Many men want to return to the world of Don Draper because they think, oddly, that wounded as he may be, he still has it easier than they do...
He spends his working days in a barely suppressed panic that he will be discovered to be a fraud, that his big secret will be exposed. He’s successful in the workplace, in part because he has no integrity but he knows his clients often better than they seem to know themselves. A fully ‘self-made man,’ a walking lie, he sees through the lies and secrets of other men. He rarely smiles, but he exudes confidence and authority.
His storybook marriage collapsed because of his incessant philandering, his sexual fecklessness constantly leaves him unsatisfied and contemptuous of the women he sleeps with. His second marriage, hasty and ill-considered, is to his secretary. A month in, and he is already bored and uncertain. He has no friends. He often feels lonely, dissatisfied and fraudulent.
Who is this epitome of dysfunctional manhood, this living embodiment of T.S. Eliot’s hallow man?
Why it’s Don Draper, of course, the man more professional American men wish to emulate than any other! And the man more American women find hotter than any character since Rhett Butler.
How did such a lost and soulless shell become the country’s leading man?
I think Don Draper (and the TV show “Mad Men” more generally) resonates differently for women and for men. In both cases, he elicits a traditional stereotypic reaction.
The show’s popularity rests on its combination of past and present. On the one hand, we feel a nostalgic pull, back to the days when men were men, women were women and everyone “knew their place.” How comforting that
must have been! How easy! On the other hand, we also feel superior and enlightened compared to those corporate Neanderthals who drink liquor in their offices all day and smoke cigarettes, even in the building’s elevators. How backwards they were! And how enlightened are we! This combination I’d call “nostalgic self-congratulation.”
Don Draper’s appeal to women comes, I think, from the fact that Don is in such evident pain. He’s a wounded man, hurt and therefore vulnerable. Real women see through his bravado, they want to heal him. Think about how many wounded men have been saved by a woman’s love? It’s the oldest trope in the book, from Rick Blaine and Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and “African Queen”) to The Beast, as in “Beauty and the…” Draper can’t have a successful relationship with a woman on the show, because that would spoil the identification fantasy that so many female viewers must feel. The hook is to believe that he can be healed while still retaining his palpable sexual magnetism.
For men, I think Draper elicits envy. We may envy the certainty of male-female relations in Don Draper’s world. Everyone knows their place, literally: all the men have the offices with the windows and the women, the secretaries, are clustered in the center of the office, a virtual corral of competent servers. As a bonus, sexual access to them is a perk of the job, not a crime of sexual harassment. (There is, of course, Peggy, the ambitious climber, who has succeeded in breaking through the secretarial pink collar ghetto. But she consistently bumps her head on the glass ceiling and remains chronically, hopelessly, single – a cautionary take for uppity women.)
Don Draper lives in a pre-feminist world, a world where the office was but another locker room – in the same way the pre-feminist law office, hospital, corporate boardroom, political legislature and every other public arena was a place where men’s rule was a given, unchallenged, seemingly eternal. It’s a world before women’s full-scale entry into the public sphere, the single defining feature of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
For many men, women’s “entry” was experienced more like an “invasion.” While working in corporate settings to bring men into the conversation about gender equality, I consistently hear this nostalgic resentment. Once it was so easy, they say. Everywhere you’d look it was a man’s space. Now even the locker room isn’t the locker room – they let women in there now too! Where can a man go to just relax, to chill out with other guys, to say something stupid or politically incorrect and not feel as if he’s about to be served with a subpoena? Where can he go to exhale, to just, well, be a guy?
Many men want to return to the world of Don Draper because they think, oddly, that wounded as he may be, he still has it easier than they do. He can do whatever he wants to do: he may be married, with a good job, but he’s not saddled with responsibility. He’s still a free man.
Of course, the contemporary evidence is squarely on the other side. The more diverse the workplace, the more profitable it is – with higher levels of productivity and workplace satisfaction, and lower rates of absenteeism and turnover. And the more egalitarian marriages are, the happier the men
are (their wives are happier too). Women’s entry into the public sphere has changed our workplaces and our families – and the changes have been largely positive in both arenas.
In future columns, I’ll try to describe some of these changes from the experiences of today’s man. Not some media icon terrified of exposure, a corporate drone who accepts inequality with a complacent sneer, a failed family man whose sexual escapades have already proved empty. No, these will be the stories of real men, dual career and dual carer men, facing the quotidian crises of aging and ambition, raising children and lowering expectations, navigating the previously uncharted seas of gender equality at home and at work. And we’ll leave Don Draper behind, on the side of the road, a sad reminder of the world we have finally left behind.