Like most women who call themselves feminists, I've spent my life avoiding men like Don Draper, the incorrigible ladies' man at the center of Mad Men, a show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960s. I took a pass on the show during its first season, catching up with it on DVD when the mounting enthusiasm of friends and co-workers piqued my curiosity.
By the time the season-three premier was promoted this month, my friends (men and women in their 30s and 40s) had taken to posting Madmenized avatars of themselves on their Facebook pages. And I was one of them, styling myself on madmenyourself.com in a chic red dress, gloves, and cat's-eye glasses. What had happened to make these politically progressive adults in the last days of their youth identify with characters from their parents' generation?
I have been intrigued by the mysteries of culture before. In the 1990s, I was writing on gothic subculture and the phenomenon of "men who feel and cry"—men like Anne Rice's vampires, Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, all of whom beckoned young men to dramatize emotion in ways that previous generations had scorned as unmasculine. Alongside those men in black were harsher specimens of masculinity in crisis: men like Tyler Durden, the split personality who launches an underground subculture called Fight Club.
While superficially different, both kinds of men were desperate to feel, through catharsis or brutal violence. Yet most of these tales focused on men's relationships with one another, like Tyler's two halves, or Lestat and Louis in Rice's Interview With the Vampire. They were men searching for their feelings in the company of other men.
And now comes Don Draper, icon of masculinity-in-crisis for the 21st century. Don is in pain, yes, and hurting himself, too (for all his spectacular emotional reserve). But he is also different. No tears or blood on that impeccably pressed suit. No close ties to other men. What is it that makes this odd blend of Jay Gatsby, American Gigolo, and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit so captivating a figure for today?
When I asked a sample of folks close to hand what they thought of the show, strangely enough, the first three said virtually the same thing—all references to Don: "The guy is hot." (OK, my mother, a veteran of the Mad Men era, said "very handsome," not "hot"). To be sure, the show need not be experienced as the story of a "hot" guy in crisis. A close female colleague, indifferent to Don's eros, tunes in mostly for the Peggy Olson narrative. And there is my husband, who enjoys the show for its complexity and period detail, but hates Don Draper for his selfishness and lies. Like Don, my husband is a hard-working professional father of two in his late 30s. Unlike Don … well, you could call him the anti-Don.
Although Don Draper is the show's center of gravity, a constellation of intriguing personalities surrounds him. Several of those characters suggest series that might have been: Mad Women, in which Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson take different paths in the struggle for integrity in a man's world; Mad Closet, the story of Salvatore Romano's slow-motion sexual awakening; Bad Men, a close study of Pete Campbell's toxic cocktail of ambition and insecurity; Race Men, in which Paul Kinsey strives to be a hero in the civil-rights movement without exposing himself as an insufferable honkie; Sad Men, a nighttime soap in which Roger Sterling deludes himself about his impending mortality; and of course Mod Men, a show about style.
And then there is Don's beautiful wife, Betty, who, though clearly his better half, is not his patsy. A kind of Donna Reed on steroids, she is much, much more than the first woman on television to have a passionate affair with a household appliance. Her vigorous horsemanship, her facility with a shotgun: These are the signs that though raised to follow the grooves, Betty cannot be underestimated. Witness the end of the first season when, opening the phone bill, she learns that Don has been checking up on her with her psychoanalyst. We think she is in the dark about Don's infidelity; but then, as she lies on the couch, we learn that she has known all along. Betty's decision to tell the good doctor wasn't Freud's talking cure but a savvy move on the chess board that is the Draper marriage. She knows that the shrink will tell Don, so that Don will learn, with a minimum of confrontation, that his fooling around isn't fooling anyone.
Conventional wisdom says that women are irresistibly attracted to power. And yet, professionally speaking, Don's position is precarious. Less Gordon Gekko in Wall Street than Montgomery Clift's character in A Place in the Sun, he is vulnerable to corporate management, professional rivals, and the whims of clients. With no family connections to buttress him, Don has nothing to sell but himself. If he is powerful, it's because the particular commodity he has to offer is selling itself: the trick of making selling seem magical in a consumer society. That is why Don's "hotness" is not the garden-variety sort—not the televised equivalent of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad—but the aspect of his character that connects his existential crisis to ours.
Don's sexual tensions bespeak his brilliance as an ad man. His genius for spinning fantasies works in boardroom and bedroom alike. Though superficially a "man's man," he does not long for intimacy with other men. Women are his métier; their desire is the complement to the seductive powers his clients pay him to wield. This is not to say that "sex sells"—a crude logic that Don despises. It is to a say that in a consumer society, the fine art of selling is a lot like sex.
While his milieu is fundamentally misogynistic, Don himself is far less so. At home he is a possessive, philandering husband, but at work he is the least sexist of the lot, respecting the feelings of middle-age women and promoting his talented secretary.
If Betty is stuck playing Don's Madonna—the angelic mother he never had—the other women in his life are more like female variations on Don. There is Midge, the independent bohemian who doesn't make breakfast; Bobbie Barrett, the shrewd businesswoman whose frank sexual hunger ignites Don's kinky side; and Rachel, also a businesswoman, but memorable as the one who got away. Her Jewishness stands for a kind of depth that might cut through Don's mad world if only his desire to connect could trump his need to seduce. In one of many grace notes, Don, in need of a pseudonym, calls himself Tilden Katz—the man Rachel marries after she ends their affair. It is Don imagining himself as an anti-Don.
In the title poem of Meditations in an Emergency, a collection by Frank O'Hara that Don reads, the speaker writes, "no one trusts me" because "I am always looking away." As we eventually learn, Don sends this book to the widow of the man whose identity he stole. But Don's past is really window dressing for a more systemic crisis. There are lots of men with Don's issues who aren't orphans and didn't change their names. If there is anyone who trusts Don it is Peggy, a woman whose loyalty he values too much to throw away—perhaps because he knows that she is like him: Her talent for selling will take her places.
For some viewers, the secret of Mad Men's success is the pleasure of watching characters who don't know, as we do, that "change is gonna come." If that's true, we have more reason to be anxious voyeurs than smug ones. We may know more than Don, Roger, and Betty about the dangers of booze and cigarettes—but we still die as they do (and die increasingly of cancer). And while we have made real gains in sexual and racial equality, the price we have paid is the reactionary anger that haunts every aspect of our social being.
The open secret of our time is that we are less secure than were our precursors in the Mad Men era. If we know them to be in the grips of a cold war that finally came to an end, we know ourselves to be losing wars of our own making—a boundless "war on terror" and the destruction of our own environment. We do not watch Mad Men because we imagine ourselves as free of vice and illusions; we watch it because we know that our lives, too, are one long meditation in an emergency.
In the dwindling prosperity that is capitalism in the 21st century, every one of us knows that we must sell ourselves, make our pitch, compete for our place in the sun. Though Don has a nice house and car, like most of us, he will never join the big leagues. Among us today, he would not be a Wall Street banker or CEO, for he is not cut from that cloth. His golden parachute is the dream of another life in a California that, if it ever existed, exists no more.
"The guy is hot." If we feast our eyes on Don, wanting him and wanting to be like him, it is perhaps because we, too, want to make it look that good. As Frank O'Hara wrote, "It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so." Don gratifies the illusion that a life lived as a commodity can somehow be meaningful; that if we close our eyes, the art of selling will be like the best sex we ever had.