Don Draper’s Shocking Secret: He Doesn’t Exist

Why do Mad Men fans and the New York Times mistake the show for reality?

Don Draper.
It is time for someone to tell you that Don Draper is not a real person

Photograph courtesy AMC Networks.

What if I told you I had an imaginary friend, who goes everywhere with me? If you want to go to lunch, we have to reserve an empty seat for him. When you tell me something that happened to you, I tell you it reminds me of a story my imaginary friend told me. There are two possibilities here: I am 6 years old, or I am mentally unhinged.

A lot of you do have an imaginary friend like that. His name is Don Draper. It is time for someone to tell you this: Don Draper is not a real person.

“Oh, I know,” you say. “He stole the real, original Donald Draper’s identity during the Korean War, and …”

No. Don Draper is a made-up person inside your television set. He is a pattern of lit-up dots moving in front of your eyes for one hour, on Sundays, during the season run of the Mad Men program, which mercifully ends this weekend.

I don’t begrudge anyone that hour with the television. People should enjoy themselves, especially on weekends. Feel free to discuss the program and read about it on Mad Men fan sites, such as this one,

But do stop talking about your television friend, Don Draper, and his television world as if they mean something in the world-world. Upper-middle-class, college-educated people have this guilty compulsion to invest the TV programs they consume with cultural significance, and to blather on and on about them.

Guess what? You’re Trekkies. That’s OK, though. What’s wrong with Mad Men isn’t that it makes you boring. What’s wrong with Mad Men is that it also makes you stupid. Here’s a passage from a 2011 column in the business section of the New York Times:

As more and more women have come into the work force, corporate America has made significant, if agonizingly slow, progress in making sure its attitudes and the conduct of its leadership reflect those changes. It’s no longer a ”Mad Men” world where women are expected to fetch coffee and whiskey and service their bosses in other ways.

What are the words “Mad Men” doing in that sentence? Did you not know, before Don Draper told you, that there was a time when women faced open, blatant sexism in the workplace? Why does anyone need Don’s blessing to bring up this basic, commonplace fact?

“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” Philip Larkin wrote. And now 1963 begins in 2009, when Mad Men got there. Here’s the Times in December, recounting the rise of the turtleneck:

Francesca Granata, an assistant professor of art and design history at Parsons the New School for Design, traced the garment’s high-fashion roots to the ‘60s, when, she said, ”Pierre Cardin and YSL reinvented the men’s suit with a turtleneck instead of a buttoned shirt and a scarf instead of a tie.” (Think more Paul Kinsey than Don Draper.)

You don’t need to listen to some fancy academic talking about Yves Saint Laurent. You know what a suit with a turtleneck looks like because Don Draper doesn’t wear one, but Paul Kinsey does. (Paul Kinsey, according to Google, is another fictional character from Mad Men.)

Here’s the Times, in February, on living arrangements for the newly divorced man of today:

His home, then, is not a Hefner-like bachelor pad with a round bed and a conversation pit, nor is it Don Draper’s dark, drab apartment on ”Mad Men,” which the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has described as looking ”like it was decorated by Edward Hopper.” Instead, it tends to be a place that balances cheerful comfort for the children with a scary new reality: Dad is a single guy.

If you want to read the work of college-educated people thinking less than rigorously about culture, it’s hard to beat the New York Times. For variety’s sake, though, here’s the Washington Post, describing the early life of the artistic director of a local theater:

He graduated with a degree in advertising but opted out of the Don Draper route to work in theater instead.

And here’s the Daily Beast, on … oh, just read it:

Swap advertising for private equity, Connecticut for Massachusetts, and a rocky marriage for a solid one, and Don and Betty Draper look an awful lot like Mitt and Ann Romney.

Or: Swap advertising for basketball, Madison Avenue for South Beach, and Brylcreem for headbands, and Don Draper looks uncannily like LeBron James.

What’s remarkable—almost miraculous—about these Mad Men references is how universally, completely meaningless they are. I belong to the 99 percent of the American public that does not watch Mad Men, yet there’s nothing about the Don Draper comparisons that is lost on me.

This is what I know about your “Don Draper”: He’s virile and masculine. Wears suits. Tidy hair, solid torso. Works in advertising. Drinks liquor. Has sex with bosomy women. Has a dark secret or two. Suffers existential crisis. The thing about the Korean War, up top, I cribbed from a glance at Wikipedia. The rest I got cold, without seeing a single scene of a single episode of Mad Men.

Partly it’s osmosis, thanks to the fact that you all won’t stop talking. Mostly, though, it’s that Don Draper—this conceptual handsome man, moving suavely through the culture—is generic. He is a collection of received ideas about America in the mid-20th century, and about what it meant to be male and white and salaried then—and about New York City, and clothing, and the advertising industry, and sex. He is a historic figure the way Arthur Fonzarelli was a historic figure. Ayyyyy!

But everyone insists on talking about Mad Men as if it came first, and reality cribbed from it. To discuss how people are drinking Old-Fashioneds again, the Times led off with the fact that the Old-Fashioned is Draper’s beverage of choice. Only afterward did two experts show up to pinpoint the revival of the Old-Fashioned as a decade-long phenomenon—that is, something that happened before Mad Men aired. Don Draper drinks Old-Fashioneds because he (meaning people who write his scripts) deliberately followed the existing trend.

This preference for the fictional over the real goes beyond Mad Men. Back in September, the Times supplied a priceless beginning to a long front-page story on Afghanistan’s criminal Haqqani clan:

They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.

There’s no evidence in the piece that the Haqqanis are struggling to reconcile their brutal business with upper-middle-class family life, or that they talk things out with their therapist. “Sopranos” is an empty marker, meaning “organized criminals”—the pre-existing stereotype on which the television show was based. Gangsters are the equivalent of gangsters.

In the collision between the actual and the simulacrum, the simulacrum is winning. After this season’s premiere of Mad Men, critics complained that dialogue in an episode about civil rights was unrealistic—only to be told that the words had been lifted nearly verbatim from contemporary newspaper coverage, at which point the complaint became that they sounded unrealistic. History didn’t live up to the dramaturgical standards of Mad Men.

One moral you could take from that would be to stop treating Mad Men as history. But nobody seems interested in going that route. Instead, there’s the intern who had an affair with John F. Kennedy telling an interviewer: ”God, I love Mad Men. … All of it is exactly what was going on.” Got it? Watching Don Draper is a more vivid point of reference than having sex with JFK.

Or there’s this: Taschen Books has published a two-volume collection of vintage ads from the 1950s and ’60s. The title is Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era. Mad Men has gone from borrowing the image of the mid-20th century to lending it. Someone who worked in advertising could probably say something about that.