If there is one character on Mad Men that almost everyone loves to hate, it is Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), ex-wife of advertising account executive Don Draper and current wife of political advisor Henry Francis. She has been described as "self-absorbed," "emotionally immature," "petulant," "abusive," and even "psychotic," and that is just a short list of the more polite terms used of her. A Google search for "Betty Draper" or "Betty Francis" reveals that she could easily be the most disliked character on Mad Men (even more than Pete Campbell).
I must admit that there was a point where I outright hated Betty. At times Betty seemed wholly indifferent or even hostile to her children. She was constantly telling them to, more often than not yelling at them to, "go watch TV," "go outside," and "go upstairs." Betty could also be verbally abusive to her children, a situation that increased as the seasons of Mad Men passed. She once famously told Bobby, "Go bang your head against the wall." While that comment Betty made to Bobby might seem shocking, most of her vitriol is reserved for her daughter Sally. Betty once told her friend Francine Hanson that Sally looked fat. One has to wonder that she hasn't said the exact same thing to her daughter. After Sally is caught touching herself while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at a friend's slumber party, Betty threatens to cut Sally's fingers off.
Worse yet, by the fourth season of Mad Men it appears that Betty is even being physically abusive towards Sally. When Sally cuts her hair because she wants to look beautiful (something most parents would laugh about), Betty responds by slapping her daughter across the face. After Betty catches Sally smoking with neighbour boy Glen Bishop, she locks her daughter in a closet as punishment. When Betty and her new husband Henry Francis have Thanksgiving dinner at the in laws, Betty forces Sally to eat sweet potatoes, even though Sally dislikes sweet potatoes. Henry's mother, overbearing though she may be, makes an observation many probably have but never spoken aloud--Betty's children are terrified of her. Even in the Sixties, when spanking was still widely accepted as a punishment for children, slapping a child across the face (especially for something so minor as cutting his or her hair) or locking them in a closet would have been considered abuse.
Not only does Betty treat her children poorly, but she is not much better to the adults around her. Oh, I think most people can forgive her for yelling at Don given his treatment of her, but it seems more often than not Betty's wrath is reserved for people who are good deal nicer to her. Betty's treatment of the Drapers' housekeeper Carla is often unforgivable (Carla continued to work for Betty after Betty had divorced Don and married Henry Francis before being fired). Indeed, it goes much further than Betty ordering Carla around as if she were more a slave than the hired help. When Carla allowed Glen Bishop to say goodbye to Sally, Betty fired her, even though Carla had kept the Draper house for years and had more or less raised the Draper children. Worse yet, Betty does not even give Carla a written reference, something for which she must go to Henry (who is justifiably disgusted by his wife's behaviour). Of course, Henry is also the victim of Betty's vitriol more often than not. Despite the fact that he is much more emotionally accessible than Don ever was, despite the fact that he has never cheated on her as Don has, despite the fact that he is not verbally abusive as Don sometimes was, Betty treats Henry worse in many ways than she did Don. Sadly, while Henry does stand his ground with Betty many times, there are many other times that he simply stands there and takes it.
Given Betty's behaviour, particularly as the seasons of Mad Men passed, it should be no surprise why many have treated her as a bad mother, if not an outright monster. Now it is true that there are other characters on Mad Men who are equally despicable. Pete Campbell would seem to have little in the way of redeeming qualities and, in fact, I have always despised him more than I ever have Betty. Roger is openly racist and self centred to the point that only his charm and his concern for his friends makes him even a little likeable. I suspect Betty has garnered so much more attention than either Pete or Roger is because of her treatment of children and individuals who certainly do not deserve such mistreatment (Carla and Henry). It is hard to imagine even Pete or Roger mistreating children (in fact, both seem to be fond of them). While Betty has often been treated as a monster or a younger version of the characters from a psycho-biddy film, she is hardly either. It is not entirely Betty's fault that she is the way she is, as whatever personality disorders and psychoses she may have are largely the product of her life from the day she was born through her marriage to Don Draper.
