What do women want? The answer is obvious. They want Don Draper. But they don’t know why.
It’s a relief to report that in episode one of season three of Mad Men, the hushed and stylish AMC show that already has a trophy case to rival the New York Yankees’, mystery-cloaked ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has not taken up the bongos, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, or pleaded that he has intimacy issues. No, here he is picking up a stewardess in an out-of-town hotel under an alias while his pretty little wife is home pregnant.
Any other TV hero who behaved like this would have the feminists outraged, but a glance around the women’s blogs shows that if Mad Men is a soap that men need not be ashamed to watch, it’s women who are positively swooning over the character and the show, which returns Aug. 16 and has earned 16 Emmy nominations for last year’s second season. Why does Don get a pass?
In part, the show is fantasy and escape. The men and women are uniformly despicable. They cheat on their spouses and stab each other in the back. Don’s wife Betty (January Jones) drives drunk, horrifically mismanages her children, and has an affair of her own with a stranger. Don’s colleague at the ad firm Sterling Cooper, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), denied even to herself that she was pregnant until she was about to give birth, then managed to mysteriously separate herself from the baby without an apparent second thought and return to work. Everyone drinks, smokes, schemes, and keeps secrets.
But — and this is important for women — everyone looks great. The mid-century look was in even before Mad Men got rolling. Style-conscious women can’t stop talking about the sleek craftsmanship of every ashtray and tie clip. At glossy magazines, designers are gushing Mad Men-inspired layouts.
So is Mad Men just Melrose Place with skinny ties? Not quite. The deftness and subtlety of the show’s writing and directing, the way characters’ shadings emerge only in scenes of whispery quiet, carries a strong rebuke to today’s confessional culture. Imagine the wordless disgust on Don’s face if you told him you were Tweeting your wedding planning, or your training for the marathon, or your search for your birth parents.
Virtually all of the show’s women are wives, secretaries, waitresses, models, or stewardesses and the one professional woman in the piece, Peggy, is at the bottom of Sterling Cooper’s white-collar hierarchy. Here is an America that today’s professional woman didn’t merely reject. She burned it to the ground and danced on its ashes.
Though women’s fondness for fictitious sexy rascals has been there forever and will never go away, Don’s misbehavior comes as part of a package that women find hard to resist. In Don’s world, women aren’t likely to rise to the top in the working world but they assume total command of the household. They may not know where their men are in the evenings when they say they’re at “business dinners” (and frequently are, with young models or foxy department-store heiresses) but that leaves them plenty of time to conduct discreet little flirtations of their own.
And if Don and Co. close off large portions of their manly doings behind a wall of omertà, that means the women don’t have to listen to any sniveling about their men’s anxieties, their feelings, their doubts. The men know their mission is to take charge, work hard, and give their families what they need financially, not emotionally. Emotions are women’s work. The astonishing number of women with advanced degrees who today elect to drop their careers and stay home with the children shows that equality did not make women quite as happy as they thought it would. Maybe the working world is what men have always considered it to be: not a source of freedom or self-actualization but a necessary routine, a duty, a bore.
The women who watch the show aren’t just sighing with lust for Don. They’re sighing with relief in contemplation of a world that, though unfair and imperfect, is carefully ordered and stable, at least on the surface. Yet Mad Men is a testament to how important surfaces can be when there is a consensus that the unpleasant parts of the past ought to be enthusiastically buried. There’s no monster of the deep so fearsome that it can’t be chased away for a moment or two with a pitcher of martinis.