Dapper Don – Mad Men, Hegemonic Masculinity and the Seductiveness of Donald Draper


For this piece I welcome my first guest-blogger, Professor Robyn Bourgeois. Robyn has recently completed her Ph.D at the University of Toronto and has taught in that institution’s department of Women & Gender Studies. As the new season of Mad Men approaches, for which I nor Robyn could be more excited, I felt it was appropriate to reflect a little more deeply on the show’s protagonist, Don Draper. Precisely why is Don so attractive to women and why do so many male fans of the show aspire to be like Don? Also, are these necessarily good things? Robyn, with her expertise on gender and culture, is the perfect person to tackle these hefty questions, so I hand it over to her…

This one goes out to my friend and partner in crime, Ravi Singh!

As a new season of AMC’s Emmy award winning show, Mad Men, is set to begin, the world is abuzz with all things Mad Men (including, of course, myself – an AVID Mad Men fan and collector of Mad Men era fashion). My friend Ravi recently posted a lovely article explaining the seduction of the show’s leading man, Donald Draper (The article to which Robyn refers can be found here). A suave, powerful, and put together man, the author compared Don to the leading men of by-gone eras (Cary Grant, for example) and our nostalgia for these type of men.

I think she’s on the right track – I just don’t think she carried her analysis far enough.

The seduction of Donald Draper – and indeed, of the Carey Grants and Paul Newmans of Hollywood he is compared to – is, plain and simple, the seduction of hegemonic masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity, as I use it here, refers to dominant socially constructed norms and values upheld as ideal for all males in a society. A hegemonically masculine man is an ideal one – and in Western societies, this often means being strong, aggressive, tall, lean, able-bodied, a breadwinner, possessing incredible sexual prowess, being a “man’s man”. Framed within an understanding of systems of oppression as interlocking, this hegemonic male is also white, middle-class, heterosexual, and Christian.

The hegemonic male is KING of the Western world. He is the hero. He is the one we should aspire to – men should aspire to be him, and women should aspire to be with him.

Donald Draper is the epitome of hegemonic masculinity. He is ruggedly handsome, with a beautifully fit body that is always perfectly draped in the most exquisitely tailored suits. He smokes and he drinks. He is the King of Madison Avenue, and king at home (his stay-at-home queen being a visual replica of barbie). He conquers any woman who crosses his radar. His reproductive prowess is proven with three little Drapers. He fights for what he believes in, and might even throw a fist or two to back it up. He is loved women, and respected by men around him.

Donald Draper represents power, and power is attractive. Any one of us would rather feel the pleasure of power than the pain of disempowerment or oppression. For those of us who are not hegemonically male, then, Donald Draper is our access to hegemonic masculinity, and to power. He alleviates the weight of our oppression. He offers the hope for something more.He offers a way out of our oppressed reality. That is seductive as hell!

Significantly, the character of Donald Draper also betrays the weakness – or perhaps, the Achille’s heel – of hegemonic masculinity: it is a fantasy, much of which has been constructed on lies and misinformation. Donald Draper is a fantasy – on the show, we learn that Donald Draper was a name and identity adopted by a man named Dick Whitman to escape the Korean War. And Dick Whitman is not a hegemonic male – he is the poor son of a young prostitute that is adopted into an abusive family. Donald Draper hides this past from his family, though it is ultimately his undoing.

Hegemonic masculinity is a fantasy intended to uphold patriarchal order in this society. It relies on socially constructed arguments that this hegemonic male is the King of Western society, and that everyone else should be hierarchically ordered under them. These arguments are often founded on faulty arguments and evidence of the degeneracy of other people (namely women, transgender, and non-hegemonic males, but also racialized, poor, queer, and disabled people, to name a few). However, because these faulty arguments can be exposed, hegemonic masculinity is inherently unstable, facing constant threat from those challenging their authority in Western society.

And when one is “threatened”, one retaliates with violence. As Donald and Betty Draper’s marriage deteriorates as a result of her discovery of his secret past, Don becomes increasingly violent with Betty. At one point, when she asks for a divorce, he grabs her arm forcefully and calls her a whore. How dare she threaten to leave an ideal man!!!

In society, when hegemonic masculinity is challenged, violence is the answer. This is most explicitly represented by our government’s need to send our military into other countries to battle “threats”.It is seen when military personnel participate in violence against prisoners and civilians (see Sherene Razack’s work on peacekeeping violence). And it’s represented in our media and our popular culture.

But since violence becomes equated with hegemonic masculinity, many of us resort to violence as a means of accessing that power. As Razack writes about violence and hegemonic masculinity, those of us outside of hegemonic masculinity can be called to the service of hegemonic masculinity (and therefore access to that power) if we agree to forget the violence done to us, and agree to commit violence against others.

We are all called into the service of hegemonic masculinity.

The seduction of Donald Draper, then, is power. And power is incredibly seductive, particularly in a society where the majority of us are disempowered and oppressed. Whether we aspire to be him, or to be with him, we support a patriarchal order of things that he sits atop of. But it is a hierarchy of violence, requiring the suppression of others in order to make it happen.

*** An interesting end note: I mentioned that Don’s past was hidden from most people on the show. However, Don did reveal the fact that he had grown up poor. This was a strategic move, I believe, because it allows Donald Draper to represent the self-made man, which is the American Dream.

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1 Comment

  1. Cate

     /  November 13, 2011

    Excellent analysis, completely agree about the last note on ‘The American Dream’ – this show is very cleverly crafted.

    Reply

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