Last night’s episode of Mad Men introduced us to a very different-looking Betty Draper/Francis. With the help of January Jones’ real life pregnancy and probably some prosthetics, she’d been transformed from a slim, pretty housewife with toxic mental problems to a slightly chubby, still pretty housewife with toxic mental problems but a tiny hint of a softer side (no pun intended). Is this a cue for viewers to feel more sympathy for the show’s most hated character?
In a word: no. We should feel the exact same amount of sympathy we felt for her before, because it’s a result of the same issues she’s had for the whole series. Like her doctor tells her, drastic weight gain in a housewife in 1966 was generally the result of psychological issues. As someone who grew up in deeply sexist times and lacked the tremendous inner strength it took for someone to become a Joan or a Peggy, Betty was always doomed to fall victim to what feminist writer Betty Friedan termed “the feminine mystique:” the gender essentialist idea that women are naturally most fulfilled by being wives and mothers. Except, as we’ve seen already, that’s obviously not true for Betty; she’s a terrible mother who’d obviously be much happier without children, and with something to do all day. Hence, she ends up with “the problem that has no name,” shorthand for the widespread unhappiness that afflicted many middle and upper class housewives of the time despite their living in material comfort and having all the things that were supposed to make them happy. (And up until recently, Betty didn’t even have all of those things; Don was hardly the picture of a loving, faithful husband.)
We’ve seen these issues manifest in various ways before: the way Betty’s hands used to go numb while driving, the way she treated (and continues to treat) her kids, her generally nasty demeanor. But it’s different this time, because getting fat seems far worse to Betty than any of those other things, and even maybe worse than having cancer. Under the patriarchal value system Betty has internalized, a woman’s primary value is in her looks, and when those start to go, she’s basically just sitting around waiting to die. For the first time, we see Betty deal with her problems not by lashing out at others, but by growing eerily quiet and nice. I can half imagine Sally going “are you okay?” and feeling her mom’s forehead when she offered her an ice cream sundae. Since getting fat is the worst possible thing that could happen to Betty under her own value system (her “rock bottom,” if you will), maybe it will be the thing that finally forces her to re-evaluate that system and whether or not it’s actually working for her. Or maybe she’ll lose the weight through sheer force of will and go back to the way she was before, who knows? Betty is not known for her ability to learn and grow.
A third possibility, of course, is that she’ll say “fuck you” to all of it and stick her head in the oven. It would take the show to a pretty dark place, but Mad Men has gone dark places before, and after watching many seasons of Betty becoming an emotionally deformed monster due to factors beyond her control, it might be the most humane (and realistic) way to go. It would also drive home the point that Betty is a victim, not a villain, for all the people who don’t get it yet. This has always been a feminist show, and part of its project is showing the pernicious effects living under patriarchy had, and to a lesser extent, continues to have, on women. There’s also been talk that Matthew Weiner was asked to kill off some characters as part of his negotiations for season 5, and Betty seems like a fitting candidate. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.