Betty Draper Francis isn’t exactly Mad Men’s most loved character. Beautiful, cold, shallow, detached, manipulative, unpredictable, a prick tease: these are all statements that could fairly be used to describe her, and both character and actress have received a sizable amount of flak from fans and commentators. She’s even been called “a full-on textbook narcissist, and not incidentally, the worst mother on television since Livia Soprano kicked off in 2001,” by Vulture.
So why is she the character that I identify with the most? Why do I so staunchly feel the need to defend a woman who seems completely incapable of being happy or growing as a person? Betty unlike, say Peggy, Joan or even Sally, is living through a period of immense social change for women yet seems incapable of letting go the outdated ice-princess, 50s housewife role. The other women on the show are embracing their new found freedoms and yet Betty is caught in the same old cycle.
In this week’s episode, The Better Half, she finds herself yet again being hit on at the exit to a party while her husband makes her wait for him to make a call. It’s almost a mirror image of an earlier episode when she waits for Don and Henry hits on her. Betty has completely changed her life by divorcing and remarrying. She’s faced her biggest fear, which was letting the perfect facade of her marriage slide. She even had a full on identity crisis when she put on weight and wasn’t the beautiful Betty anymore. So why is she still stuck in the same place? The Betty Francis getting ogled by the service station attendant is still the same old Betty who enjoys being a two-dimensional male fantasy.
The Better Half was an episode filled with pairs and doppelgangers; Don vs. Ted, Butter vs. Margarine, Roger’s Son vs. Roger’s Grandson, Megan’s two acting roles. Everyone wants to be butter but worries they may be margarine. In the pairing of Betty and Megan, Betty finally managed to switch roles. She was spending a sordid night with Don while poor Megan waits, lonely at home (and even gets called a prick tease herself). Betty finally gains the upper hand and yes, she seems genuinely happy for the first time in ages, but she still only manages to achieve change within the narrow spaces left for her by the men in her life. She still only achieves her goals through manipulation and playing on her looks rather than empowering herself.
In a show that is as clever and multi-layered as Man Men, why would creator Matthew Weiner choose for one character to not progress or change at all? Maybe we just expect too much of Betty. She was born and raised to be the perfect trophy wife female. It’s all she’s ever known so is it fair or realistic to suddenly expect anything else from her? Just because the world has moved on and attitudes have changed, does that mean that all women are suddenly free to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and become copy chief or a director of an advertising agency? For each Peggy and Megan out there in the 60s, there would have been hundreds of Betty’s (and there still are today).
Having said that, this week’s episode was the first time we saw Betty genuinely happy in a long time. She’s learning not to be so emotionally dependent on the men around her so maybe this is the first slow step towards empowerment for Betty. I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.