Five days have passed since the world was introduced to “Fat Betty” Francis onMad Men. Who knew a prosthetic stomach and some fake jowls on the comely January Jones would create such an Internet firestorm? (There’s even a Twitter account, run by Vulture contributor Jon DeFreest, called @FatBettyFrancis.) Though there is some dissent, the general consensus among critics is that this plot twist is unbearably cruel to both the actress and the character. It’s acknowledged by most that Betty was the least sympathetic character on Mad Men even before this weight-gain plot, and others have written rousing defenses of her. But this breaking plot twist for the former Mrs. Draper actually gives viewers new reasons to love Betty and care about her plight.
Betty has always been the living embodiment of the Feminine Mystique: an unhappy housewife trapped in a gilded cage. But the loss of her looks really spotlights how horribly unfair the culture of the fifties and sixties was to a woman like her. She’s probably been told her entire life that her looks were the only thing that mattered. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr, but she was only ever encouraged professionally to be a model. Her relationship with Don was certainly based on the whole package she presented — he wanted to create the perfect life with the beautiful wife at home in his well-appointed Westchester abode. Lots of commentators have looked down on Betty for her response to finding out that she didn’t have cancer in Sunday’s episode: “It’s nice to be put through the wringer to find out I’m just fat.” But that’s an understandable response from someone who has lost the one thing they felt was valuable for them as a person.
For years we’ve heard about what a vicious, terrible mother Betty is. I’m not going to defend her mothering — she’s about as warm and sensitive as one of Harry Harlow’s wire monkeys — but as others have pointed out, the cancer scare nudged her toward realizing what a blessing her children are; Slate’s Julia Turner notes that she seemed to gain some awareness of her failings toward her family. Hopefully during her real-life-pregnancy-abbreviated screen time this season she’ll grapple with that more than we’ve seen in the past. There’s some evidence that it might happen. In the preview for this Sunday’s episode, we see Sally yelling into a phone, “I hate her.” Granted, with this show’s impressionistic, willfully noncontextual promos, it’s not entirely certain whom she’s talking about (could be Megan, could be a teacher, could be Lady Bird Johnson), but it certainly seems like something she’d be saying about her mother. Sally’s resentment could be growing, and now that she’s getting older — and as January Jones has said, the daughter takes after her father — Betty may be forced to confront her shortcomings head-on. When they were younger, the children were more easily controlled, and when they did talk back, Betty just lashed out and shut them up quickly. Sally, who already ran away from home to be with Don last season, is only going to get more rebellious. She’s going to be a more legitimate adversary now, one who can’t just be put in a pinafore without putting up a fight.
Until this season, I did not much care for January Jones’s acting. I thought she was wooden, and as New York’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz put it, limited. Her acting abilities have really taken a critical drubbing in the past three years, particularly in her disastrous extracurricular performances on Saturday Night Live and in X-Men: First Class (of the latter, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof famously tweeted, “Emma Frost’s THREE mutant powers: Telepathy, Transformation to Solid Diamond and last but not least, Sucking at Acting”). Following Betty’s increasingly unpleasant behavior in season four, these low points led to fans turning on the character in droves. But she really impressed me this week. Jones showed a physical subtlety in handling her prosthesis; she moved differently, but not in a showy way. There were small gestures throughout the episode — smelling her toddler son’s hair, gingerly picking at a parfait, reacting to a vision of her death in her dream — that moved me in a way her performance never has before. Furthermore, Jones really sold those cancer scenes: The doctor’s office realization could have drifted into maudlin territory, but Jones played it with believable restraint and even a bit of maturity. Before, you could make the case that January Jones was only good in the role because she was perfectly cast as an icy, Grace Kelly doppelgänger, and she acted the part. But that she’s been able to embody Betty’s changing physical self, while also selling Betty’s shifting emotional self, is worth praising.
And speaking of that shifting emotional self, many of the biggest Betty haters despise the character because they think she behaves like a child, but there are signs emerging that she might be taking a bit of agency in her life. Though her mother-in-law — and society — think she should get hopped up on diet pills and shed all those pounds, she dug into her daughter’s parfait at the end of last episode. Maybe she’s ready for choices that society won’t exactly approve of. She’s not exactly ready for the consciousness-raising circle, but it’s a start.
When the fifth season of Mad Men premiered on March 25, there was one major question ricocheting around during the days following it: Where was Betty Francis? As played by January Jones, the former Mrs. Draper was strangely absent from the show’s long-awaited return. But with this past week’s episode, we got Betty back-and then some. As the wife of Henry Francis, she has, shall we say, put on a few. Much has been made of the extra padding the normally svelte January donned to play the role, as well as the fact that the weight gain was written in to work around the actress’ pregnancy; but at the end of the day, what we have is a character who, simply put, got fat.
So of course, Fat Betty Francis now has her very own Twitter account. And in light of this development, I now desperately need to pose a new question: Does anyone else find this extremely problematic?
