The Don Draper Nostalgia
The past is a myth. Our imperfect memories refashion it to suit the prejudices of our present era. When things are going well for us, the past seems a juvenile time of simplistic ideals; when thing go bad, the past transforms into a mature time of wise leadership. Neither extreme is true, though neither is entirely false. In real time, eras lack clear definition. The immediacy of the present defies reduction and neatly packaged conclusions; we are never quite certain of our national character in the moment. Allow a few decades to pass and through the magic of nostalgia, we turn ourselves into children and gods. Or in the case of Don Draper, we can become both.
In the highly stylized world of AMC’s popular series, Mad Men (now in its fifth and final season), the 1960s are portrayed as an era of great intellectual maturity and regrettable emotional shallowness. Men and women exist as extreme stereotypes, notable for how completely they fit an epochal image or how defiantly they oppose it. At the center of the Mad Men universe is the anti-hero, Don Draper, a dysfunctional child posturing as the model male caught between his own legacy and an emerging modernity. He is seductive, not just for the sharp lines of his well-defined jaw and deep, piercing eyes, but more subtly for his ability to define himself on his own terms. Therein lies the nostalgic magic captivating an audience of modern men eager to realize their own autonomy.
The most recognizable image of Mad Men comes out of the extraordinary title sequence, a well-dressed silhouette of a man falling into the seemingly endless abyss of New York high rises, only to emerge in his lounge chair with an iconic cigarette dangling between his fingers. We live in an excess of comfort. Men’s fashion seems to begin and end with the styling of our jeans and flamboyance of the script on our t-shirts. In Don Draper’s world, men wear suits. Not the ill-fitting church clothes we occasionally throw together for some social function we are dreading, but a well-tailored garment meant to convey power and authority. The image of men conducting their business in the dapper elegance of fine fashion feels foreign and mysterious. For many of us, taking our clothing choices so seriously would risk the ridicule of the dudes or (god-forbid you actually talk this way) bros we hang out with. And so we watch Don Draper wistful for that time when all men knew four tie knots and when to use them. Of course we need only ask our fathers and grandfathers how often they wore tailored suits to discover how incongruent this vision is.
The Men’s Club
Men once ruled the world. We dictated the terms of business and excluded females and minorities with a stunning sense of entitlement. If we can just look past those inconveniences, the portrait of men turning their lives into enclaves of boys-only clubs takes on the air of pristine rightness. Men ruling the world, setting the terms of engagement, indulging their vices, and toasting their great fortune has tremendous appeal to a generation negotiating a far more inclusive workplace. Few women in Mad Men assert their intellect; many are quite content to provide the window-dressing, the soft edge to the power of a man working his craft. The image is an apt symbol of the famous slogan – “Every man is a king”. The modern man has been socially conditioned to reject this notion as masochistic, but we are eager to indulge the myth.
Men of Ideas
The show’s title references the popular abbreviation for Madison Avenue in New York, the locale for the most prestigious and influential advertising firms in the world. With the advent of television, marketing and the psychological war for our purchasing power took center stage. The old rules of supply and demand were redefined as demand could be manufactured and fabricated on a massive scale. Don Draper and his crew are perched at the artful apex of this new power, not just reading regional moods and fitting advertising, but dictating perceptions through artful deception. They build brands through the force of intellect they wield. Never mind this was an era when manufacturing and assembly were at their height in America.
The other major characters in the show are cigarettes and whiskey. We love to romanticize our ignorance of the destructive effects of smoking and drinking and Mad Men makes an art of it. The workplace begins a well-dressed bar, a place where good news and bad are met with crystal decanters and highballs. The air of sophistication and maturity conveyed are unmistakable. Masculinity is expressed through heightened tolerance to the effects of alcohol, until we succumb and indulge our sexual depravity. The contrast to the realities of our modern workplace, where harassment laws prevent 90% of the conversations heard on the show is delightfully mischaracterized, but intrinsically entertaining.
The Objectified Woman
One of the more compelling running tensions in the show is the juxtaposition of Don Draper with the various sexual conquests he pursues. Varying in their state of emancipation, the women populating the show ultimately fit into a subservient role, or get pushed out of the frame. Our gender biases, so overtly displayed, seem somehow natural to their time. Of course we have been taught reducing women to sexual objects or motherly figures is a biological fallacy, but we cannot help to imagine how quaint and satisfying the world must have been. If only it ever were as it is displayed…
In the end we love Mad Men because we know it is bullshit. This world never existed and never will. Fragments of truth dot the landscape of the show, enough that we can believe for a moment we descended from this pure masculinity; not unlike the kids in the yard swinging lightsabers and using Jedi mind tricks. We love our nostalgia, served with a swarthy cocktail and a smoke.