First, we must consider Betty's upbringing. Betty was the victim of what even at the time would have been considered child abuse at the hands of her mother, the beautiful Mrs. Ruth Hofstadt. In the episode "The Arrangements," Betty's father Gene told Sally how her grandmother (Betty's mother) would take Betty shopping and then force her "fat" daughter to walk all the way home to keep the weight off (here I must say that until recently I very seriously doubt Betty was ever fat...). In the episode "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" Betty told Sally how whenever she was bad as a little girl, her mother would threaten to cut her hair off. While Betty is giving birth to youngest son Gene Draper, she has hallucinations (probably more due to her own psychosis than the twilight sleep she had been put under) that are quite revealing about her mother. While holding a bloody rag, Ruth Hofstadt told Betty, "You see what happens to people who speak up?" In the hallucinations she also told her daughter to shut her mouth or she would catch flies. It is in the first season that Betty stated, "My mother wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There's nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go 'til you're in a box?"
Unfortunately, it would appear that Betty would take her mother's words to her and her treatment of her to heart. Quite obviously Ruth Hofstadt thought that it was important for a woman to marry and she must be beautiful to insure that she did. Betty's mother did not simply tell her daughter this, but she also reinforced it with actions. She made her walk home in order to keep any extra weight off and threatened to cut her hair if she was bad. At the same time that Ruth Hoftstadt was indoctrinating young Betty with the idea that physical appearance was everything, one must also suspect that she was teaching her that women are better seen and not heard. "You see what happens to people who speak up?" As sad as it might seem, I could rather see Ruth Hofstadt telling her daughter that a woman must know her place. It does not seem inconceivable that Ruth Hofstadt was responsible for her daughter's conflicting views on sex. From Betty's reaction to Sally's unfortunate behaviour at her friend's slumber party, it would seem Betty has definite ideas on what good girls do and do not do. Given everything else we know about Ruth Hofstadt, it would not be surprising if we found out that she is not where Betty got these attitudes from.
While Ruth Hofstadt was downright abusive towards her daughter, it seems likely that Eugene Hofstadt spoiled Betty. In fact, Betty's brother William indicated that Betty was their father's favourite child. In "The Arrangements" Eugene Hofstadt tells Sally that he believed that he had shielded Betty from too much. He expounds on this by explaining that he wanted Betty to be a princess, to be "Scarlett O'Hara." In the same episode Betty responded adversely to her father Eugene explaining his final wishes to her with words to the effect of "I'm your little girl!" Whether this was because Betty was their only daughter or because Eugene Hofstadt was trying to make up for his wife's abuse of her is hard to say, but it is clear that he may have spoiled Betty.
At the same time that Eugene may have spoiled Betty, he also appeared to be disappointed that she turned out simply be a housewife. Betty's father quite obviously had some very progressive views when it came to women. In "The Arrangements" he told Sally that her grandmother Ruth was a drafting engineer in the Twenties and went onto tell Sally, "You can really do something. Don't let your mother tell you otherwise." In the hallucinations Betty had during son Gene's birth, her father Eugene told Betty,"You're a housecat. Very important with not much to do." While Betty's mother Ruth appeared to have simply wanted her daughter to be beautiful and get married, her father Eugene appeared to want a life for her beyond being a housewife. Indeed, it is quite possible that Betty could have become something other than a housewife, difficult though it may have been at the time. She attended Bryn Mawr College and received a degree in anthropology. Betty has also been shown to be fluent in Italian. Betty may not be the sanest person in the world, but she is quite clearly very intelligent.
Given Betty's upbringing, it should be little wonder if she had a few mental problems. This would only be complicated by the fact that she married the wrong man, namely Don Draper. Don may be a great person with whom to work, but he is not exactly someone to whom a woman would want to be married. First one must consider the fact that Don has an entire hidden past about which he wants no one to know. Because of this Betty actually knows very little about her husband. Indeed, it was one of the reasons that Betty's father disliked Don. In the episode "The Inheritance," he complained to Betty that Don had "...no people. You can't trust a person like that." It should have been no surprise that Don's secret life should play a pivotal role in the break up of their marriage. Second, perhaps in a large part because of his secret life, Don is emotionally distant with Betty. It is a rare thing for Don to express his feelings to Betty and a rare thing for him to confide anything to her. Betty then does not receive much in the way of communication from the person who should be closet to her in her life. Third, Don was often verbally abusive towards Betty. It is not hard to find episodes in which Don does not yell at or at least talk condescendingly towards her. This obviously grew worse after their marriage fell apart. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" Don yelled at Betty and accused her of being a bad mother (well, it is true that she is a bad mother, but then he did not have to yell to get the point across). In "Tomorrowland" Don yelled at Betty for not being honest with him (the man with an entire secret life is actually angry at someone else for not being honest...).
