For most of Mad Men‘s five seasons, 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. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has come closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood comes back to haun him and, perhaps, destroy him.
He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was 10, his father died after a horse kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.
|Don Draper is the ultimate American, but his rags-to-riches story sidesteps the question of whether someone like him could could “pass” among elite Americans.|
While serving in Korea, Dick Whitman swapped dog tags 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 moving up from used-car salesman to copy writer to adman god.
And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this most recent season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells that company’s executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute for pick-pocketing 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 Don Draper’s 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 “white 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 strictly Protestantism, whiteness, and class privilege.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner explains in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the show’s historical timeline. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether someone of Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among America’s elite—and later become its hero.
On the other hand, it is always unsatisfying, and perhaps a bit silly, to criticize a work of fiction for being historically 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?
Steven Boone has argued that Mad Men is Roots for privileged white people. It has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50 percent when it debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a myth to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status?
|This article was originally published by Working-Class Perspectives and appears here by way of special arrangement with that publication’s editors.|
I would like to think Don Draper’s morbid past appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the U.S. than during Draper’s time. While a real-life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10 percent chance of making it into the arena of the elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5 percent chance.
Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modernday 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 commercials for Lincoln MKZ during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last 18 months, Banana Republic has successfully marketed a line of Mad Men-inspired clothing. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford its Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.
Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000-plus 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 a whorehouse foundling and discover what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.
Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.