They're both flawed characters whose negative qualities are largely shaped by the culture they grew up in.
Few television characters have the ability to inspire such universal disdain as Mad Men's Betty Francis. From her questionable approach to parenting to her vindictive, childish attitude, it's no surprise Betty is the character fans most love to hate.
When it comes to her ex-husband, however, it seems fans just can't get enough.
Despite his chronic womanizing, rampant alcohol abuse, and social prejudices, viewers have no problem sweeping Don's imperfections under the rug. Of course he cheats on his wife. Everybody was cheating on his wife. Drinking to the point of oblivion on noon on a Monday? Sounds like a typical day at the office in 1960s America. And how about overt sexism, anti-Semitism and a general selfishness? Well, that's just how things were back then. It was a different era.
Why doesn't this excuse also apply to Betty? Like Don, she also embodies a postwar archetype—the quintessential white, upper-middle-class suburban housewife, who is polite and poised on the surface but carries looming anxiety and frustration underneath. Shouldn't viewers cut her some slack, too?
Let's say we do just that—evaluate Betty through the same historical lens as we do Don. How do the two stack up?
For a show that uses the social transformation of the 1960s as a backdrop, very few of Mad Men's characters truly push conventional boundaries—Betty being the most obvious example. As part of a generation of woman who traded a career for a life at home, Betty is a staunch believer in the nuclear family supported by a male breadwinner to the point where any alternative lifestyle that deviates from this norm is instantly suspect - or worse, pitied (ironic, given her own divorce at the end of season 3). Betty also carries many of the social prejudices of the time, such as a homophobia, elitism, and apathy (borderline hostility) towards African-Americans.
Don isn't much better. While he is more forward-thinking than most men of his era (cough, Roger), he is still carries many of the social prejudices of the time. In addition to racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, hardly an episode goes by without him muttering a sexist remark.
Yet what's notable is that Don is often able to look past these prejudices—at least when it makes business sense. A child of the Dustbowl, Don learned the value of hard work at a young age, which is why he has little sympathy for attitudes of entitlement (something he views as the equivalent to laziness). He'd rather work with an ambitious woman like Peggy than an entitled man like Pete any day, which makes him an anomaly in1960s America.
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"They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem". For Don, this moment didn't come until season four's "The Summer Man"—even though the warning signs have been there since the beginning. While heavy social drinking (such as a normal day at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) was anything but taboo at the time, Don's drinking goes well beyond the social sphere. He often drinks alone, using alcohol to clear his mind in times of stress or frustration.
To his credit, Don begins to takes steps to halt his addiction once he realizes the personal and professional toll of his drinking. Yet his attempts are superficial at best, because he is unwilling to address his underlying issues—namely, insecurity and guilt—likely fueling his alcohol abuse.
Betty also has more than her fair share of issues. In the pilot episode, she is unable to stop her hands from shaking, despite reassurances from doctors that she is in good health. It's not long before Betty suspects the shaking is psychological—a manifestation of years of repressed anxiety and frustration (something doctors at the time called "housewife syndrome").
While Betty continues to be a work in progress, it was bold of her to be so outspoken about needing psychological help, especially in an era when women rarely voiced their discontent. This is something that Don, who is also aware he needs help, does not have the courage to do.
From bohemian artists to suburban schoolteachers, Don Draper never let marriage get in the way of a good affair. Yet extra-marital relationships are not all fun and games. Don often feels guilty about cheating on Betty and leading his mistresses on....but not enough to prevent him from embarking in a new relationship when the old one has passed its expiration date.
Don is unfortunately no better in husband mode. Throughout their marriage, Don was often unnecessarily cold to Betty, preferring to jot down ideas in his notepad instead of engaging in conversation. Betty likely preferred his apathy to his absence; when he wasn't jetting to California without a word's notice, he was bolting into the bed of a new woman, leaving Betty alone for days—sometimes weeks—at a time.
This isn't to say Betty is completely innocent. There was her one-night stand during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as her emotional affair with her new husband Henry Francis (which eventually helped end her marriage to Don). But Betty has always put more than her share of energy into making her relationships work. She also believes in keeping a level of romance to keep the spark alive and isn't afraid to say it -something that Don reserves for his mistresses (for the first few months, at least). Don Draper may be a great lover, but he's a terrible husband.
"It's official: Betty Draper, now Betty Francis, is the worst mother in TV history," declared critic Roger Friedman following last season's "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword". While it's too hasty to call her the worst mother in television history, Friedman does have a point—Betty slapping Sally for cutting her own hair and then threatening to cut off her fingers after catching her masturbating definitely tops the charts as the most painful maternal moment in recent television memory (" Go bang your head against the wall" is a close second).
If Betty is the "mean" parent, then Don is the "fun" one who lets the kids stay up late, watch whatever they want on television, and order room service. While he is firm when they break the rules, his punishments are always fair—a sense of justice he prides himself on, given his own history of parental abuse. He is also known to use the Draper charm to explain the more complex issues of life, such as destiny vs. freewill and resisting the pressure to be a conformist.
Of course, Don only deals with the children at his own convenience—especially now that he is divorced. As the breadwinner, he is out of the house most of the time and also has various outlets—the office, the bar, or bed of his latest lover—he can retreat to whenever he's feeling suffocated. Betty, by contrast, is restricted to the home where she rarely gets a break from the children. Such constant exposure is bound to cause tension a more infrequent relationship, such as Don's, can avoid.
So, what's worse: having an overbearing, abusive mom, or a dad who's never around?
Verdict: Don...by a hair
If the audience evaluated Betty they same way they do Don—as a character whose flaws are a largely explained by the era he came of age—it's likely they would view her in a slightly more sympathetic light. This is not to say this would make Betty in any way likeable—any chance of that happening disappeared the moment she threatened to cut off Sally's fingers. But it wouldn't hurt viewers to remind themselves that Betty and Don were operating under the same social constraints, and they often share similar flaws. While it's more glamorous to remember boozing at the office than scrubbing the floors, both were an equal part of part of the era, and both deserved to be evaluated with the same historical lens.