At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters. “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself. “I wish I could see her in more movies.
Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”
I’m abominable at keeping up with series. Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5. It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss. Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month. I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).
It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties. Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing. Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.
Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself. It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached. We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions. Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize. We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.
Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing. Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people. Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles. The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits. The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account. New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs. He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him. Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire. The line Herb uses on Joan? “Lemme see ’em.” The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man. Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar. Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”
But you’ve seen the show. You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.” Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife. (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.) Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub. “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle. Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.
And really, the change isn’t that dramatic. Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.
The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.
Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance. The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks. A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough. The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty. Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother. Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.” Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat. You are very important and have very little to do.” Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother. (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.) When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife. Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men. Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain: “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.” “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.” In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.
Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease. Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid. She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer. However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.” Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease. In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism).
As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters. Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care. However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to. Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré). Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper. Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty. This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don. In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress. Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen. As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan: in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.
At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless. Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier. Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried. It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word. But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms. The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself. Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding). Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife. After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings. (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.) Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details. The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.” Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.
Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law. Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him. As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained. Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future. But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant. She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic. Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.
Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character. Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6. The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother. In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period. Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom. As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.” In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”. Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards. The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored. We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man. Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out. Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station. The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty. Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.