Why Do Women Love Mad Men?

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.