Don Draper’s Shocking Secret: He Doesn’t Exist
Why do Mad Men fans and the New York Times mistake the show for reality?
If you want to read the work of college-educated people thinking less than rigorously about culture, it's hard to beat the New York Times. For variety's sake, though, here's the Washington Post, describing the early life of the artistic director of a local theater:
He graduated with a degree in advertising but opted out of the Don Draper route to work in theater instead.
And here's the Daily Beast, on ... oh, just read it:
Swap advertising for private equity, Connecticut for Massachusetts, and a rocky marriage for a solid one, and Don and Betty Draper look an awful lot like Mitt and Ann Romney.
Or: Swap advertising for basketball, Madison Avenue for South Beach, and Brylcreem for headbands, and Don Draper looks uncannily like LeBron James.
What's remarkable—almost miraculous—about these Mad Men references is how universally, completely meaningless they are. I belong to the 99 percent of the American public that does not watch Mad Men, yet there's nothing about the Don Draper comparisons that is lost on me.
This is what I know about your "Don Draper": He's virile and masculine. Wears suits. Tidy hair, solid torso. Works in advertising. Drinks liquor. Has sex with bosomy women. Has a dark secret or two. Suffers existential crisis. The thing about the Korean War, up top, I cribbed from a glance at Wikipedia. The rest I got cold, without seeing a single scene of a single episode of Mad Men.
Partly it's osmosis, thanks to the fact that you all won't stop talking. Mostly, though, it's that Don Draper—this conceptual handsome man, moving suavely through the culture—is generic. He is a collection of received ideas about America in the mid-20th century, and about what it meant to be male and white and salaried then—and about New York City, and clothing, and the advertising industry, and sex. He is a historic figure the way Arthur Fonzarelli was a historic figure. Ayyyyy!
But everyone insists on talking about Mad Men as if it came first, and reality cribbed from it. To discuss how people are drinking Old-Fashioneds again, the Times led off with the fact that the Old-Fashioned is Draper's beverage of choice. Only afterward did two experts show up to pinpoint the revival of the Old-Fashioned as a decade-long phenomenon—that is, something that happened before Mad Men aired. Don Draper drinks Old-Fashioneds because he (meaning people who write his scripts) deliberately followed the existing trend.
This preference for the fictional over the real goes beyond Mad Men. Back in September, the Times supplied a priceless beginning to a long front-page story on Afghanistan's criminal Haqqani clan:
They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.
There's no evidence in the piece that the Haqqanis are struggling to reconcile their brutal business with upper-middle-class family life, or that they talk things out with their therapist. "Sopranos" is an empty marker, meaning "organized criminals"—the pre-existing stereotype on which the television show was based. Gangsters are the equivalent of gangsters.
In the collision between the actual and the simulacrum, the simulacrum is winning. After this season’s premiere of Mad Men, critics complained that dialogue in an episode about civil rights was unrealistic—only to be told that the words had been lifted nearly verbatim from contemporary newspaper coverage, at which point the complaint became that they sounded unrealistic. History didn't live up to the dramaturgical standards of Mad Men.
One moral you could take from that would be to stop treating Mad Men as history. But nobody seems interested in going that route. Instead, there's the intern who had an affair with John F. Kennedy telling an interviewer: ''God, I love Mad Men. … All of it is exactly what was going on.'' Got it? Watching Don Draper is a more vivid point of reference than having sex with JFK.
Or there's this: Taschen Books has published a two-volume collection of vintage ads from the 1950s and ’60s. The title is Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era. Mad Men has gone from borrowing the image of the mid-20th century to lending it. Someone who worked in advertising could probably say something about that.
Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.