By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
By Mad Men’s fifth season, Betty Draper had walked out of our lives, and a much plumper Betty Francis had waddled in. The audience response to this swollen version of a once-slender character: a collective cringe. Suddenly Betty became a joke. In no time, a parody of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” hit the Internet, spoofing the ice cream-guzzling former beauty queen as “Fat Betty.”
“I think people were shocked she was still on the show,” Mad Men creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner concurred in a recent sit-down at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She’d become superfluous, many thought. Had Weiner written Betty out, it’s likely few would have criticized him.
“I never want to do the show without January,” Weiner says plainly. “She’s such an interesting actress, quite honestly, and she originally signed on for three lines.”
Betty appeared only at the very end of Mad Men’s pilot, and she was purposely left out of the season-one promotional campaign. Weiner wanted the very existence of the fool-around ad man’s stunning wife to be a surprise. Betty was perfection embodied, but a sucker. Weiner says, “I thought that it was a great story about how this woman had gotten into this situation.”
Throughout four seasons, Betty continued to be an enigma, her insides often out of sync with her exterior. She could be pleasant yet masked anger. She seemed demure but was vain. Her happy shell encased inner turmoil. Such was the intrigue of her character.
Betty eventually left Don for the dashing politico Henry Francis, who seemed to offer all the prestige in a marriage she believed her beauty afforded her.
But in season five, “I was presented with this problem,” Weiner explains, “that January was pregnant.” He thought, “I can have her walk around with laundry baskets in front of her, or I can really accept the fact that when her ex-husband, whom she rejected, married a woman 10 years younger than her, that was a crushing blow to her self-esteem.”
The fat, then, became the physical manifestation of what Weiner calls Betty’s “domestic conundrum.” Betty is part of a “wasted generation,” he says. “She’s educated, and she has the best job in the world, which is living in the lap of luxury with all these conveniences, and not having that much housework to do.
“It’s hard on her,” he adds.
Hard on her mostly because Betty is, as Weiner says, “caught in between.” She earned a degree from Bryn Mawr at a time just before society might ask her to use it. For Betty, beauty was always her most logical path to success.
But when her looks fade, she has nothing left to give.
Weiner points back to the season-one episode “Babylon,” in which Betty proclaims she’d rather die than get old. It shows “this vanity of a woman whose entire identity is based on her looks,” he says. “She was a model, she talks about her school days, she’s obviously educated and she reads, she’s intelligent, but [beauty] is really how she’s defined.”
It would seem, then, that Betty can’t win. Never a likable character, she has always elicited audience disapproval, even as the victim of Don’s philandering. In the earlier seasons, Weiner observed a hostility toward Betty for being so beautiful and being cheated on. Audiences perceived her as an idiot, he thought, or felt she deserved it somehow. Perhaps had she been “a little dumpier,” he says, “there would be a different attitude toward her.”
Yet the fat suit into which the show strapped her seems to have won her little sympathy. In fact, the loss of her only prize — her beauty — has played a major part in isolating Betty from the rest of the female characters, all of whom, at least professionally, are enjoying the dawn of a society that values them outside the home. “She’s lost her job,” as Weiner describes it, “which is being beautiful.” So what is left for her?
Therein lies the richness of the story Weiner is poised to tell through Betty. “What’s fascinating is that giving her this blow to her vanity,” he explains, “this compulsion, this self-destructive impulse, this physical representation of her unhappiness, really kind of opened up the character.”
“She loves Henry,” he says, “she has the husband she always wanted. He’s secure, he’s loyal, he’s ambitious, he has a lot of status, she’s living in a mansion, her children are going to private school — it’s all the things that she wanted because she’s very concerned about the outside world.” Yet with all her needs supposedly met, Betty is still, as Weiner puts it, “a melancholy dame. What’s going on inside her?”
It’s precisely this sense of being unfulfilled, caught in between, left behind by a changing world, that Betty must now face. When success for women solely meant being thin, young, beautiful and married, the world made sense to Betty. Now it doesn’t. “She has a sense of these rules,” Weiner explains, “and people are always breaking these imaginary rules, but she’s living by them.”
As for this year: “She has a big season,” Weiner declares, smiling. “That’s all I can say.”
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