Less-than-perfect moms everywhere should rejoice.
The portrayal of mothers on TV these days is light years away from the parenting perfection of Carol Brady of The Brady Bunch and Clair Huxtable of The Cosby Show, but no one out there in television land is quite as awful as Betty Draper, who has locked her daughter in a closet for smoking a banned cigarette, refused to comfort her children after their beloved grandfather (and Betty’s own father) died, and routinely yells at her kids to “go outside and play” when they are clearly begging for just a scrap of parental attention.
Not surprisingly, Betty’s character is routinely excoriated on television fan sites such as the hugely popular “What’s Alan Watching,” where terms such as “narcissist,” and “selfish” and “abusive” are routinely applied. All likely true, but who gets a free pass? None other than television husband Jon Hamm as Don Draper.
Like modern dads, who are rained with praise if they take one afternoon off work to attend a fourth grade production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” every small, tender gesture the duplicitous hound-dog Don makes toward his children is seen as a validation of his character. He comforts his daughter Sally after a nightmare? He must be a better parent than his wife! Somehow the impact on his children of having an affair with his daughter’s more-than-a-little-bit wacko elementary school teacher (not to mention sexual relations with pretty much any willing female who appears to breathe) is ignored by the busy-body commentators of the Internet as well as the vast majority of television reviewers.
In fact our reactions in the matter of Betty vs. Don Draper reveal nothing so much as our own continuing sexism and parenting double standards. When, in the ultimate maternal horror, Betty abandoned two of her three children to the nanny and jetted off to Vegas with her new politician boyfriend in search of a quickie divorce at the end of season three, she was vilified for leaving her kids behind. Her husband? Fans cheered his decision to ask Joan (Christina Hendricks) to find him an apartment in New York City. Was I the only viewer out there wondering why he wasn’t with son and daughter if his wife was not? Apparently, yes.
Nonetheless, in these days of hyper-volunteer moms who police everything from their children’s eating habits to academic achievements, seemingly convinced that one slip-up will ruin their children for life, there is something liberating about watching Don and Betty Draper obliviously screw up their children every week. At first I used to think this feeling originated in knowing that there is, at least, one mom out there worse than me – you know, I might have screamed at my boys today but, hey, I didn’t just abandon them for a weekend in Italy! – But now I think otherwise.
Re-reading the Internet comments about the show this morning, I am floored by the number of posts speculating how the Draper children will react to the world of their youth when they grow up. And that’s the thing. They will grow up. They will, likely, have children of their own. And in attempting to correct the mistakes of their parents, they will make their own. And thus the cycle of life continues.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the inevitable special ten years hence bringing Mad Men up to the present day, where we can get to hear Betty opine about co-sleeping, breastfeeding and helicopter parents. But first up is season four, beginning July 25.