The Real Don Draper; The Gender Politics Of Mad Men
At the risk of discussing such an outdated medieval prehistoric concept as gender differences, as the Wall Street Journal noted last month, while Matthew Weiner, the creator of TV's Mad Men apparently still oversees most aspects of the show, the vast majority of the series' writers are women. (The count is seven of nine, to add a little television synchronicity.)
As I see it, Mad Men is centered on Peggy, not Don. The very possibility of Peggy’s success is the engine of dramatic conflict. It threatens to devalue the relative status both of the professional men with whom she directly competes and of their wives with whom she doesn’t compete so much as humiliate by rejecting the grounds of their social and self-esteem. She is not yet in a position to really much threaten anyone, but the broader movement of liberation she represents will seem to many as little more than a violent, unfair, ad hoc emendation to the rules of the game they shaped their lives around.
Don is comfortable with Peggy, for now, because he sees these rules as little more than a fixed creative constraint, like the form of a sonnet. Don knows everyone is a manufactured thing, a product, advertising him- or herself in some market niche or other. (Don cannot believe Sterling is happy rather than performing happiness, which he finds unbecomingly “foolish.”) The fact that Don is a self-conscious and thus superlative performer explains both his outward success and his sense that it is empty. But what if self-construction does not necessarily mean living a lie? What if something like authenticity is compatible with success? In the end, Peggy may threaten Don more than she threatens the hierarchies of the trads by proving the possibility of successful integrity–by creating a persona, however awkward, that is both outwardly successful and inwardly satisfying.
Anyway, I’m totally overinterpreting. But that’s how I’m guessing things might shape up. Also, menswear!
Heh. Jonah Goldberg adds:
My only small quibble is that Will seems to suggest (and I could be over-reading) that it's an either-or choice between "getting" the show and liking it for the superficial reasons. Maybe some of us like both the highbrow intent and the hot chicks and drinking (just as some women just think Don Draper is too dreamy to ignore). Or, maybe, we like the hot chicks and drinking and tolerate some of the didactic bits because that's what's required for most high-end television these days. Most really good TV shows have to work on a number of levels in order to be really good and it's not impossible to appreciate all of those levels, or to appreciate some and tolerate others.
I'd always assumed that the Don Draper character's name was something Weiner coined as a double pun referring to donning a new suit that drapes over the wearer. After all, "Don's" identity -- SPOILER ALERT! -- is something he stole when he deserted the Korean War, and then embellished, Gatsby-like, to transport himself from the rural middle America of the Depression and World War II to the corner office in a prosperous Madison Avenue ad agency. (Where "A man is whatever room he is in.")
But it turns out the character's name was based on a real-life advertising legend, as his former wife recently noted:
In the 1960s, Draper Daniels was something of a legendary character in American advertising. As the creative head of Leo Burnett in Chicago in the 1950s, he had fathered the Marlboro Man campaign, among others, and become known as one of the top idea men in the business. He was also a bit of a maverick.
Matthew Weiner, the producer of the television show Mad Men (and previously producer and writer for The Sopranos), acknowledged that he based his protagonist Don Draper in part on Draper Daniels, whom he called “one of the great copy guys.” Weiner’s show, which takes place at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency on Madison Avenue, draws from the golden age of American advertising. Some of its depictions are quite accurate—yes, there was a lot of drinking and smoking back then, and a lot of chauvinism; some aren’t so accurate. I know this, because I worked with Draper Daniels in the ad biz for many years. We did several mergers together, the longest of which lasted from 1967 until his death in 1983. That merger is my favorite Draper Daniels story.