Friday, May 15, 2015

800 Words: In Praise of Betty Draper

The Golden Age of TV was not kind to women. We hate ourselves for loving Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, Don Draper, and yet, to a man, we love to hate their spouses.

No spouse was more hated than Skyler White, and the actress who played her: Anna Gunn, was rewarded for how faithfully she executed Vince Gilligan's requests to be the shrewish counterpart to Walter's evil with death threats. But at least Breaking Bad granted Skyler her own personhood. Betty Draper/Francis spent Mad Men longing for a liberation from her husbands Don and Henry. In Breaking Bad, it was Walter who longed for liberation, and Breaking Bad granted him more liberation than Walter could ever imagine. But the whole point of Betty's character was that her liberation would never happen. To their dying days, women like Betty Draper are designed to stuff their humanity into a two-dimensional beauty that is clearly less than human casing.

Nobody ever likes Betty Draper - whatever small bits of personality she exhibited was as shockingly unattractive as the figure from which it issued was beautiful. It is a mirror opposite of Shakespeare's Richard III, whose ugliness has turned his soul ugly. Betty's beauty has, in a sense, wilted her soul. She is personally unattractive because being disliked is the only way that her human qualities could even be noticed.

I vividly remember a G-chat status by a friend of mine - a guy of course - who was a few seasons behind on Mad Men from me. He wrote in all caps: "BETTY DRAPER IS HITLER!!!" I knew exactly which episode of Season 2 he'd just watched. But assuming Betty Draper is Hitler assumes that she has personality enough to have an unattractive personality. Unlike the male fantasies which exist in so many ostensible works of art, not merely a person, like Vertigo's Judy Barton, she is barely more than a chimera, a person designed to capture men's imaginations. But, if anything, Matthew Weiner's rendering if this beauty myth is at very least a degree more artful than Hitchcock's. Whereas Judy Barton (or Madeleine Ferguson) is coached to ensnare men to so that a movie plot can be set into motion, Betty Draper is coached by an invisible society of time and place which only exists in our imaginations and the social mores of people who soon will be deceased.

Rewatching the early episodes of Mad Men is always instructive when you realize just how important Betty Draper used to be in the show, and equally instructive when you realize that January Jones's acting has been grotesquely maligned. No one will confuse January Jones for a master thespian, but no one was confusing Kim Novak or Janet Leigh either. These were movie stars, not actresses, who had a very specific part to play and were cast at least as much for how they looked on camera as how they acted. The only difference between Betty Draper and Marion Crane was that in the intervening half-century between their creations, the plight of women like them gained sympathy, and therefore a voice.

But did Marilyn Monroe ever seem more at ease with her onscreen role? Did your elderly but well dressed female cousin who got a divorce in the days when divorce was a scandal? Betty Draper is, in many ways, the truest to life, fully realized, character in the entire Mad Men universe because there is so little life to realize in her. She is barely human because that is all she is allowed from her life. And when the show ends, she will disappear into memory, as so many women have, because the memories of men is all to which they were allowed to appeal.

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