by Rhian Sasseen on March 28, 2012
“The worst mother on television.” “Such a whiner.” “Boring.” “Crazy.” “What a terrible mother.” “Ugh, Betty.”
Is it safe to say that Betty Draper is one of the most hated characters on television? The above comments, culled from various message boards and real-life conversations, indicate so. She is petulant, childish, and emotionally immature. She does not lavish attention or praise upon her children; often, it seems as though she doesn’t really care for them at all. Throughout the series, she has beautiful houses, beautiful clothes, beautiful things; she is lucky, she is frustrated. Sometimes her hands shake uncontrollably.
And fifty years ago, that could have been me.
In the third season we glimpse just who Betty was before she married Don: a model, yes, and from a wealthier, WASPier background than my own, but there was more to her: a fellow Seven Sisters alum. Betty attended Bryn Mawr, majored in anthropology, and was fluent in Italian. She was intelligent, she was sophisticated, she was her own being. How worldly she must have looked to Don, the former farm boy, how different and how strange: a promise, a key. A stepping stone.
Because that’s always what the woman is, isn’t it? Never the hero in her own right, always a means to an end – and that end, for Don, was the mid-century American ideal of a house in the suburbs, two children and a dog, and an angel in the kitchen, a wife who gave up her own desires and ambitions for the prosperity of her husband.
And so Betty festered in Ossining, becoming more unpredictable and unlikeable and more fascinating. She is not an easy character; I will not excuse her behavior. But Betty is not innately evil. She is a product of her time, and when I think of her time – housecoats and marriage and housewifery, the endless, empty gossip of suburbia – I understand why she took that gun outside, why she started that affair, why she shoved that food into poor Sally’s mouth. Ossining: and Betty, ossifying.
“The problem that has no name:” if Betty had been a Smith graduate she would have been one of the women that Betty Friedan interviewed for The Feminine Mystique. One of those accomplished and intelligent women reduced to vacuuming all day and losing their identities to their children, instead of living their own life: “Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap. / I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill, / The smog of cooking, the smog of hell.”*
Second wave feminism happened, thank God, though perhaps too late for Betty. The third wave followed, and now we are living in an era that some are trying to pass off as a “post-feminist” age, as though our rights to contraception and abortion were not being challenged daily. There’s something more, too: the cult of motherhood continues, but in a subtler, more sinister permutation.
I am weirdly addicted to the mommy blogs that scatter the internet, written by the kind of liberal, educated women that are older versions of my friends and myself. I see them in Cambridge or Brookline or on the streets of Northampton; they populate Park Slope, San Francisco, Seattle – any pocket of bourgeois bohemia, really. There can be something arresting to their idealized lifestyles: they make domesticity look so easy and appealing and stylish. Boat-like strollers paired with skinny jeans and bateau t-shirts. I look at these women and it scares me; though they might have a law degree, they, too, have lost their identities and have become subsumed inside the moniker of “mother.” That is not all that I want to be.
Even among the undergraduate set a new fetish for domesticity has taken hold, or at least this is true at Smith, where it is cool to bake gluten-free bread and talk about becoming a doula. Some club sponsored a free screening of The Business of Being Born last year. I am not against organic food or an increased awareness of our own bodies – but why is it that even in the twenty-first century we are most applauded for our wombs?
I am grateful for our increase in opportunities; I want to see more. As for Betty, who would she be today? – I can see her clearly. Sarah Haskins has a joke about this kind of woman in her “Target Women” series, the kind of woman that populate yogurt commercials. Betty Draper, clothed in a grey hoodie and eating yogurt amidst her gleaming kitchen. After all, what do these signifiers mean in those commercials?
“I have a masters…but then I got married!”
And so the cult of domesticity marches on.
*Lines taken from Sylvia Plath’s “Lesbos.”