Don Draper and the Perils of the 21st Century

I think about Don Draper a lot. This is something common to men of my generation, the twenty and thirty-somethings of this country. We talk about Don Draper, about his conquests and how he seemingly bends the world to his will, how we wish we were him and how sweet it’d be to live in the ‘60s and watch the times a-changin’.

All this fixation on Draper makes me wonder why it is he’s become so important to men in the present day. For one, there are very few instances when popular culture really engages and captivates the thinking man. We’ve long been offered television and music and movies that celebrate the mediocre and uninspiring: the insipid action-blockbusters, most all of pop music, the brainless, bumbling sitcoms and so many permutations of criminal procedurals.

But there’s something different about Mad Men. There’s hope to be found there, and in a handful of other shows like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and The Walking Dead. These programs have something important to say and do so in a thought-provoking manner, but their strength is not only in compelling storytelling or unflinching aesthetics. These shows, and Mad Men particularly, are appealing to modern men because they feature dynamic male protagonists who are confident, forceful, and ultimately, effective.

Let’s look at Don. He has a somewhat classic American mythology: the son of an alcoholic and a prostitute, who pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps and sculpted himself into an affluent, stylish icon.  He has flaws to go around—a philanderer, a drunk for all intents and purposes, and a chronic liar, but these vices do little to hold him back from what he aspires to. While the world transforms around him, and culture continually evolves, he adapts to the changing times and ultimately overcomes them.

Here in the present things are no less changing and uncertain. The economy is at a slow crawl, the country is saddled by debt, and the environment is wilting as we stand by and watch. We have two wars going on halfway around the world, and back home the threat of terrorism obliges us to choose which civil liberties we’re most willing to cede. And if all this weren’t enough, the men and women elected to deal with the big issues instead engage in daily scraps that would shame a child in their pettiness. Each week the polls tell us what we already know–we have no confidence in these people to make the huge and sweeping decisions necessary to pull us out of our tailspin.

There’s no denying life is hard, but that’s always been the case. The ‘60s were no better, of course. We picture it as a decade of dreaming and experimentation, when the Beatles and Dylan floated through the air and stale mores were challenged and discarded. We see men dressed in suits and fedoras, smoking and drinking as if the party would never end. The reality, of course, is different. Women and minorities struggled for their seat at the table, civil unrest threatened cities and homes, and an even more blatantly unjust conflict raged in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Still we build up the past and glorify it, reminisce blindly about a time we never experienced because that era, in retrospect, had purpose and direction. Likewise, maybe we lionize Don Draper because he is serious in a way that we, and more importantly–our culture, is not. Where others bicker over trivialities, Don is focused on whatever the goal is at the moment. While we wring our hands and dread the repercussions of drawing any hard line in the dirt, Don is self-assured in a way that enables progress.

But we men of this age aren’t ready, or willing, perhaps, to do this. We prefer our decisions and sacrifices to be handled by others more suited to the task. It’s as if we’re waiting for Don Draper to come and save us from the 21st century. We’re waiting for him to pay our debt like it’s a round of drinks at a smoky Manhattan bar. We need him there, smiling that composed grin of his, while everything crumbles behind him. And, most of all, we need him to tell us—in a voice that commands attention—that everything is all right. That he’s going to get on the phone and make some calls. Not emails, not texts. Calls.

But Don isn’t real. He’s a silhouette, forever slung back on that office couch of his. We are the descendants of those nervous souls who knocked on his door seeking direction, only there isn’t a door to knock on and there never has been. There is only a hard world of challenges and concession and the considerably softer escape of childishness. God help us if we can’t step up to the bar. God help us if we can’t all be Don Draper.


About the Author

Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and the author of the book An End To All Things. His work has been featured in Salon, Hobart, PANK, The Southern Humanities Review, among others, and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcart's, The Million Writer's Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize.