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“What you call ‘love,’ men like me invented to sell nylons”: Don Draper and the Nihilistic Sensibility of Mad Men

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Oh my. Oh, my. Oh…..my. That furrowed brow!

Part Two in my four-part series all about Mad Men! (Read Part One here before you read this).

Hey, please be aware that there are spoilers galore in here. In case you’re not caught up (Mary! Veronica!), you might want to avert your eyes.

That said, let’s get into it!

So, I truly believe that Mad Men is the most feminist show on TV right now, and though I say that without actually owning a TV, I think I Hulu and Netflix enough to know what’s out there, and I’m pretty confident in that statement. Saying that that Mad Men is the most feminist show on TV is not saying much, but it’s saying something, for sure. Right?

The mistake, it seems to me, is thinking that the drinking and smoking and capitalist crap and sexual anxieties the show depicts in are its true point, when in fact the true point is the fragility and deep-down horror of the world the characters inhabit.

So, let’s start at the beginning, with our broken down anti-hero, our sexy sexy, dead-inside unreliable narrator, our little boy John Galt, our living, breathing Howard Roark, requisite white skin and square jaw and the whole package (double entendre intended): Don [swoon] Draper.

“What you call ‘love,’ men like me invented to sell nylons.” – Don Draper.

Oh, Don, you and your catchphrases!

Beatnik: “[Ad men are] Perpetuating the lie—how do you sleep at night?”
Don Draper: “On a bed made of money.”

[Oh, speaking of that point: Please be aware that yes, of course this anarcho-feminist believes that advertising executives are scum of the earth. I’m not a capitalist and have a trizillion problems with the advertising-dependent capitalist system. But while capitalism is of course the backdrop to Mad Men and informs its themes and provides much ironic thematic fun (and real money for the network), Mad Men, it seems to me, is primarily about hearts. So I decided not to get into a meta-analysis of how the inherent horribleosities with capitalism problematize all layers of the show. Ya dig?]

So, Don.
Remember my thesis about Mad Men?

“-It’s about feminism.
-It’s about nihilism.

Specifically: how a heartbreaking devotion to the latter held back the former. And: how that changed.”

Thus, Don is our chief nihilist: perpetually pushing away any troubling signs of morality (season two, episode eleven: “Why would you deny yourself something you want?”), mortality, or everyday reality in order to continue to….to, what, exactly?

What is the purpose of Don’s life? We’re all trying to figure it out with him. It certainly isn’t to have the typical late-1950s, early 1960s existence: good job, lovely home, wife, and children, because though his surface charms have easily attracted all these things, he spends most of his days ignoring, destroying, or fleeing from them.

In his most ham-fisted moment, his soliloquy in the pilot episode, Don tells his paramour-to-be, the Jewess (this most un p.c. word so perfectly suits how most other characters think of her) businesswoman Rachel Menken, “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.”

Isn’t that nice for him.

It seems to me that most of the male characters share a similar set of values—and if they don’t, and they make the ultimate mistake of caring for something besides their own immediate happiness and material success–they are severely punished (when Kinsey goes down South to register black voters, it is made clear that he is going not because he truly has a political consciousness, but because his girlfriend is black and wants to go, and because he believes it will elevate his status around the office, because to truly believe in civil rights would be to show weakness—a crack in the nihilism aesthetic.).

[One quick overly long bracketed note about that—this incident represents the entirety of racial politics on the show. I hope later seasons will delve into the intense civil rights issues of the era, because right now the racial politics of Mad Men are notable mostly for their absence—which is probably as it should be in a Madison Avenue office building in 1961. I hope that as the civil rights movement heats up, it will spill onto the show.

Hey, while I’m in this bracket o’ marginalization, I should state that (what is now called) GLBTQ issues are quite satisfyingly covered in the personages of Salvatore, a closeted gay guy of the older generation whose world is turn apart when the painfully young (and European) Kurt casually explains to the office that “I make love with the men, not the women.” Around the same time a nice fag hag dynamic is put into place with Peggy and Kurt and things start to look rosy for the younger generation. Not so for Salvatore, however, whose sad attempts to brush off potential d/l lovers as well as nervous assertions of his straightness are truly heartbreaking (see the pilot episode: after lovingly caressing an ad sketch he did of a shirtless man posing with a cigarette and stating that “My neighbor posed for that…he always looks very relaxed.” He {unconvincingly} tells Don that he doesn’t want to go to a bachelor party at a strip club because “If a girl’s going to shake it in my face, I want to be alone so I can do something about it.”)

