Get Ready Betty

I’ve been too hard on Betty Draper.

If you’re not a fan of AMC’s Mad Men, you’re likely unaware that she’s the quintessentially pretty blonde wife of Don Draper who cut short her modeling career at the age of (what?) 20 (?) to raise a family. Mother of three, the contempt in her voice every time she tells her daughter to, “go watch TV,” is proof enough that Betty is resentful. With a maid/cook on staff and a television to raise the kids, her only job is to occasionally make herself stunning for evenings out (mostly at Don’s agency gatherings). She rarely smiles. Oh, and I forgot to mention: it’s the early 1960s.

Last night Andy and I finished watching Season 3 on DVD and even as I sighed with annoyance over Betty’s monotone commands issued to the sweet lisping Sally (can you tell I’m most bothered by her lack of parenting?), I finally – after 37 episodes – realized that deeper than my judgement and jealousy is pity.

The compassion hit me all at once. I wish I could remember exactly what had just happened on the show, but I can’t. All I know is that I was probably gawking over her beauty or the absolutely perfect mise-en-scene (nearly every single shot has a composition worthy of a print ad) when it occurred to me: I’m the beneficiary of wisdom Betty never had access to.

When I think of all the information I’ve absorbed that positively shaped my emotional and spiritual development, I realize much of it didn’t even exist in 1963. And if it did exist, a housewife in a NY suburb didn’t have access to it.

  • The Phil Donahue Show – Mom watched this on summer days during her breaks from teaching. In the early years, I can’t remember if I watched with her or just played with my Baby Alive in the vicinity, but eventually, I was hooked. Phil and his guests exposed ideas to me I’d never thought of; but of course, I was a child. I can only imagine how invigorating, validating and comforting the forum must have been for the Betty Drapers of the world.
  • . . . and Donahue invented the medium for Oprah.
  • Marianne Williamson – In my early 20’s when I thought “God” was irrelevant to me if I didn’t want to participate in an organized religion (and I most certainly did not want to participate in an organized religion), attending Marianne’s lectures taught me to pray and meditate. It was the first time I heard someone announce from a podium words that I interpreted as meaning: God transcends all human religions and God is within each and every one of us.
  • Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within – Needless to say, Betty lived in a world yet to be transformed by the American Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements, and I don’t know a world without them. But if I reduce Gloria’s impact down to the specific way she has touched me directly, it would be through her book, Revolution from Within. Recommended to me by a boyfriend when my weak self-esteem reared its desperate head, learning about it is quite possibly the main cosmic reason why he and I had to spend time together. (I wonder what the cosmos intended him to glean from me?)

That list gets us up to my late 20s, which is fair enough since (according to Wiki) Betty’s 31.

Trying to imagine living in her world depresses me. If I exaggerate in vague sweeps, it’s not unlike envisioning a Helen Kellerish existence without sight or sound. But this is just a TV show, and the series never lets us forget that change isn’t merely coming, it’s arriving. It’ll be painful for Betty when her maid eventually walks out on her and little lisping Sally grows into a mad-as-hell war protestor, but if her lungs can shake the nicotine, she’ll survive.

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