Since the season premiere of Mad Men back in March, the show has become one of the most talked about topics on the internet and around water coolers nationwide. It also apparently made fat-bashing socially acceptable again.
The target of viewer’s nastiness is, of course, Betty Francis – perennially unlikeable ex-wife of Don Draper. What’s new this season is Betty’s enormous weight gain which, as one unkind critic put it, borders on “Norbit-like.” And though I’m the first to say that Betty isn’t a particularly endearing character, the bile that’s been directed at her in light of her weight gain borders on disturbing. Hell, Mashable devoted an entire slideshow to #FBF – “Fat Betty Francis” – a hashtag for jokes trending on Twitter (now also a Twitter account).
And this is… okay?
Listen, I have a sense of humor. In fact, it’s pretty hard to offend me… unless unnecessary personal cruelty is involved. And this seems one of those cases, and an instance of cruelty that is particularly bound to gender issues and the reality of what women’s lives were prior to the rise of women’s liberation. One piece I read, authored by the blogger Bohemea, crystallized some of my nebulous discomfort perfectly for me, writing in part:
In the episode Betty struggles not just with a fear of dying suddenly with young children to only remember her through the eyes of people who she doesn’t believe capable of memorializing her, but also a fear of being plain, dull, just fat because she’s bored and not for a tragic reason beyond her control. Betty’s weight gain is beyond her control because it’s what she controls now. Betty can eat now. She has spent over 30 years not eating: sitting quietly at a table while smoking, sipping a glass of wine and watching other people eat; sitting prettily at a dinner table while men talk and women pose; making the food, displaying the food, cleaning the scraps of food, but never consuming the food.
It’s hers for the taking now, and she’s just as miserable as always, but now we can see the misery, and it makes everyone uncomfortable. No one wants others to see our depression. We want, even at our most distraught, to be able to hide inside ourselves and show others only what we want them to see. Betty’s weight gain has turned her inside out. We see it now. No one can hide from it, least of all Betty, who has to live with the acute sadness we’ve already seen displayed in her most private moments, or as a flash in the form of a furrowed brow or raised voice, but also see it every time she looks in a mirror, or down at herself.
Women hide their depression and pain and wear a pretty mask – revealing of ourselves only what we want people to see – until the facade cracks under the pressure and strain of trying to maintain the illusion of perfection. And men? Well, as one might suspect, in most cases the people making the fat jokes are men.
I’m sure some will say I’m reading too much into this. Some might say I’m being humorless – it’s just a TV show, after all. Am I? What do you think of “Fat Betty Francis” the meme?