no. 22: Complicated Motherhood

Betty Draper may be TVs most complicated mothers. She may be childish and cruel on the surface, but underneath she stands out as one of Mad Men's best characters.

no. 22: Complicated Motherhood

Jennifer Dines, author of this week's mini-essay, approached me with an idea about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – and we ran with it. Enjoy this issue all about Betty Draper's legacy as mother and one of the most iconic TV characters of all time, and Jennifer's lovely essay motherhood in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

The evolution of Betty Draper, TV’s most complicated mother

Betty Draper stands in her kitchen with Glen as he starts to kiss her
Betty Draper (January Hones) has an inappropriate relationship with neighbor kid Glen (Martin Holden Weiner)

by Sydney Bollinger

I’ve watched Mad Men more than any other show. It’s my throw-it-on-in-the-background-for-noise-and-then-actually-get-entranced show. I started watching it when I was in early high school. I remember asking my dad to rent each season’s DVDs from Netflix so I could watch them. My interest stemmed from my adolescent fascination with the 1960s. My favorite movie was Breakfast at Tiffany’s and my favorite actress was Audrey Hepburn. I wanted to know everything about the 60s that I could.

Is Betty really that unlikable?

When I first started watching the show I felt sorry for Betty Draper (January Jones). Her husband, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), cheats on her with multiple different women. Her children hate her. She’s experiencing a mental health crisis because of her unsatisfying lifestyle. Despite being deeply unhappy, she played the role of dutiful housewife and mother.

As I watched season after season my pity for Betty quickly turned to hate. She’s cruel and unforgiving to her children, has an inappropriate relationship with a neighbor’s son, and acts generally ungrateful (she isn’t; more on that later).

Compared to my hero Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss), Betty was nothing. Where was Betty’s impressive job at an ad agency? When was Betty going to take her life into her own hands instead of complaining about the woes of being wealthy in the suburbs?

In the last couple seasons of Mad Men, my hatred for Betty transformed into pity once again. Her sour relationship with Don becomes loving once more and she decides to go back to school. Then, she is diagnosed with lung cancer and the disease has already taken a toll on her life.

Of course, my hate for and frustration with Betty was largely unfounded. I was 16, didn’t know what feminism was, and thought Betty should have just never gotten married or had kids if she didn’t want to. The choice was simple.

The show makes it really easy to hate Betty Draper. She’s unlikable in way that Don’s charisma makes him fun to watch, despite the terrible things he does. When compared to the other women in the show, she seems to be the only one not working for something “more.” Peggy wants to be Creative Director at an ad agency. Joan aspires to be more than just an office manager. Megan wants to be an actress — and leaves Don (in part) to pursue her career in LA. Betty doesn’t want the life she has, but she doesn’t do anything to actively change it, unless we count her affair with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley).

Betty’s storyline may be the most complicated one

Betty sits on a examination table at a doctor's office while the doctor tells her husband about her prognosis
Betty listens as the doctor tells husband Henry her cancer prognosis

Despite how easy it is to hate Betty, she has one of the most complicated storylines in the show. Many of the other women on the show follow a pretty straightforward trajectory (with some conflicts, of course), but Betty is somehow trapped in the life she has. There’s no where for her to go; she’s boxed into a role with no “growth opportunities” and has been stripped of her agency. Don, his coworkers, and most of their social circle sees Betty as both an extension of Don and Don’s plaything — a young, attractive Grace Kelly lookalike whose purpose is to serve her family.

I should note, however, that Betty does keep house, but only to an extent. Throughout the show, the Drapers have a housekeeper who completes most of the housework and looks after the children. Betty is, quite literally, left to her own devices, which further compounds her disatisfaction with life.

Betty had high aspirations. She graduated from Bryn Mawr with an anthropology degree and then started a promising career as a model. Instead, she gets pregnant and is quickly married to the baby’s father — Don. Thrust into marriage and motherhood, Betty’s life is ripped out from under her. She watches Don become more and more successful while she stays home, her discontent leading to mental and physical numbness.

