The Group of women in Mad Men who define an era… all eras

Betty Draper reclines in the tub with a book in S3E10 (The Color Blue). The book is Mary McCarthy’s best-seller The Group, a novel that was banned in Australia, sent a whole ton of critics (I’m looking at you Norman Mailer) into a self-righteous tailspin and stood firm as a best seller in 1963

It was the book everyone read and didn’t want to admit it.

The Guardian’s Elizabeth Day has a great recounting of its reception and importance both then and now.

The Group, about eight Vassar girls navigating New Deal America in 1933, sits alongside The Best of Everything (also a Betty book), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Valley of the Dolls (coming soon) and others that pop up on the Mad Men Reading List which explore the female world.

It is no surprise that Betty is reading the book though any character in the show has likely read it or will read it at some point in the decade.

McCarthy writes about one-night stands, birth control, abortion, breast feeding options and career versus marriage in 1933; issues that remain relevant in 1963 and likely will in 2023.

It is not hard to see any character in Mad Men among McCarthy’s group of young ladies.

McCarthy has some experience with navigating a world full of contradictions, patriarchy and pain. She was married four times and her second husband (Edmund Wilson) refused to allow her to have her own bank account and had her committed to a psychiatric hospital against her will. Her parents died in the 1918 flu (yep. That one), and she lived with an uncle who violently beat her daily.

She later went to Vassar.

The book could as easily be read and appreciated in 2021 as it was in 1963 (though maybe with less guilt), and certainly readers wouldn’t be insane for thinking, ‘this is kind of Sex and the City-y.’ Spoiler: Candace Bushnell responded to an editor’s suggestion to write a modern-day version of The Group by writing the Sex and the City essays.

It’s well worth the read.

This book is the perfect response to the ‘back in the day things weren’t like that’ nonsense that gets thrown around constantly by a certain group of people (hey! there’s that word again), or the suggestion that Mad Men is forcing modern concepts on a period piece.

Women, then as now, fought against patriarchy, traditional suggestions of their place, hypocrisy around sex and contraception and all the everythings that some kid themselves to thinking were saved for the dark alleys of the seedy big cities.

The year, in addition, is apt in both the show and the book’s publication: 1963.

In addition to the president being assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. marches on Washington, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sets himself aflame in Vietnam in protest, domesticity myths are being questioned and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published.

This is also a turning point in the show.

In the show, Betty would undoubtedly be drawn to the choices or lack thereof in the book. Note when she’s reading it. Within an episode she will confront Don’s lies, pursue Henry Francis a couple episodes later and ultimately leave Don with Gene in her arms at the end of the season.

Her choices have always been challenged and dreams dashed. She gets talked out of an abortion a season earlier, her modeling dreams stutter to a halt in season one, as does her friendship with weird kid Glen.

An episode later S3E11 (The Hobo Code) a lawyer explains Betty’s options when she says she might want to leave Don. Spoiler: Betty’s options, much like those of the women in The Group, aren’t great.

Also in that episode, Joan’s options are shown for what they are, as is the torture she is going through with Greg, her husband who raped her once and whines and snivels like a lil’ bitch before she smashes a vase on his head.

“You’re insane you know that?”

– Greg, S3E11 (The Gypsy and the Hobo).

No Greg. She’s not. You’re just pathetic.

Spoiler: Joan kicks Greg (who could be Edmund Wilson) out in the end.

As noted, Joan, Peggy, or any other female character could be reading this book in the show, and similarities could be drawn.

There’s a scene in S3E12 (The Grown-Ups) where Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret is talking to her mom that could be straight out of the book.

But let’s stick with Betty.

The debate is open whether Betty is inspired to leave by the book or prompted after discovering that Don isn’t Don and that he’s “been married before”, but leave she will and change things she does.

I’ve often wondered about Betty’s decision to leave Don. She clearly has ample reason to leave, but is it because she finds out Don is from dirty poverty and not the polished character he built himself to be, or because of the many, many (warranted) suspicious about his philandering? (Suzanne is waiting in the car while Betty is confronting Don).

Image has always been vital for Betty, and how does she put shine on her husband’s true past? How does she live up to the image of her mother with that baggage? Yikes.

Here’s a take on Betty that’s pretty decent.

Betty is a complicated and delightful character, and I feel it is simply her strength that pushes her to leave for a better option in Henry. Predictably, that better option comes with other issues, and Betty is again forced backwards in time just when we think she will be able to break free for the future.

In the episode when Betty discovers Don’s past and she confronts him, things seem to resolve themselves at the end of S3E11, and we’re weirdly cheering that they do.

The S3E11 ending warrants a shout out.

Don and Betty are accompanying Sally and Bobby trick-or-treating (who are dressed as, you guessed it, a gypsy and a hobo), and a guy giving out candy drops this gem:

“And who are you supposed to be?”

Brilliant.

Betty, in the end, will die the same way McCarthy did. Tragic character indeed.

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