Why Do Mad Men Fans and the New York Times Mistake the Show for Reality?

Obsessions, Manias, Complaints
June 8 2012 4:09 PM

Don Draper’s Shocking Secret: He Doesn’t Exist

Why do Mad Men fans and the New York Times mistake the show for reality?

Don Draper.
It is time for someone to tell you that Don Draper is not a real person

Photograph courtesy AMC Networks.

What if I told you I had an imaginary friend, who goes everywhere with me? If you want to go to lunch, we have to reserve an empty seat for him. When you tell me something that happened to you, I tell you it reminds me of a story my imaginary friend told me. There are two possibilities here: I am 6 years old, or I am mentally unhinged.

A lot of you do have an imaginary friend like that. His name is Don Draper. It is time for someone to tell you this: Don Draper is not a real person.

"Oh, I know," you say. "He stole the real, original Donald Draper's identity during the Korean War, and …"

No. Don Draper is a made-up person inside your television set. He is a pattern of lit-up dots moving in front of your eyes for one hour, on Sundays, during the season run of the Mad Men program, which mercifully ends this weekend.

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I don't begrudge anyone that hour with the television. People should enjoy themselves, especially on weekends. Feel free to discuss the program and read about it on Mad Men fan sites, such as this one, Slate.com.

But do stop talking about your television friend, Don Draper, and his television world as if they mean something in the world-world. Upper-middle-class, college-educated people have this guilty compulsion to invest the TV programs they consume with cultural significance, and to blather on and on about them.

Guess what? You're Trekkies. That's OK, though. What's wrong with Mad Men isn't that it makes you boring. What's wrong with Mad Men is that it also makes you stupid. Here's a passage from a 2011 column in the business section of the New York Times:

As more and more women have come into the work force, corporate America has made significant, if agonizingly slow, progress in making sure its attitudes and the conduct of its leadership reflect those changes. It's no longer a ''Mad Men'' world where women are expected to fetch coffee and whiskey and service their bosses in other ways.

What are the words "Mad Men" doing in that sentence? Did you not know, before Don Draper told you, that there was a time when women faced open, blatant sexism in the workplace? Why does anyone need Don's blessing to bring up this basic, commonplace fact?

"Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three," Philip Larkin wrote. And now 1963 begins in 2009, when Mad Men got there. Here's the Times in December, recounting the rise of the turtleneck:

Francesca Granata, an assistant professor of art and design history at Parsons the New School for Design, traced the garment's high-fashion roots to the '60s, when, she said, ''Pierre Cardin and YSL reinvented the men's suit with a turtleneck instead of a buttoned shirt and a scarf instead of a tie.'' (Think more Paul Kinsey than Don Draper.)

You don't need to listen to some fancy academic talking about Yves Saint Laurent. You know what a suit with a turtleneck looks like because Don Draper doesn't wear one, but Paul Kinsey does. (Paul Kinsey, according to Google, is another fictional character from Mad Men.)

Here's the Times, in February, on living arrangements for the newly divorced man of today:

His home, then, is not a Hefner-like bachelor pad with a round bed and a conversation pit, nor is it Don Draper's dark, drab apartment on ''Mad Men,'' which the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, has described as looking ''like it was decorated by Edward Hopper.'' Instead, it tends to be a place that balances cheerful comfort for the children with a scary new reality: Dad is a single guy.

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