Betty Draper is a bad mommy

She's no Donna Reed

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.

0 thoughts on “Betty Draper is a bad mommy

  1. I’ve only watched the first season, and kind of gave up on it, but I read Betty just as you did — as an embodiment of what Friedman was talking about in the Feminine Mystique. I don’t “like” her, and the 21st-century feminist wants her to have more spine, but she’s a perfect illustration of a particular time and situation.

    And Don’s an ass. I think this is why I stopped watching — with the exception of one character (who I suspect was in the process of going bad herself), I couldn’t properly like anyone.

    But the clothes are nice.


  2. You are so right about childrearing in the 1960s. The world definitely did not revolve around the kids. In my experience as a child during that time, and I believe my extended family was pretty much the norm in this, the kids were relegated to the back yard (nice weather) or the back bedroom (bad weather) and told not to bother the grown-ups unless either blood or an obviously broken bone was involved.


  3. When June Lockhart was unceremoniously fired as the mom-of-the-kid-with-a-dog on the “Lassie” show in 1964, so the show could be thematically adultified, while the original cast was “dumped into the Australian bush” in a brief afterstory episode, she described her experience since joining the production in 1958 as “six sexless years.” This was just after the *real* Sixties began with the Kennedy assassination, the arrival of the Beatles, and the molting of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. TV was definitely not in Kansas anymore.


  4. I think part of the issue with Betty as far as modern audiences are concerned is that she’s a complex character. If the writers had written her as deeply depressed or trying desperately to “liberate” herself (in a way that could resonate with 2010 sensibilities) they’d “like” her more. But although she’s clearly trapped and unhappy, she’s also fully a product of her time period – she was raised to be an upper middle class suburban doll and to a certain extent she accepts that role, even though she’s also obviously intelligent and sophisticated. She doesn’t *question* the status quo; she’s just unhappy being married to Don. She’s restrained and cool, uninviting intimacy, and worst of all for 2010 expectations of motherhood, she is *not* full of warmth & empathy. But it is disturbing (if unsurprising) how scrutinized and judged Betty is, while Don basically gets a free pass from viewers on his parenting simply because every once and a while he shows up and makes empathy face at his children. (It’s not just that Betty is judged, it’s that she’s projected onto in this creepy way, as though we’re all collectively incapable of analyzing a mother-character without it being about our mothers/mothering.)


  5. I dislike Betty, but for different reasons. It’s not so much that she’s a “bad mommy” — she seems quite typical of the time period, as others have noted and as I, too, remember as a child of that era. No, what I detest about her is her princessy quality: she seems not to have any aspirations other than to be admired. Perhaps this, too, is a culturally-situated quality: a failure of imagination on the part of her character makes some sense. But I find it unbearable that a woman with a degree, who speaks fluent Italian (which seems a strange choice for the time period, btw — wouldn’t French be more apropos?), is never shown reading, being concerned with current events, going to any of the great cultural institutions of NYC (as my mom, who is almost exactly Betty’s contemporary, but far less educated, did). Certainly, the purview of her life is a limited one, but she seems not to have even touched the boundaries of where she is, not to have bumped up against those limits, but to be happy in the “center” of the cultural space she’s assigned (so to speak).


  6. As an addendum to that you have to give January Jones credit for making such a physically beautifully character so unappealing, which is not to say, as the series progresses, uninteresting in her own right.


  7. “It’s not just that Betty is judged, it’s that she’s projected onto in this creepy way, as though we’re all collectively incapable of analyzing a mother-character without it being about our mothers/mothering.”


    I find this true of other prominent women, especially those who are mothers. (Anyone else remember the continuous projections of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin 2 years ago when they were political candidates?) People have very, very narrow imaginations about motherhood or how mothers should behave, and even less sympathy or understanding for those who don’t conform to these narrow (and entirely imaginary) parameters.


  8. Historiann, you are exactly right. Lots of responses to Betty tend to go along the lines of “she should just read Freidan, divorce Don, get a job and burn her bra.” Not only is that not staying true to the character but also not true to the era. As Squadro points out, the character is a limited and shallow person, although she does read; and as Perpetua points out, Betty doesn’t really strive for liberation so much as happiness within her status quo. All of which makes sense, and none of which points her toward a search for the types of results that today’s audiences want her to have.

