An Open Letter to Betty Draper, Everybody's Ex


Dear Betty Draper,

I don’t know why exactly I’m compelled to do an Open Letter to you, Betty Draper, except that you are one of those women who is both tragic, and—well, mostly tragic. (What can I say, tragic works well for this series.) When you appeared in our lives on the first episode of Mad Men in 2007, aka 1960, you struck a chord with the public as someone who a) we disliked, but not for being a villain, b) was interesting anyway, and c) was possibly being the first woman who has ever occupied that role on a major TV series. We usually get rid of the women we don’t like on television series, but not you!

In a way, this Open Letter is an homage to your ability to be a harsh, superficial, dependent, interesting, strong, very compelling character. Because so much of the show is focused on Don Draper, we do get the estranged-spouse view of you from a pretty early point in your history. And it has to be said that you made a fantastic fictional (ex-)spouse, because—much like pretty much everyone sees their ex during and just after divorce—you are both hate-able and lovable, and really good at being both.

It should be said that over seven seasons (a decade on the show) your growth actually challenged expectations and made you a representation of something that is also convincing and also slightly scary: our ex-spouse having become a much better person

The 1953 to 1963: The Don Era

Betty, the saddest thing about your marriage to Don Draper—and there are many sad things to choose from—is that we can guess based on his mostly monotone demeanor and your mostly monotone personality, that you married him for financial and emotional stability. However, what you got instead was an extremely unstable ride.

As a husband, Don Draper was pretty much the worst: he lied, he cheated, he had a secret identity. He spied on you via your therapist. He pretty much pulled out all the stops, and you were left clinging on for dear life while trying to keep your hair in a perfect shining helmet. You knew he was cheating, but what were you going to do? He made the money. You had no earning capacity to speak of. You had two children together. Such is the problem of the Don Era.

But even as we sympathized with you, Betty, we also felt some ambivalence about your complicity in the whole situation. You made it your business to be beautiful in exchange for security, saying “as long as men look at me like that, I’m earning my keep.” That’s probably not the wisest choice in a marriage. You taught your daughter to let men call the shots with gems like “You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.” On one hand, it was the sixties. On the other: you weren’t helping.

So when you finally kicked Don out of the house, and went to Reno for a quickie divorce, we were psyched! Except for one tiny detail: you were leaving your sexist and controlling protector for another sexist and controlling protector. Less sexist, less controlling, but still.

As a divorce attorney, and as a human, I saw all the problems piling up for you as soon as you made the decision to escape into the arms of someone new (and by new, I mean kind of old).

1963-1970: The Henry Era

Frankly, Betty, things got a little weird for me when you married the old guy. You didn’t change your ways much at first, and this was disappointing. No learning more about the finances of the house, no starting a career for yourself or anything of that nature. In fact, the main thing you did was get jaded.

You also managed to stay in the house, which was owned by Don, for a much longer time than anyone expected. I think we all expected Don to hire a divorce lawyer that would make sure you got nothing, but instead you won the divorce—although the show wasn’t too specific about numbers—and then you pushed the boundaries by staying in the house past the time you should have left, which unsurprisingly caused some trouble.

But when you and Henry finally moved out, you underwent a sort of transformation in which you started caring about stuff. You got an opinion about the Vietnam War. You went into the hovels of New York City in search of a missing girl. You started saying things like, “You’re sorry you forgot to inform me what I’m supposed to think. Guess what? I think all by myself.” You entered a normal weight category. We liked you more.

And then, Betty, just in time to screw over Husband #2, you became the symbolic ex-spouse again. You and Don reunited for one awkward sexual encounter, which I admit, I was kind of rooting for in a weird way—I wanted you guys to work it out. So from the standpoint of pure entertainment I was okay with that. But you also started flirting with the teenage neighbour-boy, and just, I don’t know, you lost us.

And then you got cancer.  That was, without question, unfortunate. But, from a sentimentality standpoint, it was a solid move.  We liked you again.

Why You’re Everybody’s Ex

The thing about exes—be they ex-spouses, ex-partners, ex-lovers or what have you—is that unless you stay real, actual friends, eventually the person comes to be more of a caricature than a real person. Certain parts are drawn larger than life, so they can entertain you and help explain the relationship’s failure; our exes are two-dimensional most of the time (much like you, Betty Draper), until we have to really engage with them, and then it gets complicated. Because the caricature of the ex, and the actual person, are two different things.

With your blank-faced stare, Betty, you are the perfect canvas of an ex: throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, we could interpret you as hateworthy or loveworthy depending on perspective. And really, the hate and love on the show are never that clearly defined anyway—a point that probably resonates with most divorcees.

James J. Sexton

Have something to add or disagree with? Want me to counsel you through a divorce? Leave a comment below, call me or tweet to me.

For more irreverent commentary and real advice on dealing with your ex, check out my recent posts “5 Tips for Co-Parenting” and “Your Partner: The Narcissist.”

To read more of the Open Letters series and my other stuff on the Huffington Post, start here