Twitter is no stranger to novelty accounts. After the Oscars this year, Angelina Jolie’s right leg,Jennifer Lopez’s nipple, and Bradley Cooper’s mustache all spawned their own Twitter feeds; so, for that matter, has Snooki’s unborn baby, under the name “Spawn of Snooki.” There are also accounts like Death Star PR, which sends out messages such as, “Replacing Darth Maul with Justin Bieber in the lightsaber duel would instantly make The Phantom Menace the GREATEST film of all time” (which, by the way, is true). There’s one called Feminist Hulk, which sends out feminist teachings in the guise of the Marvel character The Hulk (“TEACH GIRLS STRENGTH. TEACH BOYS NURTUTING. TEACH BOTH THAT ‘BOY’ AND ‘GIRL’ ARE JUST SUGGESTIONS. SMASH START EARLY!”). There’s even one for Samuel Pepys, the noted 17th century British diarist, who reveals to us such thoughts as, “My eyes very bad, and every day worse and worse, I feat; but I find it most certain that stronge drinks do make my eyes sore” (Pepys? You may want to lay off the booze a little. Just sayin’). And generally, all of those are pretty funny. Sure, a lot of them poke fun at real people, but they’re mostly good-spirited and not totally damning (and you all know how much I love a good celebrity joke).
Not so for the Fat Betty Francis account. This one is fat-shaming, pure and simple, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t find fat-shaming at all funny.
Betty has had a history of weight-based trouble over the course of her life. As a chubby child, her food was policed by her mother; she later became a fashion model, subsisting on barely-there lunches to keep her frame in check. She’s now a housewife, and she’s depressed. Though she was also depressed while she was married to Don, it’s taken a different form this time: She eats. And eats, and eats, and eats. So why the heck are we making such merciless fun of a character who a) so desperately needs help, and b) might not be that far off from where a lot of real women are in their lives?
I’m lucky enough never to have struggled with my own weight, but I have plenty of friends who have battled with theirs, and on both ends of the spectrum at that. In some cases, it’s been caused by a thyroid condition; in some, it’s been from an eating disorder; and in others, it’s simply been from dealing with being a different size or shape than society deems ideal. And it’s no laughing matter. Furthermore, fat-shaming is damaging to more than just those with weight issues; it perpetuates the myth that all fat is ugly or dumb, and in Betty Francis’ case, that clinical depression is something to mock.
I don’t know. Maybe this is just me. But I kind of think we owe it to ourselves and to the world to break the fat-shaming trend. What do you think?
Q: You did X-Men: First Classduring the break. How was that different than doing Mad Men?
A: There’s a luxury of time on a film. Getting used to the pace going from one to the other is challenging for me. I literally went from the set of Mad Men to packing and then the next day going to London to do X-Men. So I was on this huge massive blockbuster set and doing half a scene in a day versus eight pages a day on Mad Men. I was like [snaps fingers], “Come on people! Let’s get this thing going!”
Q: Was it not a little more relaxing in some ways than doing Mad Men?
A: I have sort of grown to love the way we do Mad Men because it’s so regimented that it feelsgood. I just do well with barriers I think and being given a tight time frame. You’re given the script, and the next day you start shooting. Your brain starts working faster, and it’s kind of amazing.
Q: What’s a favorite scene of yours from the first four seasons?
A: The one I remember the most was the one we shot last [in Season 4], which was the one of Jon [Hamm] and I in the kitchen [at the Ossining house]. It was really emotional and sad and really special for Matt [Weiner] and Jon and I to shoot just because it was the end of an era.
Q: And then you had to watch them break down the set for the house…
A: Yeah, and then to see the Draper house go away was really sad. I was like, “Can I keep that! Can I keep that?” I tried to keep some things, but everything has their place I was told.
Q: Betty’s world is very separate from what goes on in SCDP. Does it also feel that way on set?
A: Yeah, for me it often feels like a whole different show… Oftentimes I don’t see the other cast members except at the table read. It can be bizarre, but it also makes it fun for me because I don’t get to see what everyone else is doing, so when I watch the episodes, I’m an excited fan.
Q: After five seasons of dressing as Betty on the show, has her style has influenced your own?
A: I don’t wear anything that looks ’60s any longer, because I don’t want to look like I’m roaming around as Betty, like I’m a method actor. [Laughs] It’s hard because I love vintage fashion and…it’s even harder now because designers have brought that silhouette back, which is obviously very flattering to the show. But I’m like, “What do I wear?”
Q: The ’60s were all about having every hair in place and your eyeliner drawn on just right. Is that something you’re used to doing, being in the public eye?
A: I like to be a little bit edgier and a little bit more messed up. And I like to change my fashion every day…that’s an amazing freedom that we have now, that there’s no real set style. It’s just however you want to represent yourself each day. It’s kind of an art form.
Q: Do you enjoy the kind of ’60s cocktails you guys are always drinking on the show?
A: I’m a beer girl…but I know there are certain bars and restaurants that have Betty cocktails now, which is so neat.
Q: Do you think Betty is finally aware of the women’s movement?
A: I think she’s aware of it now… But it’s hard to break the mold. I think the audience struggles to feel sympathetic towards her, which I find sort of odd. I think she’s finally trying to get out of that Stepford Wife persona, and I think people were more sympathetic to her when she wasn’t [trying]. I’m more defensive of her now because I have to be. Before, everyone was like, “Oh, poor Betty. We love Betty!” And now people think she’s terrible, and she’s just a bad mom, and she’s just mean.
Q: You’ve taken your baby, Xander, to the set. Did any of your castmates surprise you as being baby people?
A: Well Jon has always been great with kids — that didn’t surprise me. Matt is baby crazy! He comes up and gets his fix with the baby every once in a while. He’s got four of his own, so he loves babies. Christina [Hendricks] and Lizzy [Moss] were both really excited to meet him for the first time.
Don and Betty reuniting in the new season: Yay or Nay?
REAL HOUSEWIVES OF WESTCHESTER. (thank you for the reblog, fuckyeahrealhousewives!)