Sex Offender Week: Performing Don Draper

by Mike Barthel


And why not, while we await the return of Mad Men this hot summer (and its accompanying cultural romp), return to the vexing problem of manliness that is Don Draper? Right here on Sex Offender Week!

We all want to like Don Draper for reasons other than his glamour. We want to find reasons to like him other than that he’s pretty and suave and charismatic-we want to make him, more or less, the Ideal Man, the “why aren’t more people like this?” guy. We talk about him as a kind of zenith of masculinity, something everyone agrees men should be striving for. This seems weird to me.

On the one hand, there’s no denying that Don is attractive in an almost universal way. In addition to his physical beauty, he is extremely well-dressed, has great taste and a growly voice that makes you want to call him “tiger,” is generally in control of things, has money and is successful, yadda yadda yadda. And indeed, lots of straight dudes express a no-homo desire to want to be Don Draper. Makes sense, right? If there are two things we can agree on as a society, it is that 1) incest is wrong, and 2) being Don Draper would be awesome. (“Don Draper is the coolest TV character of all time,” says professional reviewer person Paige Wilson.)

But there’s also a kind of practical consensus among straight dudes that becoming Don Draper, as opposed to being Don Draper naturally, isn’t really a workable proposition, and they may be right. After all, to do so, you would have to make a conscious decision to change the way you look and act, to trade in your khakis for wool slacks. (And become, you know, emotionally cold). And if this seems “affected” to you, then you can never pull it off-a self-conscious Don Draper would be unappealing. But logically, we shouldn’t feel this way. After all, the idea that intentionally dressing up like Don Draper would be illegitimate is contradicted by the character’s own backstory. “Don Draper,” in the show’s reality, is a character constructed by Dick Whitman, and intentionally designed as a paragon of attractiveness, a way out of the social location he was born into. Dick Whitman, pre-paragon of masculinity, decided to do exactly what many of Draper’s male admirers find so difficult: fix up and look sharp.

“Mad Men,” which I am writing here to praise-not-bury, is well aware of these contradictions in Don’s character, and exploits them to the hilt. It’s just the way we take Don that’s odd. Because let’s be honest here: objectively, Don Draper is mostly an awful person. He cheats on his wife relentlessly, is a workaholic and an absentee father to his children, lies about who he is, abandons his former family (and, arguably, causes his brother to hang himself), is a borderline alcoholic, and is in general awfully prudish, judgmental, and bigoted for a sexually licentious fraud of a man. If this was your OKCupid profile, you would not be attracting Don’s caliber of women. (Or would you?) But we find ways to forgive or excuse him. The easiest is the argument that this was just how it was at the time, with the assumption that the present-day incarnation of Don Draper-the real one, the one we could be friends with, or date-would be at least less awful in his attitude toward women and minorities. But that’s kind of a cop-out, a way of letting us unproblematically idolize Draper without dealing with his unattractive qualities.

We ignore these problems because Don’s overriding redeeming quality is his decency, his display of the kind of good morals the show seems to make us nostalgic for (even though there were lots of crosses burned on people’s lawns back then, and even though there is lots of decency about now). Don protected gay old Sal, even though he also thinks the gays are gross; Don gave Peggy a job, even though he also refused to pay her as much as her co-workers; Don tells young people not to talk dirty with an old lady in the elevator, and refuses to engage in public displays of promiscuity, even though he forcefully fingered his mistress in a restaurant bathroom in order to close a business deal. This is to say that we’re happy with a dude as long as he’s generally nice to people he’s face-to-face with (hand-to-groin being another story), and it doesn’t matter if he’s blithely unaware of larger issues that haven’t already been more-or-less resolved by the culture. It’s easy to see why dudes would be OK with this, since they mostly benefit from a culture of low expectations. And given how rarely dudes manage to rise to even this level of bare competence (not we dudes, of course, not you and me-I mean other dudes), you can understand why some women (not all y’all women, you lovely readers and commenters!) would be willing to settle for it. But as a model for what we should aspire to, Don Draper seems like the wrong guy.

Because Don Draper-or our idea of Don Draper, at least-is as much of a fantasy as whatever the name of the character Megan Fox played in Transformers was. (Lilly? Roxanne? Princess Helplesstina?) He’s an honorable salt-of-the-earth macho dude who prefers spending time with women to spending time with men and is also a successful, moderately wealthy business executive. If only he could also morph into both a vampire and a majestic stallion, he would be some sort of walking embodiment of the female libido. Ladies get this, mostly, but it’s a new thing for guys. While women are, of necessity, more adept at coexisting with unrealistic romantic ideals, dudes are just getting used to it, and it’s confusing, especially if you try to take the fantasy literally (as we tend to do). For women, the request for real-world men to be more like Don is a reaction to that low bar-setting: at least don’t be total assholes. But for men, being Don Draper seems achievable, somehow. He’s not an action hero, he’s a businessman. And hey, many of us are already businessmen! We should be able to match that.

But matching is not really what we’re being asked to do. Absent the purty face of Jon Hamm, the sort of women likely to be a Don fan wouldn’t be terribly interested in Don Draper as he is actually constituted, e.g. a guy who didn’t go to college and has generally retrograde attitudes toward women. (To date, at least; boning is another story, as it always is.) Rather, any Draper-hunter is actually looking for someone of her (or his!) own social location who can convincingly enact the idea of Don Draper.

And it’s that “convincingly” that’s the key. It’s the tough part, the thing we need to figure out here. It is fundamentally impossible to be Don Draper, even for Don Draper; you have to consciously decide to transform into him. But for dudes fixated on authenticity as one of the few remaining stable masculine values (which, if taken to its logical extreme, leads to Greenbergism, but has its good points otherwise), this isn’t really a practical possibility. How do we wear that suit comfortably? How do we put on that fedora in a way that seems true to ourselves and convincing to others but only embodying the good parts of Draper’s personality? Because fedoras are actually, you know, ridiculous. (Unfortunately!)

Is there a way to break out of the weird emo box a lot of guys have worked themselves into-the very box that makes it necessary to have a guy like Don to idolize-without becoming total sexist assholes? It would be a way, maybe, that preserved the pleasures of Don’s obviously appealing masculine traits, a way that expanded on his sense of decency and humbleness, while dropping the way these things excuse his self-centeredness, his general blindness to anything not right in front of his face. But that makes him sound like a pussy, right? And that’s precisely the problem. Don Draper may be an awful person, but he is definitely not a pussy. If he was, he wouldn’t be nearly as attractive.

Mike Barthel has been a music writer, for Idolator and other places, and is currently the worst. He has a Tumblr.