I enjoyed writing about Betty Draper, actress January Jones’s character in the AMC show “Mad Men”. My husband and I love watching “Mad Men”: the writing is impeccable, interspersed with meaningful silences rather than inane dialogue, and the plot lines reveal much about the historical moment. And let’s not forget the elelgant fashion sense. Betty Draper is a beautiful woman who would spur resentment among women viewers if it were not for her endearing innocence coupled with her potential to blosom into a force her philandering husband will have to reckon with. I root for Betty in every episode. Reading “Beautiful Betty as budding artist” will tell you why.
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “Beautiful Betty as budding artist“, a profile of January Jones’s character on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”.
“News India Times” November 6, 2009
“Beautiful Betty as budding artist” by Kavita Ramdya
Ironically, the most nuanced female character on television today is Betty Draper, played by January Jones on the AMC hit show “Mad Men”. Betty is a blonde, stay-at-home mother and wife whose “girl-next-door” sex appeal and soft-spoken voice reflect an era, the 1960s, when women were generally considered to have less depth than a cookie tray. Mrs. Draper is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College where she studied Anthropology before falling in love with Donald Draper, her elusive husband, on a photo shoot during her short stint as a model in Manhattan. Soon after marrying her mysterious beau, Betty has two children in quick succession with a man whose name and pedigree are based on lies he’s perpetrated in order to escape his origin as a poor, motherless son of a dead whore and frequent target of emotional and physical abuse from his drunken father and his wife in the Depression-era Midwest. The viewer watches Betty raise her newly-arrived infant with as much attentiveness as an adolescent teenager pays his homework on a Friday night. Coincidentally, the baby’s conception coincides with Betty’s only extra-marital dalliance.
Donald Draper, Betty’s cheating husband, is an elusive character. He is a man of few words, but his silence is his most effective tool both in the workplace and at home. However, whereas Don is written as a character who slips in and out of his colleagues, children, lovers and wife’s lives, Betty is even more a spectre than her husband. She says little, but TV viewers can almost feel the vibrations of an impending earthquake behind her lifeless voice and shining, empty eyes.
I’ve met my fair share number of Betty Drapers. They are women who seem to have it all: a good head on their shoulders, a flattering physique, clear skin, a loving family, an education, boyfriend or husband and often times a job if not a career. However, women like Betty Draper stew in their own self-made boredom. Ironically, it’s the safety, security and stability in Betty’s life that threatens to unhinge her and Donald Draper’s sphere of domesticity: their family, home and marriage.
The antidote to these women’s boredom, rather than join motorcycle club “Hell’s Angels”, party in Ibiza, or hike up the Himalayas, is artistry. Betty Draper is almost inconveniently good looking, but what makes her so compelling a character is her deafeningly stoic, tight-lipped persona, a result of the self- and society-imposed inability to express herself. Betty is a woman male viewers appreciate because she is easy on the eyes and female fans love because we’re rooting for her to break of out of the emotional and intellectual boundaries she’s complicit in drawing.
The challenge that faces Betty and her contemporary, real-life peers is that they struggle to express themselves artistically and intellectually. Betty’s one shot at artistic self expression is modelling which is cut short when she marries Donald, and although she bravely attempts to revive her short-lived career, she does not persevere when Donald’s business partner pulls the plug on her starring role in a Coca-Cola commercial.
Donald studies Betty while she lies to him, claiming that she quit modelling because it takes her away from her children. He knows that she is lying to him and yet he also fully comprehends her potential. However, as a woman struggling to honestly express herself, Betty is of little use to him apart from baring him children. Her inability and unwillingness to conduct herself as an equal to Donald is why he is as heartless to her as he is passionate with his lovers. Until Betty blossoms into a mature adult with an adult psyche, Donald Draper effortlessly and guiltlessly cures his passion for confident, expressive and challenging women by conducting extra-marital affairs. It is no coincidence that his girlfriends include a successful and independent photographer, a business-savvy retail titan and a teacher who loves her job.
What paralyzes Betty from self expression is that she keeps safely ensconced in her suburban home and abhors risk. The men in her life—her father, brother and husband—treat her as if the extent of her God-given gifts are her beauty and feminine wiles. Because Betty has both these qualities in abundance, neither she nor her family expect more from her. She is both blessed and cursed by her beauty, a fleeting gift.
Betty’s options are many: finding the aging process a way to relieve her from the restrictions of her self-conscious beauty, re-enact Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking play “A Doll’s House” and abandon her family, or discover self expression through artistry.
Perhaps the least-destructive as well as highly-constructive solution for Betty and similarly beauty-shackled women is the third option: artistry. Betty suffers from boredom in her suburban home, burdened by uninteresting children and intermittently abandoned by her passion-seeking husband. Her one option for continuing to manage her “householder” duties (as the Hindus would say of her function as a mother and wife) while also living a life committed to deep introspection and self expression is finding her method for artistry, whether through painting, drawing, writing, acting, modelling, etc.
For individuals such as Betty Draper whose gender and beauty imprison them and whose comfortable, secure lives leave them unmotivated, the arts provide a way to challenge themselves intellectually and emotionally by providing a method with which to articulate and express their observations and questions about the world in which they live.
Betty’s life is a blessed one – she is beautiful and coddled, healthy and safe. But her character demonstrates that women in the 1960s, like women now, don’t benefit intellectually or emotionally if unchallenged. Floating through life as if on auto-pilot softens the edges from which creative thought and innovation springs. Betty Draper, beautiful and young, is a television character with the potential to flourish despite her philandering husband and suburban lifestyle. I look forward to seeing, as details from her husband’s past surface, how Betty navigates the social mores of 1960s America while keeping her own individuality and self respect intact.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html