The Sins of the Mother: Some Thoughts on MAD MEN’s Betty Draper

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In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”

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I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.

We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.

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While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique [1963]) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).

After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.

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Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”

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This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.

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So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?

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17 thoughts on “The Sins of the Mother: Some Thoughts on MAD MEN’s Betty Draper

    Rosie said:
    September 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Gene Hofstadt was a two-faced bastard. Where was he when Betty was young? Why didn’t he help her form a life for herself? Instead, he left her in the hands of his wife, who called her a whore for becoming a professional model . . . and did nothing but complain about her marriage to Don and for leading a “shallow” life. What a bastard. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned.

    So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?

    I don’t hate Betty. And I certainly do not undestand why you expect her to be a perfect parent. Is it because she is not a professional and has to interact with the kids on a daily basis? Or is it because she is a woman . . . and as one, is expected to be the one parent in the Draper household to be the perfect parent. Have you complained about Don’s parenting skills? Or Gene Hofstadt’s?

    princesscowboy responded:
    September 8, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    I agree that the character of Gene was not entirely sympathetic. He seems frustrated with the woman Betty has become and yet doesn’t acknowledge the role he played in making her the person she is today.

    I don’t hate Betty either and I don’t think that she should be a perfect parent. But don’t you think Betty is particularly cold with her two children? As the show has evolved this character trait has become more pronounced–she rarely touches them or shows any affection. Don is hardly a model parent but he shows the children a bit more affection than Betty does.

    My question was about the show’s intent for Betty’s character–is she meant to be the character we love to hate (like Pete Campbell) or are we supposed to view her the way we view Don–as a character who does very bad things but who we still feel compassion for? I’m looking forward to hearing more about Betty’s past in future episodes…

    BigLittleWolf said:
    September 8, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Part of the pleasure of this show is that NONE of the characters are entirely sympathetic, which is very true to life, and very unusual for television. These characters are somewhere between anti-heroes and flawed heroes – or, simply not “heroes” at all.

    As for the many reactions and interactions in this family (you point out a number of them with great insight), remember that these sort of behaviors were commonplace in the early 60s, and I dare say throughout the sixties and into the early 70s. Children really WERE expected to be seen and not heard; what was and wasn’t damaging – however subtle – simply wasn’t the stuff of media or academic fodder that it is today.

    And Betty’s reserve is the sort of behavior that was taught and praised in (wasp) mid-century America. As is Don’s backing off on matters of the household. I don’t think she’s a “Pete” at all; I do think she is rife for all sorts of changes, as the decade changes dramatically. Your “Feminine Mystique” suggestion is an intriguing one.

    As for Gene? Frightening, intuitive, and a bit of a bastard. As I said – a show with complex characters, which keeps us watching.

    princesscowboy responded:
    September 9, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Well said BigLittleWolf. Clearly, Betty’s friends think she is an ideal mother–she is doing exactly what is expected of her. But I keep thinking of that strange interaction in Season 1 between Betty and Glen (the son of newly divorced Helen). She seemed so much warmer with this child–because he truly needed her (but so do her own kids)? because she could sense his sexual feelings for her? I always wanted more with this story line.

      BigLittleWolf said:
      September 9, 2009 at 6:40 pm

      OK Princess. That remark is fascinating. I hadn’t thought about Helen’s son. Great point. Betty really did seem warmer to him, more sympathetic.

      In a way, I think she needed his adoration, even as she needed to dismiss the sexuality in his feelings. And since he wasn’t her child, she didn’t have the day in, day out referee or disciplining duties.

      It would’ve made for a juicy story line. You’re quite right. One of the things about this show that I enjoy as well is that they don’t try to tie everything up neatly like a best-selling work of fiction. It makes it more authentic, and leaves the writers (and the viewers) all kinds of possibilities for the future.

      I think Betty is a bit lost and more than a little hungry for things she cannot articulate, as were so many women in the 50s and 60s. We may still be a bit lost and hungry – but now – we know the why’s and wherefore’s. And we have the language to articulate our contradictions. In part, thanks to the movement that will, indeed begin soon in the Mad Men timeline.

      Great post.

      T.U.M. said:
      September 10, 2009 at 10:48 am

      I think most people treat other people’s children differently. Certainly my mother was more indulgent with other people’s children, precisely because they were other people’s children. She wasn’t responsible for what kind of person they would grow up to be, she didn’t have to worry about maintaining her authority, and so there was more freedom there. And my aunts were the same with me. Nothing could be more natural, or expected.

    Rosie said:
    September 9, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Glen was not her child. He was not someone she had to raise or discipline. He was also someone who was able to understand her on an emotional level, just as she was able to understand him. In a way, her dealings with Glen reminded me of Gene’s dealings with Bobby and especially Sally. It is a lot easier for some people to interact with children who are not their own. It was a lot easier for Gene to be a grandparent than it was for him to be a parent. Which would explain why Betty was able to bond emotionally with Viola, the family’s maid, and not her parents. Which would explain why it is easier for children to discuss their problems with those who are not their parents.

    Randall said:
    September 9, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Perceptive comments by all, and I’m not buttering you up.

    My opinion of Betty fluctuates, but I can never detest her wholly–not after seeing her fire on her neighbor’s pigeons in a season one episode. She was standing up for her children, in a very out-of-character way. (The neighbor had threatened the dog in front of them.)

    Okay, in that scene she may have been merely venting her anger over her aborted modeling career. Her motives may have been self-centered, but, heck, that ambiguity makes her only more like the rest of us.

