Betty Draper from Mad Men makes me both angry and sympathetic. Despite her unsavory qualities such as vanity and stubbornness, it’s important to realize that most of her qualities are a product of an antiquated and suppressive society. She is vain because, throughout her life, she’s been valued by her looks instead of her intelligence. She is stubborn because she isn’t fulfilled with being a trophy wife and ex-wife to two successful men.
Betty Draper is a graduate from the prestigious, all women's school Bryn Mawr College. She graduated with an Anthropology degree and is fluent in Italian. In her past life, before she became a stay-at-home mom, she use to model in Italy. There, she meets her first husband and the show’s protagonist, Don Draper. They had three kids and lived in a quaint suburban house. After a turbulent marriage with Don, she marries Henry Francis, a politician who treats her better than Don, but who still fails to recognize her as more than a wife and mother.
Towards the end of the first season, while she was still married to Don, we see Betty struggling to find value outside of her humdrum home and insufficient marriage. She tries to revitalize her modeling career in an attempt to relive a time when the world was her stomping ground. She got a gig from Don’s connection with Coca Cola. Despite having to ask for her husband’s permission, she was happy to be in front of the camera, feeling pretty and, therefore, valuable again. Unfortunately, her pictures were not used because they wanted something fresh and new. She went back to her humdrum home and insufficient marriage, telling herself it was silly to pursue something outside of those two realms.
Betty places a lot of her pride in being pretty, pleasing other people, and conforming to societal expectations. However, it comes at an expense. She was told that her appearance was more important than her mind. She placed her value in something fleeting and external. She was told by society that marriage and children will lead her to a path of happiness. As a result, her time of self-exploration and independence was cut short because she needed to fulfill her roles as a mother and wife.
After her failed attempt at modeling, she realized (consciously or unconsciously) that basing her value externally was not sustainable. At the last season, Betty decides to pursue a degree in Psychology so she can be a psychologist. I like to believe that Betty would have gone on to become a psychologist for women, taking their concerns and feelings seriously instead of labeling them as “hysterical” like her previous psychologist. Maybe helping other women motivated her to go back to school or maybe it was to get in touch with a version of herself that was happy and fulfilled.
I don’t believe that being a mother and wife was not purposeful and fulfilling for Betty, but I do believe she was not fulfilled being her own person. Betty did not have the chance to explore who she is independent of someone else. She was someone’s daughter and soon after leaving home she became someone’s wife and mother. She settled down when the world was just opening to her and because of that she felt like she was cheated out of life. She looked to other people to justify her value, until the end when she looked to herself for happiness and fulfillment.
From the outside, Betty Draper has it all: a lovely home, a family, beauty and money. However, as we see through her character, those things don’t necessarily fulfill a woman. What gives lasting fulfillment is purpose, which is what Betty seeks throughout the entirety of the show. She comes off as rash, naive, stubborn and vain because her purpose is caught in between what she wants and what society tells her she should want.
Love her or hate her, Betty’s role elegantly portrays the complexity of womanhood in the 1940s through 60s, while still being relatable today. Let’s face it, many modern feminists (like myself) still dream of having a white-picket fence, a lovely family, and a husband. However, we also dream of a life outside of a suburban home, like at a corner office or in a totally different country. It’s important to realize all these things aren’t mutually exclusive and that a woman should have the agency to pursue any path that gives her happiness, purpose, and fulfillment. For Betty, these feminist ideals weren’t socialized yet. In the end, however, she regained her power, took control of her life, and followed her dreams despite living in a world of full mad men.