    As the show consistently underscores, the options were limited even for the sort of privleged women portrayed on this show. Yet, whereas the men are always let off the hook for being appalling examples in their roles as husbands and fathers, and whereas the other women gain sympathy for their flaws, Betty gets all the hate precisely because she is the one regular, active mother character. The role is an almost impossible one. I wonder if the writers and actress anticipated that so many people would react against her as “Bad Mommy” rather than sympathize with her as a trapped housewife?

    I admit that I love the show because so many of the characters are unlikeable! Terrible parents, terrible spouses, often terrible humans, making terrible choices, all desperately trying to be something else, something that they think is better than what they are or where they came from, and looking good while they do it. I admit also that I hate that they cut out Sal; but pray that they develop Pete’s awareness of the black market in order to bring in more black characters.


  9. Sal will be back. Remember, the new company has no Art Department. They’re working out of a hotel. I agree with you that Pete is an interesting (however unlikely) champion for the black market.

    Motherhood conditions all reactions to individual women, even women who aren’t mothers. No wonder so many women of Betty’s generation took refuge in Valium addictions. La-la-la! I’m so relaxed, I forgot what was bothering me in the first place! Isn’t that funny? When I write about this, I start to think that Valium might be a welcome addition to my life, too.


  10. Will Sal be back? Do you really think so? Bryan Batt has not gotten a contract for the upcoming season, which made me think not (after initially thinking as you did, that the new firm needs an Art Director.)

    And I just have to mention the one book I recall seeing Betty read in the show: The Group, by Mary McCarthy. It was in this most recent season, and IIRC she was in the bath reading it. Very interesting and a timely cultural reference, very appropriate to her milieu.


  11. Heh. I loved The Group. (But then, I went to Bryn Mawr, for realz.)

    You would appear to be more in the know w/r/t the actor who plays Sal, a little night musing. I just thought it was a natural for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to hire Sal back.


  12. It’s not just mother-characters that get the ungenerous scrutiny but female characters in general. I saw major trashing of Buffy and later of Vicki (Blood Ties) because they were so OMGMEAN to the male characters.

    I read a romance novel website, and the male characters are generally forgiven any behavior under the level of dismembering a puppy whereas if the female doesn’t encompass all the virtues (while remaining interesting and realistic!), she’s dismissed.


  13. The Italian seems OK to me: someone like Betty would have done French in high school, but summers/years abroad in Italy were recommended in the Seven Sisters and comparable places, and Betty’s actual speaking ability would be owed to travel.

    As a fifties kid, I feel a certain strange nostalgia for the curling smoke and glistening drinks that went with the late afternoons for adults–and even more for those long after school days that CaseyOR describes so well, when every kid on the street would be out playing, unsupervised and unworried about, until dinner time. No helicopter parents in our town . . .


  14. Historiann, you and CaseyOR have it right. 1960s parenting: no broken bones? Then get back out in the back yard and play.

    Betty may be a Betty Friedan-in-waiting, but I think people think she’s a bad parent because basically she doesn’t like her kids, especially Bobby, whereas Don actually likes them, for the 2.5 minutes a day he spends with them.

    What the show is asking is this: is parenting about liking your kids or being there even if you don’t like them? Being there AND liking them isn’t an option that the Drapers have given us.


  15. You know I have lots of thoughts about Betty specifically and the show more generally, but after reading this post and the comment thread, this occurred to me (and it’s not fully thought out, but here it goes anyway).

