I don’t write about Mad Men regularly, but I watch it every week. Any regular viewer of the show knows that Betty, played by January Jones, is a deeply unhappy woman. This season opened revealing that Betty had gained a significant amount of weight. I must admit that I found it compelling to watch, as Betty weighed her food and supped on dry toast and half a grapefruit. When she saw Meaghan, Don’s new wife getting changed, it was clear that she considered herself less than, after all she is older than Meaghan and heavier.
In a moment of weakness, Betty sprayed cool whip into her mouth and then quickly spit it out and rinsed out her mouth. In this scene, we were treated to the idea of stress eating and fat symbolizing a loss of control. Much of Betty’s self esteem comes from her physical appearance. Finding a note in which Don expressed affection towards Meaghan, in a manner that he never showed her, solidified in her mind that she is less than. In these few scenes involving Betty, we were treated to the ongoing struggle that many women today continue to face.
To be clear, Betty is truly an unsympathetic woman, but these scene were not merely a display of the problems that plagued women in the 60’s. Though most women today will have to work to earn a living, young girls are still taught that their value is based in their ability to be pretty and fit perceived norms. To achieve this, many women will engage in harmful behaviours because being seen as attractive is one of the few social powers that women possess. Beauty as a power is a fools game because as you age, this power declines. It causes one to chase after youth, as though having children, or stress in one’s life is the great betrayer.
This episode resonated with me because despite the advancements of women, these problems continue to plague us. It made me think about those who continue to starve themselves to fit into these norms. The advancement of medicine means that women can take this one step further and partake in harmful surgeries. From breast enlargements to designer vaginas, far too many women suffer to conform and in the end, it brings us no sense of happiness or fulfillment, because patriarchy delights in this failed project to achieve perfection.
It does not help that as women we police each other. We play the game by patriarchy’s rule through judging each other, and the snide whispered comments meant to shatter souls. Betty wants the life that Meaghan has, the body that Meaghan has and in comparison all she can see, are all of the things that are wrong with her. I know the old adage of the grass always being greener seems to apply, but the truth is far more insidious, because it is a reflection of a negative legacy into which all women are born.
Because Mad Men is largely an exclusionary show, this episode did not explore the way that the beauty prison effects marginalized women. If the task is impossible for a White woman, it is beyond insurmountable for a WOC. Our bodies are shaped differently, and we are constantly reminded of this by the fascination and fetishization of them. Our hair is ridiculed and the darker you are, the less likely you are to be viewed as human. It’s not uncommon for us to be called men as a reminder of our failure to fit an unrealistic ideal. Wendy Williams and Serena and Venus Williams are often subjected to this body and gender shaming attacks.
Much of the gender conversation about Mad Men, regularly focuses on either Peggy or Joan. I think a critical examination of Betty is avoided simply because her character is so deeply unpleasant but in not talking about her, we are ignoring the fact that she negotiates many of the gender issues which are still prevalent today. One need not be nice, to have internalized negative patriarchal messages about what it is to be a woman.
I think that this would be a great opportunity to talk about some of the patriarchal ideals that we have internalized and are struggling to eradicate.