Television

Complexity, Beauty, And The Underappreciated January Jones

January Jones as Betty Draper on 'Mad Men.'

Betty Draper (January Jones) may look like she's got it all together, but that's a very angry lady who's being very carefully written and performed. Carin Baer/AMC hide caption

itoggle caption Carin Baer/AMC

Mad Men, like The Sopranos and The Wire before it, inspires an admirable amount of careful and thoughtful criticism that's frequently and unfortunately denied to television. Take, for instance, this piece in The Atlantic in which Benjamin Schwarz — a literary editor, no less — dissects the show's strengths and weaknesses.

A combination of factual nitpicks (nice people didn't really litter), restatements of entirely fair criticisms of the show that have been offered many times before (for a show set in the early '60s, it takes little interest thus far in issues of race), and interesting speculation about the motives of viewers (people only like the show because it flatters them and makes them feel superior to un-PC people of 1963), the piece is thoughtful, smart, and committed to the idea that Mad Men deserves to be taken seriously.

Where it goes wrong, though, is in its discussion of January Jones, whose portrayal of Betty Draper continues to be Mad Men's least appreciated and least understood asset.

No, it really doesn't matter that she used to be a model, after the jump.

The discussion of Betty Draper grows out of comments on the show's verisimilitude — it turns out that Betty is written as a sorority girl who went to Bryn Mawr, but Bryn Mawr doesn't have sororities. Schwarz seemingly concludes that because Bryn Mawr has no sororities, that means that the kind of woman Betty is shown to be cannot exist.

The argument, in brief, is that it's unlikely that Betty would have attended Bryn Mawr, because Betty is a "cliched sorority sister" and fundamentally unserious, not the kind of woman who would have attended such a serious, "feminist" institution. Schwarz sees in this bit of biography a bogus attempt to "bestow gravitas" on Betty.

I, on the other hand, have never, ever had the impression that the show was attempting to bestow gravitas on Betty in this or any other way. Betty is written with a more stubborn lack of gravitas (of this kind) than perhaps anyone else on the show, except possibly Pete Campbell. When I heard her say she attended Bryn Mawr, I imagined her going because her parents sent her, because it was the next thing to do, because it would look right, with a lack of commitment and a lack of investment in what was happening to her because someone eased her way — the same way she does everything else. What I did not think was, "Betty is smarter than I gave her credit for, because she went to Bryn Mawr."

And in the middle of this paragraph about Betty is the accusation that January Jones can't act. Here's the whole thing:

Pretty, with a little-girl voice and a childlike, almost lobotomized affect; humorless; bland but at times creepily calculating (as when she seeks solace by manipulating her vulnerable friend into an affair); obsessed with appearances and therefore lacking in inner resources; a consistently cold and frequently vindictive mother; a daddy's girl—Betty is written, and clumsily performed by model-turned-actress January Jones, as a clich??d shallow sorority sister.

"Clumsily." That is the entire critique, that Betty is "clumsily portrayed." Unless, of course, it qualifies as a critique of an actress's work to say that she is a "model-turned-actress."

What, let's take a moment to contemplate, is the relevance of the fact that January Jones used to be a model? Audrey Hepburn was a model. So was Anjelica Huston. In fact, all that a past in modeling means for her presence on the show is that she is very beautiful, which she is. So, of course, is Jon Hamm. They are this way on purpose; they are matched in almost unreal physical attractiveness of the most conventional sort — remember that Tina Fey, on 30 Rock, said that Hamm's character on that show looked like "a cartoon pilot." Yes, they cast an impossibly beautiful, doll-like woman. They also cast an impossibly beautiful, matinee-idol-like man.

It is part of the conceit of Mad Men to contrast aesthetic perfection with underlying ugliness. That is why it stars supernaturally attractive people, including January Jones — "model-turned-actress." That's part of why it's so important that it's beautifully shot, beautifully costumed, and beautifully lit. Everything on the show would look beautiful in an ad if you didn't see it in context, including Betty.

But what is stranger is that even while recognizing that Betty contains multitudes, in her way — she is childlike but manipulative, she is bland but calculating — Schwarz maintains that she is poorly defined. But Betty is not poorly defined; Betty is simply complicated. I find that my image of Betty is just as specific as my image of anyone else on the show. Having watched her for two and a half seasons, I can explain her as well as I can anyone else.

Betty is trapped, Betty is curious, Betty is lustful, Betty is a snob, Betty is in denial, Betty is irresponsible, Betty is self-absorbed, Betty is reckless, Betty is impetuous, Betty is judgmental ... I could go on and on about Betty. I know a lot about Betty. Betty's efforts to be a good mother are clouded with a million resentments. She loves to dress up and please her husband, but she is putty in the hands of anyone who behaves like he takes her seriously, because she craves that as well. She is cold in specific ways, for specific reasons. She should not have ever had children. She loves to advance and then retreat (as from Henry Francis, the man with whom she is almost having an affair).

More than anything, Betty is the angriest character on the show, despite the fact that she is almost never allowed to express anything more explosive than petulant frustration. I am convinced that Betty is motivated by white hot fury. The things about her life that Betty resents, she hates with a simmering anger that she lacks — as Schwarz says himself — the inner resources to manage. Betty knows that she has been trained to do nothing but decorate her husband's house and life. She knows this is her job, and she knows it's the key to getting respect, but she chafes constantly at the fact that it requires her to pretend to care about things she doesn't care about (like being a mother), and that it denies her the constant string of stimulation and attention she gets from being pretty and helpless. I frankly find Betty fascinating. Infuriating, frustrating, unlikable, and usually unsympathetic — but fascinating.

And while much of the credit for this complexity goes to the writing, much of it also goes to Jones. Betty's expression can be harried and bitter, or placid and airy. When Betty speaks to her putative lover, she seems nervous, excited, guilty, thrilled, and somehow committed to maintaining a note of decorum even in the least decorous circumstances. That all this could spring from a portrayal limited to "cliched sorority sister" sells her short.

I think Jones suffers from a common problem some good actors have: the character she has created is so individual that you don't really realize it isn't a cliche. You know her, so you feel like she's a type, even though she's not. If this is a cliche, who was the last Betty Draper before Betty Draper? I'm not sure there was one.

Jones doesn't get the opportunity to deliver marvelously thoughtful, brilliantly clever lines, the way Hamm does as her husband. Betty isn't clever. She has no way with words. She hardly ever interacts with the show's major characters other than Don. She rarely gets tour de force speeches or scenes, because everything is directed inward. She has no real confidantes with whom she would ever share even ten percent of her feelings. Betty remains, most of the time, within the walls of her house, drifting from room to room, furiously dying of boredom.

Jon Hamm is endlessly critically praised for his work on the show — so are Christina Hendricks (Joan), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete), John Slattery (Roger), Bryan Batt (Sal), and it's all deserved. But it's a mistake, I think, to underestimate the power of January Jones, who represents probably 90 percent of Don Draper's world outside Sterling Cooper. Without her, you have a workplace show set in the 1960s. With her, you have a show about a broader world where a woman staying at home to raise kids may be just as frustrated as a woman trying to break into advertising, and for some of the same reasons.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.