    Maybe the reason that Betty’s character is so *targeted* as a bad mother in responses to the show is that the show refuses to give its 21st century viewers the freedom to anticipate her redemption through Betty Friedan and second-wave feminism (or through anything else, really). Pete is potentially redeemed through his interest in the “black market”; Don is potentially redeemed through his new and improved agency and through the fact that he may at some point evolve beyond being the guy who faked his death and assumed another man’s identity (and, maybe even he will be redeemed through the love of a “good woman” one of these days….); Peggy and Joan are potentially redeemed through career; Hell, even Roger has the potential for redemption through his friendship with Don…. The thing with Betty is that the writing of the show doesn’t offer any apologies (explicit or implicit) for who she is. And so, if there are no apologies and there is no potential for redemption (and I don’t think we see her leaving Don as that, given the circumstances of it), where does that leave us? It leaves us to castigate her as the bad mommy. Betty is (maybe) the one character who resists the narrative drive to tie up loose ends. At least so far in the series, it seems like Betty may well go on into old age as the privileged, unhappy housewife, without ever trying to get out of it or to transform into something else. In a show that is in many ways about transformation (Don’s transformation *into* “Don Draper”; Peggy’s transformation from Brooklyn secretary to Manhattan copywriter; Joan’s transformation from office hottie to wife back to the office) maybe the most diabolical thing is to resist transformation and to refuse it? And maybe because of our own 21st-century investment in the idea of transformation of the self and in “progress” toward self-actualization is at the heart of viewers’ problems with Betty Draper. Maybe the mother thing is ultimately a red herring? Maybe it’s a way not to talk about what really is the problem with that character for most viewers, and what distinguishes that character from most other characters on the show?


  16. I have mixed feelings about Betty Draper, too, but I agree that 21st-century viewers are projecting all kinds of 21st-century concerns onto her while giving Don a free pass.

    At the same time, one thing that rarely seems to get talked about is the emotional toll that being married to “Don Draper”/Dick Whitman has to have taken on Betty. Betty was a young model when she married, whose career was premised on externals, and Don had to negotiate his multiple identities to marry her. While we can make the case that marriages of the era were not necessarily encouraged to be authentically loving partnerships, most women were likely not married to men whose lives were as heavily fragmented and falsified as Don/Dick’s — I think of Francine and Carlton as the more stereotypical couple. Betty is who she is at least in part because of the years she’s spent married to Don, who is wildly disconnected emotionally and seems borderline sociopathic. That to me is part of the genius of the show: while the characters reflect and certainly participate in the norms of the era, they are also shown as complex individuals. Betty’s role is subtler and more easily mistaken for the stereotypes (both of Bad Mommy and Frustrated Housewife) … and that seems to make it easier for audiences to project all kinds of things onto her character. We think we already know who she is.

    And isn’t it arguable that Friedan’s point in 1963 was that no one knew who those young mothers she wrote about *really* were either — including the women themselves?


  17. Dr. Crazy, that’s a really interesting take on Betty, and part of what makes her not entirely fit with the rest of the characters. One of the show’s themes is transformation (for better or worse — although the audience demands better), and she doesn’t want to transform, she wants to be that princess doll protected from the world. By leaving Don to possibly be with Henry Francis (and, ack!, she let Francis talk her out of alimony!) she got rid of a man who was not actually present in their marriage for a man who seemed to notice that she existed as something other than a prop in his fantasy life — for now.

    Also, Betty is so isolated in the show that perhaps the writers don’t do a good enough job of showing her problems as the problems of a large number of women like her. She occasionally has neighbors like Francine drop by, but you don’t really see her within a group of women like her facing similar problems. At the office, you see all of the sexual harassment that Betty has negotiated and that Joan has harnessed to the point of intimidating the harassers. You see their context. Betty and the other wives, not so much. That makes her an easy target for audiences already willing to vilify her problems as those of an unpleasant personality and not of a suffocating life married to an absent jerk and having to fulfill some cultural fantasy of wife and mother. Her problems can be blamed on her alone because she’s always seen as alone.


  18. Great comments, Dr. Crazy, sophylou, and Clio Bluestocking. I’m largely persuaded by Dr. Crazy’s and Clio’s analysis of Betty as a stalled/arrested character in a show where others are “getting with the times.” I think that’s really insightful. But, I still think it’s important that she’s a mother, and that the audience for the show appears to focus their disdain on Betty’s motherhood. I don’t think she’d be a particularly appealing character if she didn’t have children, but I don’t think there would be the same animus directed at her.

    Thanks for the intel on Italian and French, Tony. Maybe Betty’s more interesting back story as a former model will be the key to her eventual growth and change? We’ll see.


  19. Historiann, I’m still with you on that. Joan, for instance, in the few times that she has interacted with children or childbearing, has shown that she has no love for the small ones and shares Betty’s general attitude that kids are annoying. Joan, however, is not a mother, which makes her attitude cool and amusing. Betty, because she has the kids, is a — well, rhymes with witch. Were I a writer on the show, I’d have her marry Francis and explore the way she takes on the role of political wife/hostess…and I’d bring back Sal.