Fourth and finally, Don had all the marital fidelity of a tomcat. During their marriage Don had at least five affairs that we know of, and one has to suspect that there weren't more. So much cheating on the part of a husband would seriously damage a marriage in which the woman was totally sane. In the case of Betty, one has to wonder if it was not one of the primary factors in pushing her over the edge. Consider that Betty was taught that she had to be beautiful in order to get a man. Once she does get a man, the handsome and charming Don Draper, he does not remain loyal to her. This would not only been a blow to her already fragile ego, but it would also have an outright insult to her. This particularly appears to have been the case with Don's inexplicable affair with Bobbie Barrett, as Betty rather undiplomatically says, "She's so old!"
Even though Don never, ever raised a hand to Betty, his relationship to her would almost have to be considered abusive. He never really communicated with Betty, whether it was confiding his own feelings or dealing with the problems in their marriage. He constantly berated her and spoke to her condescendingly. He cheated on her multiple times. When combined with her upbringing (the conflicting messages of "get a man" from her mother and "do something" from her father), it is actually surprising that Betty did not have a complete psychotic break. It also explains why Betty often treated Carla and Henry Francis so poorly. Angry at Don and unable to direct that anger towards Don (who would only yell back), she directs that anger at people who are unlikely to yell back or will at least still accept her if they do. If Betty abused Sally and Bobby because her mother abused her, she perhaps abused Carla and Henry because Don abused her.
Of course, here we must take into account that it probably was not only her upbringing and her marriage to Don that pushed Betty over the edge. It was probably also the times. While feminism had existed in some form since the late 19th Century and started to gain ground in the 1960's (Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963), it was still expected that women would marry and become housewives. Even as recently as the Sixties there were only a few occupations generally open to women, such as nursing, teaching, or office work. Even then it was often expected that if a woman got married, then she would give up her career. Even though Betty was a model when Don first met her, it should not be surprising that she gave up her career when they married. It should also not be surprising that Betty should go from her marriage to Don almost immediately to her marriage to Henry Francis. It was not simply that her mother had programmed her that a woman's primary purpose in life was as wife and mother, society also dictated that this was ideal for women at the time as well. While there can be little doubt that Betty would have had problems even if she had remained a model or became an anthropologist, I cannot suspect that they would not have become quite so severe. First, she would not have been a disappointment to her father. She would not have been a "housecat" and would have had plenty to do. This would certainly eliminate one source of stress in her life. Second, she would have been able to put her considerable intelligence to use in something that she actually enjoyed. One has to suspect that many of Betty's problems stem from the simple fact that she has little to do that actually challenges her. Third, if she had pursued a career in anthropology or something else, she would have never married Don Draper. As pointed out above, Betty would have probably had problems without marrying Don, but in doing so it only exasperated what was already a bad situation.
While Betty would appear to be a monster, then, she is not one of her own creation. Any psychoses and personality disorders were the creation of multiple factors. Her upbringing, her marriage to Don, and even the milieu into which she was born all played a role in Betty's mental instability. While Betty is still not a very likeable character, then, I think she is still one who is worthy of some degree of sympathy. To a large degree Betty's behaviour is not something for which she was responsible. She is simply behaving in the way that her parents, Don, and society had taught her to.
It is difficult to say what the fifth season of Mad Men holds for Betty. The second episode of the season, "Tea Leaves," finds her calmer and to a small degree more at peace. She actually shows affection towards her children. And while she is still a bit cranky with Henry Francis, she is not the screaming harpy she once was. Unfortunately, she is also overweight and quite obviously depressed. It is difficult to say what happened to Betty. Perhaps therapy dissolved much of the anger in her life, but not the unhappiness. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what has brought Betty to this point in her life as the season unfolds.