On Bettys And Peggys

At first I thought it was the name, Elizabeth. (Betty to her friends; Birdy to her husband.)Then the dyed blond hair and the preference for full, swing skirts and kitten heels. Then the dream house in Westchester, close enough to the city to commute, but far enough to have a yard.

Mad Men was the first show I binged on. I drank episodes like I was drowning, clicking “next episode” the moment Matthew Weiner’s name flashed across the closing credits in an inescapable fervor. For weeks, I lived in Mad Men. I watched obsessively, re-watching seasons before new episodes premiered, watching my favorite episodes until I could recite whole lines of dialogue.

And, what I found myself drawn to most, was the women.

God how I wanted to be Peggy. From the moment she leans over Don (leans OVER Don- in the position of power!) and says, “I’m Peggy, the new girl” (not, “your secretary”! No, she defines herself- the new girl, the implication that she will soon become a fixture, that she won’t be the new girl for long) I was obsessed. Peggy was a hero. She wouldn’t let gender define her. She played rough with the boys. She threw elbows in meetings when someone dared think her capable of less than she knew she was. She smoked pot with boys, but went off alone to enjoy the high. She drank, not to fit in, but because she liked the feeling of the clinking ice in her glass, the burn of whisky down her throat. Even in her most vulnerable moments, her break-downs are temporary. She falls to her knees in the dark of her apartment. We hear a sob. A sniffle. She wipes her tears and stands up. She is back at work on Monday.

But, as much as it pained me to admit as the series went on and my admiration for Peggy grew, it was not the Copywriter I felt kinship with. Over and over, throughout the seasons, it was Betty, the housewife, I was drawn to. Betty had me nodding along in silent understanding.

Each time she bit her tongue at a stupid remark. Each time she met an inappropriate comment about her looks with an icy smile. Each time she screamed and screamed (both literally and figuratively) about the sacrifices she’d made that were seemingly invisible to everyone else, I wanted to say, “Yes, yes, I understand!”

Critics and fans didn’t. To many Betty was selfish. Spoiled. Ungrateful. She is the personification of the “unlikeable woman” trope, a subject Roxanne Gay explores brilliantly in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends: On the importance of unlikable female protagonists.” It is easy to see Betty as unlikable. Sometimes it felt like Weiner went out of his way to remind us of Betty’s cool, calculated mannerisms. Her detachment from her husband. Her coldness towards her children. And many watchers couldn’t get over this — Betty’s inability to put others’ feelings in front of her own, the way we expect (the way we so often demand) mothers do. She was called “bitch” (that all encompassing word for a woman who acts in a way we disapprove of) frequently. When she tells Sally to “stop acting hysterical” after Grandpa Gene’s death. When she refuses to eat anything after discovering Bobby has traded her sandwich away. When she lets a stranger enter her in the bathroom after too many nights, too many dinners, playing her husband’s prop. So many viewers conveniently seemed to forget in these moments that Betty, for all her coldness, was still feeling actual emotions.

There was a particular moment when I knew I was doomed to be a Betty instead of a Peggy. It’s the morning after a dinner party she’s hosted for her husbands coworkers and boss. Betty has spent the week preparing. She is in her element hosting, graciously leading her guests through the menu. But the men start to laugh with each other. She’s unwittingly bought the beer they were tasked with advertising, unwittingly bought into their advertising campaign specifically targeted to trap housewives just like herself. She’s the butt of a joke she didn’t know was being played.

Betty is angry, as she should be. She sleeps in her party dress. She doesn’t leave her bed until her family has left the next morning. Then, slowly, she walks her wonderland of a home of her own making. She walks through her house in her rumpled fancy dress and I can feel the hopelessness radiating from her like heat.

She has done everything right. She went to school, as far as she was told to. She married the right husband, whom she loved. She chose the right food and drink to serve at the party to make her guests happy. She is gracious and kind, smiling in the face of bald ambition and cynicism.

Betty’s hopelessness isn’t the hopelessness of wishing for something else, of wishing for something more. If she wanted a career, she would have one. If she wanted a divorce, she could get one. Betty’s hopelessness if far more sinister. She did everything she was supposed to do and still she got laughed at.

She did everything she was supposed to do and still nothing fills her. And this is the most terrifying feeling of all.

Peggy doesn’t think the world owes her anything. But Betty does. And to be fair, this feeling isn’t of her own creation. It isn’t a feeling born in selfishness. Society promises that if you are one of the good girls, the ones that don’t make trouble, the ones with conservative hair and proper dress, who want what society tells you to want and get what society tells you to get, that you will be rewarded somehow. Society spends your whole girlhood telling you to keep your head down, be funny but not brash, be ambitious but balance it with poise, don’t intimidate, don’t dominate, don’t get agitated or annoyed or visibly upset. Want the husband and the home. Then, you will be satisfied.

But you’re not satisfied. You don’t know what to do with the degree you’ve earned. You don’t know if you want the babies your body is running out of time to carry. There are terrifying moments when you realize your parents had already bought a house and had you and your siblings by the time they were your age. You have what you’ve been told to want, but it’s left you still feeling…empty. Owed. Surely there must be some payoff for this? Society wrote you a check, a check that promised satisfaction, but now, the fear is gnawing, the fear that you will never be satisfied.

It’s better to be a Peggy. Hell, it’s even better to be a Joan. The ones who feel an ownership to nothing and an obligation to no one. But you don’t get to pick.

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