  20. I think the first time she thrilled me was when she killed the pigeons; and the first time she disappointed me, was when she seemed to find therapy useless. Yes, her character, aside from Harry, is the only one that explicitly rejects progress other than the superficial or fashionable. She changes her look, but not herself. Most female characters I’ve seen change both looks and attitude, but Betty really, really doesn’t like change — or, more precisely, that’s what she internalized once Don showed her that curiosity of any kind was a threat to him and his family.

    I know, I know, the hand tremors stopped sooner or later, but what did we see of her sessions? Did we ever get past the gloss — did her therapist? We’ve seen Don lower than a dog, Roger projectile vomit, have a heart attack — even Mr. Cooper had to confront the reality of spending his final days with his decadent cattle — but Betty medicates and grooms her angst to a knife-edge… which she proceeds to use on her children.

    It’s not neglect she’s showing; it’s contempt.

    A woman can mother children she loves, but does not like.
    Some women should never have children, but yet know that’s what expected of them.

    Can’t we call Betty a bad mother, and still respect her as a woman?


  21. Coming back late, but I agree that it’s important that she’s a mother – I didn’t mean to indicate that I didn’t think so in my comment.

    “Can’t we call Betty a bad mother, and still respect her as a woman?”

    You know, I don’t think we can. I think that womanhood is so bound to motherhood (even for women without children) that the label of “bad mommy” ultimately means that one *isn’t* a woman.


  22. [Peggy and Joan are potentially redeemed through career;]

    Is that why fans give these two leeway for their mistakes and personal flaws? Because they have a career and adhere to 21st century feminism? You’ve got to be kidding me!


  23. We really live in a sexist society . . . even today. It’s amazing that the 21st century audience can condemn a female character for failing to adhere to today’s ideals of what a mother should be. Yet, they give leeway to a male character for his lack of parental skills, simply because he knows how to be friendly to his kids every once in a while.

    I find this sexist and hypocritical. Worse, none of the “MAD MEN” viewers – including Tom and Lorenzo – ever considered what Betty Draper was going through in Season 3. She had to endure the third trimester of her pregnancy, the death of her father, giving birth, a failing marriage, a cheating husband, a post-natal period, the assassination of a president and the discovery that her husband has been lying to her for an entire decade – since the beginning of their marriage.

    But no. Betty is expected to be the perfect mother 24/7, despite all of that shit. By the way; neither Sally or Bobby are perfect. Why on earth should Betty pretend that they are? Or do fans expect her to indulge her children, like most modern-day parents tend to?


  24. One of the show’s themes is transformation (for better or worse — although the audience demands better), and she doesn’t want to transform, she wants to be that princess doll protected from the world.

    I don’t really agree with that assessment. The S3 episode, “The Fog” made it clear in a dream sequence that Betty resented the way her parents – especially her mother – emphasized that she should try to achieve the image of the perfect upper-class wife/mother. The so-called “princess doll”. Whenever Don took her on one of his business dinners, she seemed excited at the prospect of helping him or being a “partner” in his work. This doesn’t jibe with the Betty who wanted to continue being a princess doll. And judging from the look she gave Henry Francis in the S3 finale, when he suggested that she reject any settlement from Don; I got the impression that she did not look forward to being financially dependent on another man.

    Will Betty take up Henry’s suggestion? Chances are she probably will. I don’t think Betty is at the stage where she is brave enough to make a bold decision to be on her own. But to expect her to make that decision when the series still has three seasons to go strike me as unrealistic. Will she ever make that decision? I don’t know.

    But I don’t think it is a good idea to make an assumption on how her future story will turn out.


  25. Some women should never have children, but yet know that’s what expected of them.

    No, some women shouldn’t. Betty is not mother material. But this does not make her a bad person. At least she is a better parent than Don, who turned out to be unreliable. And at least Betty stepped up and dealt with the consequences of her decision to be a wife and mother. I cannot say the same about Peggy Olson. By avoiding motherhood in the manner that she did, Peggy also managed to avoid paying the consequences of her own actions and decisions – namely sleeping with an engaged Pete Campbell. I found nothing admirable about that.


