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Enabling “Mad Men” — Part I: The Betty Chronicles

August 12th, 2009 No comments

During a recent vacation in Maine, the four adults in the house gathered what was left of ourselves after our kids had finally gone to sleep, and plowed through the entire second season of Mad Men. (We’d done the same with the first season during last year’s vacation.) One week, thirteen episodes on DVD: now that’s the way to watch TV. By the end, we were all struck by the same thing:

The title and the show’s dead-on depiction of the dysfunctionally glamorous advertising world of the early 1960’s notwithstanding, most of the best-developed and consequently most interesting characters are the women: Betty Draper, wife of the show’s tortured protagonist, Don Draper; Joan Holloway, office manager for the ad agency; and Peggy Olson, secretary-turned-copywriter. All reflect the legal and social cages that helds women during that not-so-long ago time, as well as the various strategies women used to pick the locks.

From my perspective, the sometimes-unstated legal rules that enforced the social norms are especially interesting. In this first of three separate posts about these women, I’ll focus on Betty Draper. 

Don Draper is a beautiful, irresistible man with money and power. As was more common then than now, he sleeps around — often, and with different women. From season 1, it’s obvious that Betty knows about it, but her options are few. The neighborhood’s scorn for the one divorced women in their midst (before they know anything of the circumstances), reflects the high social cost borne by divorcees. When Betty finally takes a stand during season 2 — only after being publicly humiliated — Don denies everything. Despite excavating the house for clues, she unearths no proof of his infidelities. At the time, this meant that divorce would not have been a legal option for for her, or at least not one likely to succeed. There was still no such thing as “no fault” divorce, and most states required that adultery had to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence” — the legal term for evidence somewhere between the “more likely than not” standard used in civil cases, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal cases. Inasmuch as a adultery was then universally a crime (although seldom punished), this standard made sense. But the effect was to make exit from marriage almost impossible. In New York, where the show is of course set, this was especially true — adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1967!

Yet the show and the law actually reflect legal and social progress over an earlier era: For most of the season, Betty won’t allow Don into the home, and he accepts her decision (while not admitting anything until the season’s final episode, and then obliquely). And the law by this time had at least equalized the legal treatment of the spouses — for centuries, women could get their exit visas only by showing that their husbands had engaged in a “course” of marital infidelity, while men had but to prove a single instance. Even by the early 1960’s, though, I’d guess that someone has studied and shown that the almost exclusively male judges were more sympathetic to husbands than wives.

Betty’s options were further limited by her discovery that she’d become pregnant before kicking Don out of the house. Because of her wealth and station, it seemed that she did have the option of abortion (a friend tells her of “a doctor in Albany.”) What Mad Men doesn’t say is that abortion remained illegal (except in rare circumstances) in New York until 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade).

The writers, wisely, left unclear whether she’d actually have gone through with the procedure;  before she takes any action, Don returns, hat in hand. In the season’s final scene, the two of them are sitting at a quiet kitchen table as she tells him of her pregnancy. It’s clear that her condition, and her limited options, contributed to her complex decision to take him back.

Like any well-written and thoughtful show, Mad Men isn’t preachy, or comfortably clear. Would a fuller range of legally available options have been better for everyone, including the couple’ s other two kids? Perhaps, but maybe not. It’s impossible to say, of course: We only see one course of possibilities played out. I usually — and here — come out on the side of choice, autonomy and dignity over enforced status.

But let’s not pretend that progress is an unmitigated good in every case. Law makes its decisions in bulk.