Betty Draper's last name alone should win her sympathy from Mad Men viewers. Imagine the horror of being married to a man who has lied so thoroughly about who he is that his very name is fake.
If that weren't bad enough, Dick Whitman ("Don Draper") has cheated on his wife multiple times, used her as a one-woman test market for an advertising client, violated her innermost thoughts by talking to her psychiatrist, and been generally unconcerned about her troubles—not the least of which was the death of her father.
But I've lost all sympathy for her.
It didn't start this way: the first season allowed us to feel sorry for her. We discovered Don is a lie, and saw him cheat on Betty twice and abandon her and their children on Thanksgiving. By the last episode, Betty is so broken and lonely she turns to a nine-year-old boy for comfort in an agonizing scene.
"Glen, I can't talk to anyone," she tells him—not her husband, not her father, or her brother, or a friend, but a third-grader.
Betty is so distraught that she cries to the boy what most of us have only cried to our mothers: "Please, please tell me I'll be OK."
With the audience heartbroken for Betty, we were prepared to root for her in the following season. But she ended up showing so little respect for herself in her relationship with Don, our sympathy quickly transformed into frustration. Prime example: when the husband of Don's mistress tells her Don's having an affair. Armed with undeniable knowledge, Betty tells Don that she knows he's cheating but can't get Don to fess up. The let-down comes when Betty rifles through his pockets and his drawers to find...nothing.
Is she so stupid or so in denial, we may ask, that she really needs to find a napkin with lipstick and a telephone number to confront Don over the affair? Why can't she just stand up to him?
Betty was "hazily presented as a stultified victim," as Ben Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic last year. And victimhood requires a sort of innocence, which is destroyed when she cheats on Don with an anonymous man at a bar and sets up an affair between her married friend and another man. Betty is no longer a victim of infidelity, by the end of the second season, but a believer in it.
While infidelity is bad, building a marriage on a lie is worse, which is why Betty's cheating can't settle the score against Don. That's why it should be a relief for the audience and a victory for Betty when she gets ready to marry a new man at the beginning of the fourth season.
But Betty isn't the agent of her own salvation. It's another man that's letting her escape the Draper name by seducing her, proposing to her, and convincing her to leave her family. Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism. After all, what sort of heroine needs a man?
As the new season starts, Don is the one suffering alone while Betty is starting a new life. Has Mad Men created an underdog out of a scoundrel?
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