  26. The article views Betty Draper through the lens of social mores rather then looking at what makes her despicable, her character. It is not that she is a trapped house wife, a model bride or any other of the conditions society of the time placed upon her. These circumstances certainly contribute to her poor temperament but they are not the cause. Rather it is simply her childish and self centered nature that drives her into the loathing that the audience feels for her. As others have pointed out, her children are afterthoughts relegated to the television. Many have failed to mention the disastrous luncheon she manipulated her riding partner into knowing full well that no good would come of it. Indeed Don describes her in an argument during season one, calling her a child in her mentality. She is self centered to an extend that goes beyond suburban apathy, in her dealings with her brother over their father’s death, her treatment of Carla, and her unswerving dedication to putting her interests paramount before any other.


  27. Yeah, way to miss the point, both of you. Betty has a “character problem,” and Peggy is a despicable character? She’s not the one who was planning to take vows to someone else. That’s all on Pete.

    Whatever. But thanks for playing!


  28. Wow, some of you people apparently had really bad childhoods, but don’t blame THAT on the times.

    I was born in 1952. Yes, women were repressed and I’m sure my mother felt it, though to me as a child, it felt kinda normal. But my mother never treated me like Betty treats her kids. Dads certainly tended to be less involved. My dad never came to a school event and I can count on one hand the times he came to a church program I was in. But that’s the way it was. I’m not defending it..just saying it was what it was. He did show love in ways that were in keeping with the times we lived in. But my mother was always, in spite of busyness of her life, interested and involved in my life and would never has said and done things Betty does.

    She is a bad parent in any era. Of course, so is Don.


  29. But lha, you’re doing the same thing (“blaming it on the times”) that you accuse others of doing. You write, “that’s the way it was,” implying that no one attended their children’s school events or church performances. When, of course, that’s not true, otherwise there would have been no events scheduled.

    Either historical context helps explain people’s behavior, or it doesn’t. You seem eager to use “the times” to let your parents off the hook, but not Betty Draper.

    It’s continually fascinating that so many people are so eager to hate on Betty, and to insist on her essential corruption rather than seeing her as a person trapped in history. All of this seems to underline my point that women’s liberationist movements are never understood as human rights movements: so much energy devoted to denying that feminism was a necessary and helpful movement!


  30. I don’t know whether to envy or pity the viewers who go on about how terrible Sally and Bobby’s childhood is, and how scarred they’re going to be.

    I could envy them, that their childhoods were so idyllic that the very idea that a child might receive a scolding or a punishment is worse than anything they experienced.

    Or, I could pity them that they were such emotionally fragile children that being scolded or punished hurt their feelings so badly.


  31. Betty Draper is a product of her undiagnosed manic depression, yes she should never have had children, she is not mentally equipped to raise children.
    She is living in another world and reacts rather than acts.
    She should be hospitalised and medicated, not left alone with innocent children in her care.
    How do I know this? She is a cartoon character of my mother , Yes I was raised but this mother only worse.
    I wont go into details. but believe me sally will be in serious emotional danger and is suffering neglect.


  32. What I don’t understand is why Betty is the only major character to receive such deep contempt from the viewers. Here we are at the end of Season 4 and no one has really evolved. Not really. Although Peggy has become the career woman, she continues to chafe with frustration from being the only female copywriter in the company. She is STILL trying to earn Don’s complete respect, instead of considering the possibility of moving on. Gratitude can only go so far. Don has remarried a woman who seemed like Betty used to be in the previous decade. He has become engaged to Megan without revealing his deep, dark secret. Like Peggy, Pete has allowed his desire for Don’s respect to remain with a company that is frustrating his professional satisfaction. Roger dumped his wife for a young bride and is STILL not happy. In fact, he and Joan ended up having a sordid one night stand, which resulted in Joan’s pregnancy. And Joan’s life is a world of shit . . . from decisions she had made. She is still married to Greg. She’s pregnant with Roger’s baby. And she still believes that the road to happiness is marriage and a child. Sally is fast becoming a bully – at least with her younger brother, Bobby. And she is using her parents to express her anger at their divorce.

    And everyone believes that only Betty is screwed?


  33. Heh. Great points, Rosie. Only, perhaps you should have added SPOILER ALERT at the top of your comment?

    (S’okay, though–I don’t know if anyone else will see your comment at this point.)


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