Mad Women: Betty, no one likes a temper tantrum.

The Mad Men writers can develop characters in the most sparse of scenes, but with Betty, they’re beating us over the head: Betty is a child. We get it. She loves talking to a child psychologist. She gets mushy at the site of dollhouses. She pouts, needs a man to guide her, and now she’s throwing tantrums.

Betty and Sally have switched roles: Sally learned to control her anger, and replaced it with sad acceptance. Betty has replaced her sadness, noticed by preteen neighbor-boy Glen and many others throughout the seasons, with rage.

The role reversal was most apparent in a recent episode during which Sally’s psychologist decided to cut down on her visits. Sally shrugged and smiled at the decision; Betty freaked out, refused the suggestion of an adult psychologist for herself, and coolly kept her monthly appointment with the doctor, “to keep up on Sally’s progress.”

And now Betty is throwing tantrums. She decides the whole family needs to move to a new house. She fires Carla. Both of these sudden decisions are based on Glen, because Betty hates the preteen, and he won’t go away, or stop being friends with Sally.

Betty hates Glen so much because at one time, he was the only person she could talk to. Betty was sad, lonely and bored, and Glen understood with the quiet, somber wisdom of a child whose mother was often absent. He reminds her of her sadness and helplessness. And she hates that.

Betty was always good at pouting, but the trouble is, no one sees what she’s pouting for anymore. She divorced her philandering drunk of a spouse and is now married to Henry, a doting father and husband. She’s beautiful, has a beautiful home, and has plenty of money. So what’s the fuss? Her constant vitriol towards life bothers even Henry, who used to be patient and soothing. “For once, can’t you be on my side!” Betty yells in the last episode, defending herself for firing Carla. “Betty, no one’s ever on your side,” he retorts as he walks away, showing how Betty pities herself for being so alone in the world, and how in many ways she is.

We know precious little about Betty. We know that she was once a model, she speaks fluent Italian, and she rode horses as a girl. The only thing that would seem to make her happy is looking perfect and having the perfect home and family. But there’s no such thing as perfection. Betty refuses to let go of her unrealistic, childhood fantasy of the perfect domestic life.

Or can she? She waited up for happened upon Don as she moved the last box out of the house in the season finale. She tried to get his sympathy: “Things are hard,” she said, with a stiff upper lip. Don responded with the news of his engagement. The fact that she powdered her nose and freshened up before seeing Don suggested that she was trying for a reconciliation, and one last chance at the fantasy of the perfect life. Or perhaps she was just trying to bid a proper goodbye to that dream. Either way, she gave Don the key and walked out of the house.

I hope that in the next season Betty learns to want something other than that failed dream, that she develops as a character, and that we’ll stop hating her. A friend of mine hopes that Betty joins the women’s movement. I bet Betty would balk at such activities at first, but then she’d be won over. The dream of domesticity failed her. The movement in the sixties was made for women like her.

This is, after all, the woman who shot her neighbor’s pet birds in the middle of the afternoon, her hair unkempt, wearing her nightgown.  The guy threatened her kids, and she got mad. And Betty, we learned, is a pretty good shot.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

2 thoughts on “Mad Women: Betty, no one likes a temper tantrum.

  1. Pingback: Mad Women: Joan and the double-edged sword of female sexuality « FemThreads

  2. Pingback: Mad Women: The secretaries « FemThreads

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