And now I’m finished offensively sidelining all non-feminist issues!]

One of the reasons I am so in love with Mad Men is that the show refuses to simply explore the world of handsome men destroying the world: it peels back the curtain to show us the wreckage that nihilism leaves behind: the carelessly broken hearts, the dead-eyed stares and ruined homes. It takes what could be the most boring and clichéd topic imaginable and blows the roof off it to show us its horrible guts. In many ways it’s a crime show: we can’t turn away from the wreckage because it is filmed so tenderly and in such detail.

Anyway, by the end of the second season with the dramatic backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, this point (“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.”) is driven home over and over: the end is near, perpetually. Nothing matters, nothing makes a difference. If it weren’t for the heart-stoppingly gorgeous sets and hairstyles and clothes, the show would be bleak beyond redemption, particularly toward the end of the second season, when everything feels like it’s sliding to a horrid stop.

Let’s back up a little though.

Don. He’s not a total nihilist, he has some sort of decalogue, and the flashes of it that occasionally peek out give us hope and keep him stringing us along and not writing him off as a beautiful, fucked-up-beyond-redemption human being. (For example, when his colleague Freddy Rumsen is so drunk at work that he pisses in his pants, he is angry at the way others in the office ridicule him.)

Particularly toward the end of Season Two, I think the writers’ are trying to show us that he is trying to fumble his way to some sort of authentic life. In season two, episode six, I think we are meant to see that perhaps Don is beginning to have a small awareness of the kind of world he is leaving his daughter—he has left a lover (Bobbie Barrett) tied up in a hotel room (this trope is so played out—I don’t even watch pornos and I can think of like four movies where the old “leaving your lover tied to the hotel bed” — is trotted out, argh.) when she admitted that she had bragged about his sexual prowess to another of his former paramours.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I think that he’s not trying that hard—I think he’s just having another set of experiences, still living like there’s no tomorrow. I’m not sure he is capable of becoming, as they would start to say a half-decade or so after the season is set, a fully actualized person. He’s a beautiful manikin, and I just want to watch him woodenly move through the world, with his cigarettes and beautiful clothes.

More than any other character I’ve ever seen on TV, he knows we’re watching, too (appropriately, there is literally a stage in the main office, where all characters must enter and exit.). He does everything he does for us, because he’s incapable of acting in a truly authentic way—because he literally has no authenticity. As his wife, Betty, says at one point when for just a second she lets down the guard she has spent an entire life constructing and decides to tell it like it is: “Stop it Don—nobody’s watching.”

In spite or because of this, Don’s small set of values is meant to mean something to us: whenever we catch a glimpse of whatever tiny heart he has underneath his expensive suits and fake name and entirely false life, it’s meant to sort of devastate us. He’s our protagonist, and we’re supposed to want him to be a good person. When he goes to California toward the end of season two, we’re supposed to see that after watching a presentation on the joys of nuclear annihilation he has a true psychic break. Something (and not just something: The Ultimate Thing, nihilism carried to its logical conclusion: mutually assured destruction of all life on earth) finally scratched the unscratchable surface of Don Draper, and maybe he is on his way to becoming a real human.

Thus, he literally goes toward the light, replacing his pinstriped Manhattan world with sunny California and metaphors of truth and sun. Everything is new in California in the early 1960s: the ultra modern house Don follows a lover (heavy handidly-named Joy) to, Mexican food, which he’s never had before.

“So Don, what’s your story?” one of the characters he meets along the way asks him, and for the first time he answers honestly:

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

10 Responses to ““What you call ‘love,’ men like me invented to sell nylons”: Don Draper and the Nihilistic Sensibility of Mad Men”

  1. Dani

    have to catch up…which is fine, b/c I’ve got some time on my hands. remarks afterward!