Her role throughout the show can be classified as antagonizer, though that’s a crude name for what Betty truly is — depressed. Her misery grows from episode one. Don expects her to play the part of being happy because he provides so well for the family, but that isn’t the point. Even as Betty becomes more and more cruel, her actions are a manifestation of the deep hurt and resentment she feels toward what’s become of her life.

Her growth throughout the series does not see her climbing career highpoints or setting off on an independent route, like the other main female characters. She does grow, though. By the end of Season 7, Betty speaks her mind about the Vietnam War, starts a Master’s Degree, and faces her lung cancer diagnosis with a sense of acceptance of her life. Could she still be unhappy? Absolutely — but it’s more than that.

More than any other character in Mad Men, Betty played the hand she was dealt. It wasn’t great and she made a lot of misteps along the way, but she realized she could seek out her own dreams and aspirations without holding resentment for the situation she had been placed in.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

by Jennifer Dines

Blance and Jane, two middle aged women, sit in a house. Jane yells at Blanche.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as Blanche and Jane, respectively. 

1962’s hagspolitation classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? serves as a metaphor for the experience of the American mother through its portrayal of caretaking.

The film begins in the vaudeville era with child star Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) peddling her look-alike doll to adoring fans on stages across American while her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) looked on from wings. By the 1930s, however, Blanche had risen as a Hollywood movie star while Jane took up heavy drinking and received roles only at the behest of her sister. In the present day of the film, the early 1960s, Blanche remains handsome albeit wheelchair bound, while Jane has become an anti-starlet, her dumpy figure shuffling about in a housecoat and slippers while wearing gobs of melting make-up.

Reruns of Blanche’s films still play on television, and Blanche sits about in her wheelchair, dazed by her on-screen performance, while Jane, who prepares Blanche’s every meal while running the household, repeatedly asks whether anyone remembers Baby Jane Hudson, first at a newspaper office while placing and ad, and, later on, when she first meets a potential new friend, Edwin. Of course, no one does.

Babies are the Blanches of the world, lazing around in bouncy chairs and strollers, receiving coos and compliments while their largely-forgotten mothers race around in the background to diaper, feed, and clean them. Like the doll Jane keeps in the parlor as a memento of her better days, mothers fall in value with aging. Passing a mirror after a long day of relentless childcare, an exhausted mother might expect to see a haggard and distorted face like Jane’s looking back at her.

Blanche inhabits an upstairs room in the home outfitted with an electric buzzer, which she uses incessantly to demand Jane’s attention. At one point, it interrupts Jane while she prepares one of Blanche’s meals, causing Jane to let loose a blood-curdling scream. Later, when Jane settles in for a chat with Edwin, Blanche rings her buzzer for the upteemth time. Jane races upstairs and rips the buzzer’s cords from the wall. Any mother with a baby monitor might cheer Jane’s triumph over this infernal disruption.

A mother-viewer’s sympathy for Jane can only grow when considering how little Jane has to look forward to. As children get older and enter school, they make far less demands on a mother’s time and energy. And when their children earn good grades and play sports or perform in dance recitals, their mother’s can bask in the glow of a job well done.

But what rewards might Jane reap for her efforts? Her alcoholism and mental illness have rendered her friendless, and her stardom has no hope of making a comeback. After all the energy Jane has poured into Blanche’s well-being, Jane, listening in on Blanche’s phone call, hears Blanche telling one Dr. Shelby that her sister behaves like an emotionally disturbed person. Is it any wonder that Jane reaches a breaking point, serving Blanche’s pet bird up for lunch, cutting the phone lines, and kicking Blanche in the head?

While neither Bette Davis nor Jane Crawford play mothers in the film, both actresses were real life mothers. Bette Davis’s daughter even has a small part in Baby Jane, as a normal teenager living next door to the Hudson sisters. And both Bette and Jane received a common punishment for their efforts in parenting: their daughters wrote poison pen tell-all memoirs about them, B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper and Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. These books serve as warnings to mothers everywhere against acting out their resentments on their children.

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