Mysterious Mad Man: Don Draper

Who is Don Draper?

Let’s start with his real name: Dick Whitman. Someone must have written about this — because it’s so obvious — but I haven’t read anything specifically about the choice of that name. Maybe it’s too obvious. Dick = uh, “dick,” and Whitman is pretty darn close to white man. Don Draper is the patriarchy!

Let’s unpack that a little. Don Draper is a tall, affluent white man chiseled as from marble into the form of the post-war American archetypal dad. The grey suits, the hat, the hair style that never changes. While his peers grow their hair and experiment with facial hair, Don remains iconic. Peggy’s transformation is remarkable when compared to how untransformed Don remains at the beginning of the 1970’s.

Don Draper 1960
Don Draper 1960

Don Draper 1970
Don Draper 1970

Peggy Olson 1960
Peggy Olson 1960

Peggy Olson 1970
Peggy Olson 1970

The patriarchy operates not through outward oppression, but rather through the illusion of benevolent authority. Don Draper is a “good provider,” but his benevolence is built on lies, and it poisons those who receive it. In season one he parts ways with his bohemian lover Midge by handing her a check for $5,000, buying his way out of emotional responsibility (not for the first or last time). When we see Midge again in season seven, she is deep into a heroin addiction.

Don Draper is made up of the lies men tell women (and themselves) in order to maintain the illusion. Don has all of the agency in his relationships with women. Their only option is to leave, and the ones who see past the facade do leave. Betty discovers that  Don Draper is a fiction and she trades him in for a man who is all benevolent authority. Betty needs that illusion of authority in order to function in her world (a world that is slipping away along with Betty herself). Megan is driven away by a loss of hope. The promise of happiness in ‘Tomorrowland’ is something Don cannot make real. He continually promises her future happiness, even as their relationship fractures. In the end, the only thing he can give her is a check for a million dollars and all of his furniture.

Don Draper is universally desirable in the world of Mad Men. Women want him, men want to be him, but men also want him. The success of the agency often rests on the magical desirability of Don Draper and his ideas. His mistresses are smart and pragmatic about their roles in his life. For him, they represent other possible futures. He approaches the brink of running away with one of them on several occasions. For them, he is a fantasy of masculine approval. Whenever the fantasy gets anywhere near reality, it falls apart.

The most interesting, problematic relationship he has is with his daughter, Sally. She rejects Don’s authority at an early age, and never buys into Betty’s world, run by the benevolent authority of men, and protected by appearances. Up to the end, Betty is ruled by vanity and being found attractive by men. “Earning her keep.” Sally is repulsed by the dynamics of sexual politics.

One of my favorite episodes is ‘Far Away Places,’ when Megan aggressively questions Don’s authority to tell her how to behave and which ice cream flavor to like. Unlike Betty, Megan is of a generation of women who question that authority. Eventually, Megan goes to California to find or create herself like so many of her generation. Don cannot yet stop being Don.

Don is not really Don. He’s Dick. The facade of Don is constructed to hide the violence and pain that created Dick. The benevolent authority of the 20th Century American father figure is also a facade that romanticizes gender inequality and the violence and pain the fuel it. Dick’s father is abusive and authoritarian, the ugly origins of patriarchy.

I’m not going to try to predict what happens tonight when the story of Don Draper comes to a close. Patriarchy’s role changed at the end of the 1960’s, and I suspect Don’s will, too. I would be surprised if he dies, but I would also be surprised if he doesn’t shed his skin and put on a new facade to sell his lie to a new audience.

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