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In defence of Mad Men’s Betty Francis

Mad Men hardly needs an introduction; the show’s reputation for its brilliant acting, writing, visual style and historical accuracy speaks for itself. Set in the ‘60s, it depicts a fictional advertising agency in New York and follows the personal and professional lives of the people who work there.

Despite the apparent charm of suits, swing dresses and smoky offices, the show does not brush over its unglamorous aspects. After all, this is a world where sexism is rampant; where the concept of equal pay is still unheard of; where Don Draper, the series’ protagonist, storms out of a meeting because he ‘won’t let a woman talk to him this way’. It’s also a world where female characters can only fit three archetypes: housewives, mistresses, or working women. 

Where, then, does Betty Francis, Don’s Draper former wife and mother of three, fit into this man-dominated world? Our first impression of Betty is of the stereotypical ‘60s housewife; she looks perfect, smiles sweetly, and never questions her husband when he comes home late at night. Like an asset, she fits into Don Draper’s perfectly crafted image. He has the perfect car, wife, and career. Betty’s story seems too good to be true. It seems rehearsed. 

As the show progresses, we notice that her placid smile falters when someone’s not watching her. Her hands occasionally go numb, perhaps the body’s quiet way of expressing some internal turmoil, and she smokes a little too much, even by the show’s standards. She is cold and ruthless towards her children, but later we find out that her own mother was emotionally abusive, berating her to lose weight and look pretty for men. Her psychiatrist patronises her and calls her husband to fill him in on their sessions. Alone and betrayed, she cries to nine-year old Glen Bishop, a divorcee neighbour’s son, that she has no one to talk to. It seems odd to me that we’re meant to sympathise with Don Draper, who lies, cheats and does anything in his power to climb up the social ladder (including jeopardising his wife’s potential career), but it’s Betty Francis who receives most of the hate. Why is she, the show’s only closely observed stay-at-home mum, seen by critics and viewers alike as a monster? Do we blame women like her for their lack of autonomy? Is she spoiled and cruel, or just a product of society at the time? Is it her fault for having a bad relationship with her children? Or has she been taught to value her role as a wife more?

21/04/2020

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