For most of the first five seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper, the super cool, super successful Madison Avenue creative director, has been something of a superhero, with the seemingly infinite ability to reinvent himself: in life, business and marriage. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has been closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood has come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, to destroy him. He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was ten, his father was killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.
Dick Whitman, while serving in Korea, swapped dog tags, and hence identity, with a dead soldier named Donald Draper, and started his life anew. In this act, he became the ultimate American, wiping the (tragic) slate clean and then moving up from used car salesman to fur salesman to copy writer to copy chief to adman god. And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells a group of Hershey executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute in return for pilfering money out of the pockets of the men who came to the brothel. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
As an advertising historian I’ve always been bothered by the Don Draper rags-to-riches plotline. The vast majority of admen of Draper’s generation were not only wealthy WASPS like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, they were the sons of Episcopalian ministers. Jews, Italians, and other ethnic, working-class interlopers were successful in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture industry. But the doxology of the advertising industry at mid-century was Protestantism, whiteness, and privilege.
Matthew Weiner has been a fanatic for verisimilitude when it comes to Mad Men, explaining in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the historical timeline of the show. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.
On the other hand it is always unsatisfying, and possibly a bit silly, to criticize a work of historical fiction for being inaccurate. Mad Men is much more about “us” than it is about “them.” So what can we learn by reading Mad Men as a parable about the present, rather than the past?
One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status? Another interpretation reinforces this view. Another critic, Ron Ben Tovim, reads Mad Men as a new American classic in the tradition of Melville’s Moby Dick. According to this reading Dick Whitman is one part Moby Dick and one part Walt Whitman—an American superhero who creates himself out of the existential black hole of the Korean War. Of course, real life WWII and Korean War veterans had considerable help in moving up, from the GI bill, federal housing assistance, and veteran health benefits.
I would like to think that Don Draper’s morbid past as Dick Whitman appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the US than ever before. While a real life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10% chance of making it into the super elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5% chance of becoming Don Draper. Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modern day capitalism. It seems clear that Don’s split personality is becoming less functional, and that he is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break.
But in the end, does Mad Men have a progressive message? Quite the contrary: the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life, and audiences seem to respond. After AMC started airing Lincoln commercials during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last eighteen months, Banana Republic has been successfully marketing a line of Mad Men inspired clothing to its customers. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford the Banana Republic Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140.00 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.
Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000+ demographic of the show have not achieved the heights, penthouse included, of Mad Men’s most successful characters. At the end of the day most of us wish we could duck into a phone booth and come out wearing the grey flannel suits, shape wear, and sexy confidence of an era that exists only in the beautiful, twisted, and tragic imagination of Matthew Weiner and his fellow Mad Men creators. The world of Mad Men is ultimately a fiction—a fiction so compelling that we will have to wait one final season to learn the fate of the whorehouse foundling, Dick Whitman/Don Draper, and to find out what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.
Kathy M. Newman