    Annie Petersen said:
    September 9, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    As pointed out above, the codes of intimacy were much different during this period — my mother, who would have been almost exactly Sally’s age, was rarely hugged, kissed, or coddled by her parents. There were strict rules and you respected them — not in a corporal punishment sort of way, but because that was the way that family worked. My grandmother also smoked and drank throughout all three of her pregnancies (the doctor even recommended continued smoking so as to avoid ‘extra pregnancy weight’). While, as an ambitious graduate student, my primary point of identification is certainly Peggy, I absolutely recognize how Peggy’s fortunes (or my fortunes) could have turned into those of Betty’s….and how absolutely furious I’d feel. Especially when there was so little I could — or felt I could — do about it.

    BigLittleWolf said:
    September 15, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Hey Princess,

    I don’t know if you’re a mother or not, but the most recent episode of Mad Men (“The Fog”) gave me the chills. Strong performances by all, as usual, and the childbirth scenes make me glad I had my kids in the 90s!

    princesscowboy responded:
    September 15, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    Big, I am a mother and yes, I found that scene to be very disturbing! It would be nice to think that the writers were engaging in hyperbole but I have heard that women were often knocked out upon arriving at the hospital, only to wake up with a baby in their arms. The show’s depiction of this was amazing, I thought. Poor Betty! Makes a long, brutal (but clear-headed) labor seem preferable. Almost.

    Elizabeth said:
    October 2, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    The family dynamic of Don and Betty Draper as per their interaction with Sally is virtually identical to what I experienced as a child with a mother who was narcissistic (she was called “spoiled” back then) and emotionally impaired father. She let us kids know that she only had children as part of the bargain to marry our strong handsome FBI agent father, never wanting to participate in our lives. Meanwhile our father had us “sucking it up” rather than being allowed to acknowledge we had any feelings. Complicating everything was the sudden death by heart attack of our father when we four kids were all still at home, disabling my mother into complete neglect of us. What happened as a result? My oldest brother turned out obsessive-compulsive with the perfectionistic goal of earning a million dollars before he was 30. Instead he ended up in federal prison convicted of credit card fraud. The second son was a psychotic bully as a child, torturing animals and starting fires, who reformed into a narcissistic self-help guru as an adult who can’t understand anyone else’s emotions. I, chronically depressed from my early elementary school years, was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my 50s after several suicide attempts. Meanwhile, our youngest brother became paranoid schizophrenic after taking mind-altering drugs in his teens, ending in prison for 30 years after the double murder of our mother and the rich, exciting stepfather she married even after he told her he wouldn’t have anything to do with any of us kids. Even if you could pinpoint awful things our mother experienced that influenced her to behave this way as a parent (and there really wasn’t any trauma, only spoiling), there is no excuse for the toxic atmosphere in which she raised us. Even though all four of us were genetically different in temperament, we all ended up inflicted with severe mental disorders as her children that we have been fighting all our lives.

      Sophie said:
      November 26, 2009 at 8:53 am

      My god. How awful.

    noypi said:
    July 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    i agree. i feel really bad that a lot dont appreciate ms. jones’ work on mad men. however, i think that the very fact people feel a strong dislike for betty draper(and by extension january jones the actress) is testament to how effectively she plays the character. her character is supposed to come off as thankless and a brat. she is stifled and unhappy. see the season3 episode “THE SOUVENIR” where she and don went to rome. there you can see her be a very different person, only to be back as a lonely housewife once they went home after the trip. brilliant work

    DRush76 said:
    October 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    The problem with this article is that many seemed to view Betty’s style of parenthood as something to be avoided, yet view 21st parenthood as something ideal. I don’t think so. First of all, Betty was never emotionally distant with her children, all of the time. She had her periods of warmth toward them. Yet, whenever she had to act as a disciplinarian – something that Don always failed to do – fans accuse her of being a monster.

    I’m not saying that mid 20th century parenting was perfect. But where do people get this opinion that early 21st century parenting IS? I recall coming across a recent article in which Matt Weiner claimed that January Jones will be a “MODERN PARENT”. What an ass! Is he really that arrogant to believe that modern day parenting is perfect? To me, many 21st century parents are nothing but a bunch of modern-day Mildred Pierces, who indulge and enable their children’s bad behavior.

    BigLittleWolf said:
    October 3, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    It’s fascinating that this topic continues to stir emotions – even two years after this post was written!

    To you, DRush76, I would say that Betty leaves much to be desired as a parent, but again – I find that her behavior was absolutely acceptable for the times, and perhaps, not unusual.

    That said, I agree that 50 years later we’ve certainly swung the pendulum far afield. Then again, our “entitlement” society could reasonably be predicted to spread to “entitlement” parenting as well, no? Chicken or the egg? I don’t think it’s that simple.

    Note that in the two years of Mad Men since this post was written, we’ve been shown other (more maternal) examples of womanly warmth, from other cast characters. It will be interesting to see what sort of mother Joan makes, when the next season (finally!) airs, in just a few months.

    One last thought, if you will. No matter what we do or how we do it, mothering will always take a hit. We (mothers) aren’t to blame for all the ills arising in our children. Over-parenting isn’t quite as rampant as you may think; I believe that is a slightly distorted view, in part to do with those in the spotlight being those with a certain privilege.

    The rest of us? We’re hanging on for dear life, doing the best we can with what we’ve got – somewhere in between Betty at her chilliest and the stereotypical Helicopter parent.

    The bottom line is – when it comes to motherhood, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Betty Draper said:
    March 6, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Hey there! I simply wish to offer you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info you’ve got right here on this post. I am returning to your web site for more soon.

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