    Reply
  2. veronica

    “The mistake, it seems to me, is thinking that the drinking and smoking and capitalist crap and sexual anxieties the show depicts in are its true point, when in fact the true point is the fragility and deep-down horror of the world the characters inhabit.”
    Yes, I agree 100%!

    I want to watch all the episodes again so I can see all the little nuances that slipped by me the first time. Ooh, so many little details I missed!

    “That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I think that he’s not trying that hard—I think he’s just having another set of experiences, still living like there’s no tomorrow. I’m not sure he is capable of becoming, as they would start to say a half-decade or so after the season is set, a fully actualized person. He’s a beautiful manikin, and I just want to watch him woodenly move through the world, with his cigarettes and beautiful clothes.”
    I think he’s trying the best he can (which just happens to not be much at all, perhaps due to all his baggage). It was interesting to see (I think in the second season?) that he wouldn’t resort to hitting his son when Betty told him to, because his father hit him when he was a kid and it only made him want to kill his father. Being a good father seems important to him, maybe because he had such an unhappy upbringing. I think the small changes he’s trying to make do count for something. It was also interesting to see throughout the first and second seasons his old-school mentality coming out more and more. By old-school, I mean respect to his peers/fellow white men: the Freddy Rumsen scene, as you pointed out; also the scene in the elevator when he sternly tells a man to take his hat off. There are more examples I can’t think of right now. Although, it does seem for every good thing he attempted to do, he went and did something equally horrible.

    I kind of hated that whole California trip, although I guess it was crucial to the plot development. I wonder what really happened when he went to go see the real Mrs. Draper! I’m sure it will reveal itself in time!

    Reply
  3. veronica

    Also, what is up with Don and Betty’s little girl always pouring and mixing up drinks for them and their houseguests? It’s so disturbing!

    Reply
  4. Capitalist Pig

    I started watching this show every night via Netflix, and my girlfriend would look on from the bed or couch. I eventually stopped watching it while she was awake because she felt the sexism of the show was offensive. I tried to tell her that it was merely exhibiting, not glorifying, and that she was missing the even-handedness in the handling. Good to know that a woman out there who seems pretty opinionated on sexism agrees with me.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Totally, Mr. Capitalist Pig! Tell your girlfriend to read my Mad Men posts! That said: I’m sure there are some chauvinist pigs out there who aren’t getting that it’s pointed, pointed, POINTED satire and DO see it as objectifying women–and they like it. But I don’t think you can hold the creators’ responsible for that, right?

      Reply
  5. zoe p.

    Now I’m that reading these more carefully, I thought I’d comment here too: I think yes you can hold the creators responsible because I think they like to have it both ways, to increase their audience appeal. The AMC boards do reveal that some people are watching it “straight” so to speak.

    And there is NO WAY that Sal suffices for queer issues, Madison Avenue, New York, c. 1962.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Totally. My god, “The AMC boards do reveal that some people are watching it “straight” so to speak.” : ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Reply
  6. bartolomeu

    no, no, no, no, no… saying he didn’t know how to answer that question was not the “first time he answers honestly”, he is almost always honest in what he says.
    And no, he does not show to have “old-school mentality” (you guys are so off, it pains). making the man take of his hat, it was not about taking the hat in the presence of a woman, it was a punishment, because they were being rude.. talking about sexual ativities on the presence of strangers is rude, has always been, it was in the sixties, before the sixties,after the sixties and it will continue to be until the end of times.. much more rude if in the presence of a woman, the object of the sexual depravation. so he forces the guy to take his hat: it shuts him up and embaraces him. it’s about intemporal values, not “old-school” whatever.

    Reply
  7. bartolomeu

    and the show main theme is the sixties. and all that decade meant to the evolution of society, the transformations that were conquered. all the main events are there, and they are given the importance they had. they will show Luther King and Bobby Kennedy getting shot, the 1968 democratic convention, woodstock, reference 68 may, checoslovaquia, etc, etc. it’s a show about characters, but it’s a show about history

    Reply

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