Rethinking Betty Draper



Recently I picked up the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, a text I had always heard of and had always planned on reading to better my understanding of feminism (though pertaining to a select female grouping of the American population) and to add another notch in my literary belt. As I dove deeper into the text I was surprised by the fluidity in which it was written, as I have heard that it was a bland and difficult text to read (likely one of the complaints which had kept me from reading it). Further and further into the text Betty Draper crept into my mind, seeing her in Friedan’s examples of the housewife’s unidentifiable restlessness and anger, the panic and stagnant desires creeping their way into the forefront of their psyches. I’ve been a fan and longtime viewer of Madmen dating back to the first episode and have consistently found myself going back and forth on my views and feelings on Betty.

I felt for her, the redundancy of her day-to-day, the expectation to stand by her philandering albeit handsome man, Don Draper, the tedium of raising children (though she had plenty of help and leisure time). At the same time I felt perturbed as Betty’s seemingly faint awareness became known to her and still she held steadfast to the very life which choked the vibrancy out of her. I wanted her to break free of Don and for a while she stayed, while casting vicious judgements against women like Helen Bishop, though she secretly admired their tenacity and independence.

I was floored by Freidan’s examples of major women’s publications lack of intellectual topic matter in magazines throughout the 1950s and well into the 60s. In a country where all women read about was how to make the perfect bunt cake, or rearing children for dummies, I can see how a woman like Betty came to be. She also described popular stories of women feigning helplessness to keep their husbands, women who were so ill-equipped for life outside of the home that they couldn’t even balance a check book, let alone write a proper bank deposit slip. Stories like these were popular.

In Betty Draper I see my fears of perceived womanhood that still loom over women today. I see a woman who has her wits and intelligence and uses them strategically. In Betty I see a person who has embraced conformity and realizes its many benefits and its many shortcomings. Betty Draper is such a dynamic character. Sometimes I hate her, other times I’m in awe of her. For the writer, Madmen is  a terrific show to watch as you see the growth and regression of characters which is essential to any good story. Madmen has mastered this.

Thinking of the points made in the Feminine Mystique I find myself in awe of Matthew Weiner, the creator of Madmen, and the vision he has had for the show and its characters. He has created a world which was present and a past which can still be seen in aspects of society today. Madmen ascertains a level of social examination few shows manage to do well. I love when I read something that has the power to broaden my perspective. As I mentioned before, the Feminine Mystique has its shortcomings, but it has its value in regards to the life of the middle class American woman during the twentieth century. If anything, it’ll grant you perspective on experiences unlike your own and those of your family.


2 thoughts on “Rethinking Betty Draper

  1. This is perfect, I have so many feelings about Betty. Because you’re right, she’s smart, and so are the writers. Most of the time I hater her because of how manipulative she seems, but then there are moments when I admire her for that. It’s complicated, which all good characters/stories are, I guess.

    • I like that she embraces her inner bitch. More women should do this. Sometimes we concern ourselves with making everyone else happy all of the time, while forgetting that for ourselves.

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