What do we mean when we say we like a character?


About a week ago, I finished catching up with Mad Men. I had been hesitant about watching it because it was tickling my arbitrary, yet persistent, contrairian streak–everyone else was watching and loving it meant I must avoid it at all costs, or watch it and hate it, just because. It’s childish and silly, and perhaps it would be best not to admit it, but sometimes I dislike things just because everyone else seems to love them.*

Anyway, my partner and I marathoned our way through the series, watching as many episodes an evening as our schedule would allow, and it took us about a month or so to get through. There’s something to be said for this kind of television watching, but I’m not going to do that right now. Now, I want to talk about Betty Draper. Word on the street is that everyone hates her. She’s a terrible mother. January Jones is a terrible actress. Betty’s just all around awful. Sadie over at Tiger Beat Down mounted an excellent defense of her character. You should go read it. I’ll wait…

So, browsing through the comments of the thread something struck me about how people were talking about why they either liked or disliked Betty (see reasons above). Personally, I love Betty. When watching her, I constantly ask myself, how is it possible that a character with no “there” there, can be so fascinating to watch? She’s like a pretty doll, or as the series likes to take great pains to demonstrate, Betty is a child, and not in a fun childlike way, but in a horrible childish way–selfish, obsessed with appearances, and narcissistic. All things women, and especially mothers, should never ever be. But, these characteristics are what make her interesting, well that, and you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do.

So, I like Betty. I liked when she unexpectedly grabbed her son’s BB gun and fired at the neighbors birds. I liked when she was in Rome and she got her hair done in that ridiculously high up-do after seeing a posh Roman woman walk through the hotel in a similar monstrosity. I liked when she sits around in her blue and yellow polka-dotted dress for days after confronting Don about his infidelity. Now, having said all this, when I say, I like Betty, specifically I mean that I like watching her character. What it does not mean is that I think she’s a good person or a admirable human being. She is a terrible person. She is all those things people have claimed she is. Liking her, for me, doesn’t mean I want to hang out and have a cup of coffee with the woman, and that for some people, saying “I like Betty” would mean to them I somehow endorse her mothering style or her penchant for shooting birds, is puzzling to me.**

I suppose I also empathize with her too. Like Sadie points out, she obviously had a horrible mother herself and never learned anything much beyond looking pretty for your husband 101. She’s not a complete idiot, but she lacks any sense of awareness about who she really is, which only makes her seem more like airhead. It’s sad to see someone deal with the complete collapse of everything she thought to be real and true without having recourse to any of the emotional and intellectual resources needed to get through it. That she wants to continue to see her daughter’s psychologist is selfish, sure, but I understand why she’s doing it.

This leads me, in a round-a-about way, to the question: what do you mean when you assert that you like a character? Is some level of identification necessary? It can’t just boil down to simple likability, can it? Some of us like to watch Dexter because, even though he kills people, he’s got a quippy voice over and a tragic past. But in liking Dexter, does that mean I endorse vigilantism? Why is liking a character linked to an endorsement of that character’s choices for some people? I think this is somehow related to the persistent question of representation, as in, it’s not enough to simply have ladies on the screen, but they need to be actual people, not always nice, or hot, or motherly, or whatever. Anyway, this is just something I’ve been mulling over the last week or so and thought it might worth tossing out there to the 8 people who read this.


*It’s not a consistent affliction. I unabashedly love the Gaga and various other well-liked things.

**Equally puzzling is that this doesn’t appear to similarly the case when people talk about Don. Don Draper is also a child. He’s selfish, obsessed with appearances, and narcissistic–he and Betty were positively made for and deserve each other. Like Betty, he continually fails to grow as person in any capacity, for better or worse. Having killed off the only person who made him tolerable is unfortunate.


5 responses »

  1. Nice post! I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately (so forgive my rambling reply), not in relation to Mad Men (about which I’ve said enough) but Breaking Bad. Walter White is one of the all-time great unsympathetic characters. He’s neither charismatically dastardly nor the lesser of surrounding evils, traits typical of other TV anti-heroes like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin, Vic Mackey, etc. He has no internal code like Dexter, and his story is not one of serialized redemption, like Bubbles or McNulty.

    Instead we witness him dissolve his own humanity brick by brick, bringing down the people around him with a cocktail of pride, self-delusion and rationalization. He’s a monster. And yet, I love him & care what happens to him, even though I do not want to see him rewarded for his behavior. Obviously, a brilliant performance is part of this, as Bryan Cranston always makes Walt’s behavior understandable, if not justified – I understand his own rationale for irrational choices. And despite his eroding humanity, he still feels supremely human.

    I think this speaks to a property of long-form serial narratives – we come to feel a connection to these characters, and are invested in their fates. And characters who inspire feelings of investment feel “likable” even when we hate them as people. As consumers of fiction, we can separate our judgments of a character’s person with their effectiveness as character – for me, Walt is a brilliant character and a despicable person. Does that resonate with your sense of Betty?

  2. Yes, I think it does resonate. I’ve not seen Breaking Bad so I can’t speak specifically about Walter and would maybe want to quibble a little about McNulty is redeemed, though I’d need to think about that more before going there.

    I think in part my feelings about Betty also steam from 1. how quickly I went through the series, which maybe gave me a different perspective on her character than I’d have watching as it aired and 2. that there tends not to be the same issue with liking horrible male characters, but I’d also need to think through this a little more as well.

  3. Nah. What happened was that Weiner pulled the football away from us, once Betty learned all about Dick Whitman. As Tom and Lorenzo noted, we thought the truth would set her free. All it did was let her run to the next father figure who’d paper over the cracks in her psyche with material security — which, as we’ve seen this season, only makes her interpersonal relationships worse.

    The other thing about Walter White? His life was hell — a very specific American hell of underachievement and beta-male status — which his drug-dealing changed for the better. And, everyone around him, save his son, was revealed to be small-time liars, cheaters or out-and-out thieves, and his crimes had little to do with them.

    BB’s moral universe sunk to his level; in MM, Betty’s universe still has innocent children in it, who depend on her, if not their father, to show them the way.

    As for horrible women characters, Patty Hewes in DAMAGES and Gemma Teller-Morrow on SONS OF ANARCHY certainly pick up the slack, there — they rival any of the despicable men on basic cable, but the difference is that *they don’t have small children*. They have no hostages whose damage we see with each episode. The key’s not Sally’s defiance; it’s Bobby’s bedwetting.

  4. Two good sources for these issues, esp. that of “identification,” are Murray Smith’s ENGAGING CHARACTERS and Arthur A. Raney’s article “Expanding Disposition Theory: Reconsidering Character Liking, Moral Evaluations, and Enjoyment (COMMUNICATION THEORY 14, no. 4, Nov 2004), which addresses these questions specifically in relation to long serial narratives and gets at some of the things comment #1 raises.

  5. Pingback: Sansa « Seriality

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