And then there’s Betty, Don’s beautiful wife. She’s the consummately successful 1950’s woman. She’s married well—or so she thinks. She lives in a “perfect” house and has “perfect” children. Everything, she thinks, must be perfect and, of course, is perfect.
But as we all know, underneath the shiny surface lies an entirely different story and that is what is wrong with her dream life. It is a dream and has no reality in the daily here and now where it counts.
If you’ve ever read the short stories of the American author, John Cheever, you get exactly the same feeling. Cheever wrote a great deal about life in suburbia in the forties and fifties. Beneath the shiny perfection of suburbia lies hundreds of dark tales. Everybody in Cheever’s stories and in Mad Men drinks far too much. Why? One could guess that it was the respectable drug of choice and a lot of it was badly needed. But why was so much needed? People had to anaesthetize themselves from the mindless, inauthentic lives they were living. Hell on earth!
And speaking of perfection, look at Betty as the mother we love to hate. Or, at least I do. Betty wants perfect children to go with the perfect house. In the 1940’s and 1950’s children were to be seen but not heard. When they departed from the prevailing notion of what children should be [little adults], they would be severely disciplined. Spankings and incarceration in one’s room were the punishments meted out on a regular basis. When Don refuses to spank his son for some minor infraction, which any kid might make, Betty can only ask—how will they ever learn?
But what lies beneath Betty’s bright and brittle exterior? Not much, I’d say! Except, she is herself, a child. She’s the woman who went from Daddy’s house pretty much straight to Don’s. She’s never been without a man and so, how can she ever know who she is? Men are always telling her in one way or another who she is and who she must be. How could she have ever grown up and find herself as a person?
Betty has painstakingly constructed a facade based on her idea of the “good life.” Don has provided everything except the truth. The lie of his life permeates everything and eventually, when it cracks through the facade, destroys everything. Don believes that it wasn’t his philandering ways which destroyed his marriage and drove Betty away, but rather it was the person he turned out to be—the son of a prostitute. This doesn’t fit the dream of the perfect life in Betty’s world.
Mad Men does so many things really well. It illustrates so many of the thoughts and perceptions people had in the fifties and sixties. It’s easy to spot the folly of such attitudes. But maybe it causes us to reflect upon the attitudes we hold today and invites us to reflect upon them. In fifty years time, others may look back on the way we live now and say—look how far we’ve come since then! Let’s hope so.