Sex, Lies, and Don Draper in Mad Men


He presents a slick, appealing image but Don Draper is a man on the run. He’s escaping his past by taking on a new identity. His carefully constructed persona earns him admiration in the first seasons. At work he is known for his creativity, good looks, and integrity.

Advertising presents an idealized image of a life that can only be attained by purchasing the product being sold. Advertising creates discontent with real life. It plays on envy and pride to create a desire to mold a life that matches the image presented in the ad, and to purchase whatever products necessary to prop up that image. Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner chose advertising as a subject, he said, because “it’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are.”

Don Draper is the personification of a man who is reaching for the image. He doesn’t think he can attain it as himself, Richard Whitman, so he becomes someone else. For awhile he succeeds in selling himself as the person he wants people to believe that he is. Even after his charade is discovered by a few people he manages to dodge consequences. He’s tried to compartmentalize his life, presenting himself as a successful, creative advertising executive and charming family man while feeding his alienation with lies, sex, and alcohol. But he can’t maintain the persona 24/7. While the excessive drinking is accepted cultural behavior in 1960’s New York for Don it’s more than social. Don’s lost and hurting so he self-medicates with gluttony (alcohol) and lust.

Just as he does at the office, Don is carrying on a charade at home. He is the image of affluent, upper-middle class America in the sixties. But his relationship with his wife Betty is based on lies. He’s married her and given her a name that is not even his own. He cheats on her. He carries on the social pretenses of the lifestyle but he’s not really engaged. Don’s personal emotional space isn’t just wide, it’s a chasm. Even with Betty.

Don has lots of sex with lots of people and eventually Betty finds out. Just as Don has tried to define himself without the benefit of a past; he’s tried to attain sexual satisfaction without the benefit of intimacy. This, plus the revelation that he’s lied about his name ends their marriage. Until recently he’s never had sex with someone from the office, but has formed liaisons with clients that affect his professional life. Lately he’s bedded his secretary and paid a prostitute to slap him around while having sex.

Don’s fatalism and self-loathing seem to be creeping into his interactions with other people. He’s challenged clients and alienated colleagues in ways he would not have done in earlier seasons. His anger is beginning to show. Throughout the course of the show Don Draper/Richard Whitman’s carefully constructed image is dissolving.

Perhaps because he is compromised himself Don Draper shows compassion for others who face judgment, intervening to protect both an unwed mother and a closeted homosexual. He tries to protect smaller clients from the consequences of competition from corporate powerhouses. Perhaps his New Year’s with Lane is his best attempt at comfort. Show creator Matthew Weiner says, “I don’t believe in bad guys, for one thing.” “Everybody has a reason for doing what they’re doing.” Don’s search is working his way through pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust in his search for identity.

The sixties were a time when people threw off social and moral expectations in order to “find identity.” Many of the issues that are just beginning to surface on the show were beginning to affect thinking in the sixties. The upheaval that these changes caused in society gave many people reason to reexamine how they saw themselves and how they saw others, to question and sometimes to discard social and moral expectations.

For the most part people in the early sixties were enjoying the party without a lot of examination. Mad Men does a fairly authentic job of portraying the shifting landscape on which people at the time were trying to keep their footing. In many ways Don represents that introspective examination and the confusion that came with it. But the search for identity and meaning is not limited to any one decade. Office politics, infidelity, deception, and alcoholism have been around a long time. These behaviors are often symptoms of the pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust that sometimes drive us.

To some extent Weiner is right. None of us are “bad guys” to the extent that we don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say “How can I hurt someone else in order to advance my own cause today?” We do have reasons for what we do, but many of them are as unexamined as the social constructs of the 1960’s that led to social change. When we are called on our choices we find justification or deflect blame. We want to look in the mirror and see someone we can see as a “good person.” If we can’t see that person, like Richard Whitman we’ll pretend until we’ve sold that image even to ourselves.

Often, without acknowledging it, we justify the necessity to hurt someone else in order to get what we think we need. We’ll even hurt ourselves. On Entertainment weekly’s Pop Watch Jeff Jensen writes an article about how Mad Men reflects the beginnings of Postmodernism in the 1960’s. He concludes that the most telling way in which Don Draper defines Postmodernism is that he “rejects his own meta-narrative.” Look at Mad Men from this examination of postmodernism at
from Georgetown University.

In last night’s episode Don goes to visit Anna, who knows his secrets and accepts him as Dick. Anna tells Don that she “knows everything about him and still loves him.” He also finds out that she is dying and this confirms his sense of separation and aloneness. We all need to be known and loved. It is our very attempts to create stories for ourselves instead of living out the one written for us that creates separation between ourselves and others. It also separates us from God who knows everything about us and still loves us.

Psalm 139 starts by reflecting on what happens when we acknowledge that we can’t hide who we are from God. Verse 8 says that even when we “make our beds in hell” God is there, and verse 12 tell us that “even in darkness” we can’t hide. Richard Whitman is being found out. Layer after layer is coming off and it’s hard to like or justify what we’re seeing. But as his image blows up, his real story is being told and hopefully as that story unfolds we’ll understand and love this lost soul.

As I reflect on Psalm 139 in the light of Don Draper I begin to see that compassion isn’t impressed, it’s merciful. It’s how we keep loving after we know everything. It’s the story we’re meant to tell and meant to live. Yet most of us contribute to an environment that makes it seem necessary to deceive to impress and to create a persona to escape judgment. We hide when what we really need is to be known.

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