Mad Men's Ice Queen

January Jones earned an Emmy nom for her brilliant portrayal of Betty Draper—so why do so many viewers despise the character? Jace Lacob on TV’s most misunderstood leading lady.

08.26.10 10:47 PM ET

When Mad Men’s Betty Draper slapped her ten-year-old daughter across the face this week, viewers got one more reason to hate her—and one more excuse to love the vivacious Joan Harris all the more.

It was a more outwardly volatile Betty than viewers had seen throughout the last four seasons of a show in which the two female leads—January Jones’ haughty Betty and Christina Hendricks’ sultry Joan—often steal the limelight. In moments like that one, many viewers (and critics, too, for that matter) seize the opportunity to trample on Betty Draper as a character, to denigrate her coolness and sublimated emotions, while simultaneously celebrating the effervescent Joan Harris (née Holloway), putting the curvy redhead on a pedestal. On Mad Men, apparently, redheads have more fun.

In the high-gloss world of Mad Men, Betty doesn’t get credit for her complexity. She’s just an unhappy killjoy.

Both women—along with Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm, and John Slattery—are nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards, along with numerous nods for Mad Men itself, which is up for an Outstanding Drama prize. But while the two women are competing in separate categories (Jones for Best Actress, Hendricks for Best Supporting Actress), the public’s perception of the two of them—and their characters—couldn’t be more different.

The most polarizing character is the deeply complex Betty, played to icy perfection by Jones. Before slapping her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) after discovering that the girl had cut her hair, she divorced her husband Don Draper (Jon Hamm) last season after learning of his true identity and his extramarital affairs. Prior to that, she slept with a handsome stranger at a bar, crashed her car into a tree, and once pulled out a shotgun and took out some noisy birds.

Hendricks’ Joan, on the other hand, with her sensual curves and overt sexuality, fulfills many of the same expectations of Marilyn Monroe, an actress whose death Hendricks’ character teared up over in the series. Joan’s overwhelming sensuousness (which Mad Men’s male contingent finds impossible to fight) connects to Monroe and to Hendricks herself. The actress has become a muse of sorts, appearing as a sexy android in the music video for Broken Bells’ song “The Ghost Inside,” and was recently named Esquire’s Best Looking American Woman.

She may not prefer to be recognized more for her looks than her work—“It kind of hurt my feelings at first,” she told New York Magazine. “I was working my butt off on the show, and then all anyone was talking about was my body!” But Hendricks at least has the benefit of having the audience on her side, while Jones is forced to play the part of a dark cloud, something today’s society chafes against with its female icons.

Jones’ haughty iciness, however, fits nicely into the pattern established by Grace Kelly, the blonde actress who left behind Hitchcock movies to become a real-life princess. In the show’s second season, Jones’ Betty went so far as to say, “My people are Nordic,” when asked if she was sad, capturing the chilliness of her character, a descendant of those long, cold Scandinavian winters.

Besides the visual similarities with Grace Kelly (the series’ early seasons even seem to play this up), Jones, like Kelly before her, seems to feed into the public’s need for her to be perfect. While Jones has kept a low profile off-screen, a recent brush with the tabloids resulted in an outpouring of animosity against the actress, who has long dodged accusations of ambiguous acting on Mad Men. (“I think I’m just a work in progress,” she said last year.)

“I thought this show would be an opportunity for people to see me as something else, something darker. Betty is such an interesting character. Now, I might not be interesting,” Jones said, laughing, in an interview with Jack Nicholson for Interview magazine before the start of Season 3. “I honestly get more nervous when it comes to the emotional, less physical scenes. Betty is always feeling one thing but then goes and does something completely different. She goes through a bunch of different emotions that I act more with my face than through what I’m saying. But the physical is just physical.”

Is it that lack of physicality that drives the audience’s disdain for her character? Whereas Betty’s emotional complexity gets buried under irrational behavior, Hendricks’ Joan is held up as a woman deeply in touch with both her body and her inner desires.

“The Madonna/whore is the dichotomy that has existed in all of Western civilization,” said Natasha Vargas-Cooper, author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. “The show starts right where our modern sense of taste comes from, right on the precipice of the female revolution: ladies should be virtuous, ladies should be quiet… It’s like a dog whistle to folks not only of the boomer generation but of my generation because we still have inherited their world view and their values.”

“Part of the reason why Joan is so appealing is because she’s part of our world view. Of course we would choose the more liberated, earthy, New School version of a woman,” she continued. “Why people dislike Betty erroneously is because she’s probably one of the more complex characters. She is the sense of responsibility in the show. As much as we want to cheer for Don, he still married her. She still had his kids and he kept her as an accessory. Betty has been the cautionary tale when you don’t follow through on your promises and don’t take care of a woman and how unsatisfying a life is when it’s laid out for you.”

Which is why, in the high-gloss world of Mad Men, Betty doesn’t get credit for her complexity. She’s just an unhappy killjoy, a woman who can’t express her emotions in healthy ways and who instead acts out when the repression becomes too much to bear. It’s no accident that she purchased a Victorian fainting couch in Season 3; her morality and worldview seem like outmoded ideas from the 19th century.

Meanwhile, Joan, as office manager, gets to flaunt her moxie and trademark curves to secure a position of power in an era where women were still mostly secretaries and housewives. She’s able to use her sexuality to achieve that end, while women like Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy used their heads. The trap of both paths is shown remarkably in Hendricks’ star-making turn as Joan, fiercely independent and yet stuck in the mindset that she has to land a husband and stick with him, even when he fails to meet her expectations.

To simply applaud Hendricks over Jones is to miss the importance of both characters and to undervalue our own perceptions of duality when it comes to feminine ideals: fire and ice, princess and sexpot, Madonna and whore.

Will these archetypes continue to inform the work that these actresses are drawn to?

Hendricks might be looking to thwart the sexpot perception with the upcoming film Life as We Know It, in which she’ll star opposite Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel as a mother who meets a tragic end. Jones, for her part, has recently signed on to Fox’s X-Men: First Class reboot, where she will play the appropriately named Emma Frost, a well-heeled telepath who, in the comic books, is able to push down her emotions when she transforms into a diamond form. She’ll shoot the film, which is due out next summer, after she wraps this season of Mad Men .

Jones has said that a lot of the post- Mad Men roles she’s been offered have been for sad housewives. Here, she might be playing a super-villain, but it’s not a stretch from the icy, withdrawn Betty that we’ve come to love to hate.

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.