist dress. What viewers are hating when they hate Betty Draper is rarely extended to the rest of the characters when they make similar choices, and is a painful reminder of women’s issues, past and present.

1. Newman, Stephanie. Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit Tv Show. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2012. Print.

2. honeytallsocks. “Betty Draper | Tumblr.” Betty Draper | Tumblr. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2012. .