Losing My Mad Men Virginity…

…and why I wish I had waited.

I fought the urge to board the Mad Men train.  I really did.  I had absolutely no interest in watching a show that idealized the early 1960s, and what our mothers fought for years to overcome: the exploitative gender roles, the racism, the bigotry, the fetal alcohol syndrome…

Over the last three years, I’ve watched the show infiltrate our culture.  My friends and coworkers — all smart, educated women — became mesmerized.  Magazines started publishing spreads on how to host your own Mad Men themed parties, serving up drink ideas with vermouth, rye and bourbon and recipes for pigs in a blanket.  Banana Republic devoted their entire fall clothing collection to the show, with floral print party dresses, cigarette pants, faux pearls and pumps. Midcentury Modern style furniture sales boomed as people tried to recreate the set of Mad Men in their living room.

When the first four seasons popped up on my Netflix instant menu, I decided to bite the bullet.  I made my way through Season 1, kind of dragging my feet.

I tend to hate people and things before I like them, and this show was no different. I immediately hated January Jones’s Betty Draper, the passive, too-perfect housewife with flat affect and zero sex appeal.  I disliked the way they pushed Christina Hendricks into the role of the sassy, hip-swaying office manager with the two enormous assets.

I hated Don Draper for his philandering, his ability to have it all – the doting wife, the kids, the beautiful house in Westchester – and risk it all to screw some uber-cerebral bohemian chic downtown, not to mention the half dozen other women who all but ripped their clothes off in his presence.  And I was most disappointed to see that Peggy, the only woman with the balls to try and break through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated corporate world, had to have a major fall from grace in order to pay the price.

I just thought the whole thing was too much.  It set my feminist nerves on edge, and I found myself talking back to the television more than once.

As I continued to Season 2, something happened.  With the characters more or less established, the soul of Mad Men was able to emerge.  If nothing else, the show is visually stunning: there’s not a hair out of place on the entire cast, and the costumes, set, and lighting are pitch perfect.  Everything is seen through a sexy, rose-colored lens, which only adds to the viewer’s discomfort when the characters engage in an excess amount of forbidden behavior. Like a good stage play, the quiet pauses are as powerful as the well-written dialog, and the pacing is superb.

So why, might you ask, am I sorry that I’ve finally started watching Mad Men?  Because now I want more. And more.

I’ve fallen into what Sadie Stein coined in Jezebel as The Don Draper Effect.

Let me just say this: I don’t want to marry Don Draper.  I don’t even really want to know Don Draper.  Throughout the entire first season of the show, I didn’t understand his appeal.  I asked my friends if they thought he was attractive, and their responses were “YES! Don’t you?”  I really didn’t, at first.  I just couldn’t find sexiness in the deceit, the arrogance, the web of suburban lies.  But then, somewhere around the end of Season 2, it hit me.  “Huh,” I thought.  “He is attractive.” But it’s not just Jon Hamm’s physical appearance that makes us go weak in the knees.  Sure, he’s a good looking guy, but he wouldn’t necessarily turn heads walking down Madison Avenue.  It’s more than that — Don Draper is the missing link in my generation’s male population.

I didn’t grow up with a Don Draper in my house.  My father was a reggae musician with a ponytail.  He never wore a suit and tie, or an overcoat, or carried a briefcase.  He was artistic, and aloof.  My mother is a vehement feminist who spent her entire life fighting against the gender-specific roles of the 50s and 60s, which is likely why she married my father.  So why am I, and so many of my peers, attracted to a man who is a throwback to our grandparents’ generation?

Mind you, my grandfather was not a businessman on Madison Avenue – he was a boxer in the Air Force during World War II, and then a prison guard at Sing Sing until he retired.  He smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes a day, drank boilermakers, ate burned red meat, smoked while he shaved, and had a five o’clock shadow at three o’clock in the afternoon.  He never did laundry, ironed a shirt, or asked any of his children how they were feeling. He expected his dinner on the table at 5:3o on the dot when he came home from work, and he hated when women wore pants instead of dresses.  You could call him a son-of-a-bitch, by today’s enlightened standards of gender roles, and you’d be right.

But he was unmistakably masculine.  There is something about that generation that’s missing in today’s dating pool, especially in New York.  Now, gender roles are completely blurred, which is a good thing us women –  after all, we can do anything that men can do, and men, if they choose, can stay home with the kids.  Even our president is slightly androgynous.  This is one giant leap for womankind… so why are we backpedaling?

Because women, like men, appreciate an evolutionary throwback.  While men fantasize about a virgin in a gingham dress, women long for a man with strength – someone who will throw you up against the wall and have his way with you.  The polished restraint of the 1960s allows Don Draper to present all the sexuality of say, Hank Moody, but without the sleaze factor.

Personally, I don’t want to be with someone who is as picky about food as I am, or someone who deciphers poetry, or someone who does Yodates or loves musical theater. I want someone who makes me feel like a woman.  There’s something intensely attractive about Don Draper’s generation of men — they are, after all, the generation who went to war at 18, came home, started careers, got up every morning, put on their suits, and went to work.  There is a sense that they all know something that we don’t — that they possess a dangerous power that’s just beneath the surface of their polished, suit-clad exteriors.

There’s a mystery in Don Draper, a haunted past and a hidden sensitivity. You wonder how much the painful experiences of Jon Hamm’s own tragic childhood informed this role.  You can see it in Don’s most intimate moments — how he’ll gently touch a woman’s as he’s lying next to her in bed, his wanting to get close but still remaining emotionally detached.  Or when he berates a bunch of young, raucous employees in the Sterling Cooper elevator for not taking their hats off when a woman enters.

But there’s also something comforting, I think, about reverting back to stereotyped gender roles.  Today, we all have the weight of the world on our shoulders — there are almost too many choices and possibilities and opportunities for my generation.  As women, were raised to be as smart, as competitive, as driven as men, yet most of us are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling ourselves.  I think we have a secret desire to be taken care of again, even if it’s only a facade.

We also have the benefit of watching the world of Mad Men through a modern perspective.  We can fantasize about Don Draper because we take comfort in knowing that times have changed — things aren’t really like this anymore.  It’s now okay for women to work, for blacks and whites to get married, for women to initiate divorces and have abortions, for gays to come out of the closet.

At the same time, 1963 wasn’t so long ago.  If we turn around, we can still barely see a glimpse of it at the end of the tunnel we’re passing through.  With everything that’s going on politically right now – the rise of so many pro-lifers, the diminishing health care system, so many first-amendment rights slipping out of our control — it’s easy to see that we could go backwards very, very quickly.  It scares me to think that this could slip away as we succumb to an overwhelming nostalgia of days gone by.

I hope that the Draper love doesn’t blind viewers to the real issues on this show.  I hope that enough people are outraged as they are seduced by the world of Mad Men.  I know that I am.

So there you have it.  There’s no going back now.  I need to play catch up to see where Mad Men takes us, and how it ends.  As Sharon Olds says, “I signed on for the duration.”

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Categories: Reviews, Television

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Um, yeah, can’t wait for you to catch up to yesterday’s episode, which definitely shows some of the consequences of living in a world which embraces gender stereotypes and boundaries.

    For me, Don and Mad Men are actually cautionary tales. Aesthetically pleasing, sure, but horrible in reality.

  2. Absolutely horrible, without a doubt. I think they’ve shown some of these consequences from the get-go. And I see it in that generation — my grandmother still doesn’t understand that there are female doctors.

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