In Clio Bluestocking’s “Not a Post about Mother’s Day,” she offers some interesting observations on the oddly vehement feelings about the Betty Draper character in Mad Men:
I’m not sure what to think of Mother’s Day, probably because I am not one nor care to be one. Mostly, I’m not sure what to think of Mother’s Day because the concept seems so divorced from reality. I know that it started as a day to protest war by politicizing motherhood, but the commodification and sentimentalization of Mother’s Day since World War I seems to have done more harm than good to everyone — mothers, perhaps, the most of all. Who wants to live in the shadow of that monster of an angel, the Perfect Mother?
I think, oddly, of Betty Draper on Mad Men. Not so much her as the reactions to her that I read on such blogs as What Alan’s Watching and Tom and Lorenzo. I don’t personally like the character; yet, at the same time, I also find her and the reactions to her fascinating. While the writers have her make decisions that fit her character — she, for instance, did not leave Don in the first season after she found out that he was spying on her psychotherapy, instead using that knowledge to manipulate him — most people who comment on the show project their own experiences as a mother or as a child onto her. People who respond to her with sympathy identify with her as a trapped woman who hasn’t bought into the romanticism of motherhood. People who loathe her respond to her as children who were raised by an unhappy mother.
I don’t think the connection Clio B. makes is so odd. I’ve noticed the same bi-polar reactions to her character. I also find that Betty gets judged by viewers according to the range of possible choices available to women in 2010 rather than 1963. Isn’t that funny? (And by “funny,” I mean LOLsob.) It’s great to know this judgment of women works both ways: women (and perhaps especially mothers) of 2010 get judged against the unrealistic fantasy women/mothers of the middle of the twentieth century, and the one character in popular culture who dares to embody “The Problem That Has No Name” in a plausible manner gets judged because she doesn’t behave like a woman of 2010. Awesome!
Personally, I like the fact that Betty and Don Draper aren’t portrayed as perfect parents, or even minimally caring or competent parents sometimes. I like the fact that Betty is brittle with her children, that she uses the TV as a babysitter, that she forces her children to live in a world built around adult interests and desires rather than children’s interests. That seems more realistically 1963 to me. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that there’s so much more venom directed at her character by viewers, when it’s Don who really has to take the prize for Worst Father in the World? I mean, Betty’s not particularly warm, but she didn’t get drunk at Sally’s birthday party, then drive out to pick up the birthday cake and neglect to come back until nighttime, well after the party ended, after picking up a stray dog in a pathetic attempt to mollify her family. Now, that was just messed up.
Would Mad Men’s viewers see any other social justice issue on the show as one character’s personal problems or character flaws? (If Mad Menwould deign to include more black characters, maybe we could see.) Would an African American character’s frustration or alienation be read as that character’s bad personality, sourness, or bitterness, the way Betty’s evident dissatisfaction is read as “bad mommyhood?” But, that’s the fate of women’s liberationist movements throughout history. Feminists are always portrayed as “outside agitators” who are stirring up women whose unhappiness is their own damn fault, not any fault of the structure of society or of a culture that distributes goods according to patriarchal values. We’re told that women’s unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or frustration is not a social justice issue. If we’d only attend to our personal character flaws, we’d be able to fix this ourselves. Because feminists are surely wrong: there is no political, only the personal.