This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.
The fourth season of “Mad Men” has just concluded: the brilliant, beautiful, painful, inspiring, fascinating TV series on AMC about a New York ad agency in the early 1960s, and the screwed-up, rapidly- changing- but- not- rapidly- enough world of gender and race and sex during that place and time.
And it’s reminding me of a rant I’ve been wanting to rant for a little while now:
Why are so many women hot for Don Draper?
The lying, philandering, self-absorbed, work-obsessed, emotionally warped, goes- through- mistresses- like- cigarettes, sexist prick of a lead character, Don Draper?
Via Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, we have this charming article in the New York Observer, speculating on why Don Draper is inspiring so much lust in so many women. The gist of the article is that feminism has been too successful — and women aren’t happy with it. We’ve gotten our equal partners, men who share housework and child-care, men who express their emotions and support us in our careers, men who treat women with respect and value home and family more than work… and it’s letting us down. What we really want is Don Draper. And we’re hypocrites for expecting men to be more feminist… while fantasizing about sexist bad boys who treat women like dirt.
Speaking as someone with a mild Don Draper fetish (although Joan Holloway is the “Mad Men” character I really crave): This is just silly and wrong. It’s silly and wrong for so many reasons, I can’t even begin to outline them all. (Although I’m certainly going to try.)
For one thing: Don Draper isn’t a standard Bad Boy. He’s not a conventional Lothario, chasing tail indiscriminately, purely for his own sexual and ego satisfaction, with no interest in women as people, and no recognition of their equal humanity. For starters, he has more than a kernel of genuine respect for women — certainly way more than any other male character on the show. He’s the one who recognized Peggy Olson’s talents as a copywriter, and who helped her repeatedly in her pioneering climb up the Sterling Cooper ladder. (Help that often came in complicated and ambiguous ways, to be sure — but help nonetheless.) Not to mention his singular, impassioned, entirely necessary support of Peggy during her time of terrible need. That was an act of pure human compassion and friendship… one that transcended gender.
And look at his taste in women. Every woman Don cheats on his wife with is intelligent, independent, unconventional, and in some way defiant of traditional gender roles. Proto-feminists, one might even call them. (In fact, I’m wondering now if part of the Don Draper fantasy has to do with wanting to be one of the strong, edgy, fascinating women he gets the hots for.) What’s more, he has a genuine emotional connection with these women, a connection he’s largely lacking with his wife, Betty… and a connection that seems to be a major part of why he pursues these affairs. And this taste in women is, I think, a huge part of the attraction. It’s not about him being a sexist throwback to a time when Men Were Men. It’s about him being a complicated man who’s drawn to strong, interesting women.
Especially given the context of his time. I think this is something that gets overlooked in this “women really want sexist manly-men” analysis of “Mad Men.” It’s not like “sexist” versus “feminist” are all- or- nothing categories, with everyone falling into one or the other. It’s a spectrum. So yes, in the context of 2011, Don Draper falls squarely into the “sexist philanderer who uses women and discards them” end of that spectrum. But in the context of the early 1960s, in the context of the other men all around him in the Manhattan ad agency world? He’s Gloria Freaking Steinem. Which makes you start to wonder: if he was this forward- thinking about women and gender in 1961, what would he be like today? Which makes him interesting… and attractive.
(It’s worth noting that, while Don Draper has throngs of admiring female fans, Pete Campbell — who’s way more unambiguously sexist and overtly misogynist than Don has ever been — does not. Hey, actor Vincent Kartheiser is a hottie, too… but as far as I know, women aren’t wetting their panties en masse over Pete. They’re running for the exits whenever he comes on screen. He’s a complex character, one who inspires pity and compassion as well as revulsion… but he’s not inspiring hordes of modern women to join the Pete Campbell, Please Fuck Me Now Fan Club, the way Don Draper is.)
And, as Amanda Marcotte pointed out (in a Tweet, which I now of course can’t find): Maybe just a little, bitty, teensy weensy part of the Don Draper appeal might have to do with the fact that actor Jon Hamm is so eminently fuckable. Maybe the attraction is just marginally related to the fact that Jon Hamm is ten pounds of gorgeous in a five pound bag, one of the tastiest snack treats to come out of the media world in a good long time, and women would want to fuck him if he played Phil Donahue. It’s possible that the tiniest sliver of the Don Draper fantasy is really about wanting to spread Jon Hamm on a biscuit and eat him up for breakfast. Maybe just a skosh. [end sarcasm] As Marcotte pointed out: Do we really think women all over the country would be drooling over Don Draper if he was played by Ron Howard?
But while all this is important, I think it’s missing the most important crux of the matter:
What we fantasize about, and what we want in our real lives, are not necessarily the same thing.
It’s a huge mistake to assume that what people fantasize about is the thing they most sincerely want. People can be very happy and satisfied in their lives, and still fantasize about a life that’s different. People can be happy in fairly settled, stable lives, and still fantasize about danger and adventure. People can be happy in unstructured lives with a lot of travel and unpredictability, and still fantasize about a life of calm, peaceful contemplation. People who’ve happily chosen job satisfaction over money can fantasize about winning the lottery. Happy urban dwellers can fantasize about bucolic tranquility. Happy parents can fantasize about quiet and cleanliness.
And that’s especially true for sexual fantasies. People fantasize about all kinds of sexual things that they don’t really want to do. People fantasize about — to pick the most obvious example — force or coercion or rape, without actually wanting to be forced or coerced or raped. (Or wanting to force or coerce or rape someone else.) Some people even want to consensually act out these rape fantasies… but that’s not the same thing as wanting to be raped in reality. And many people who have rape fantasies don’t even want to act them out consensually. They want to keep them strictly as fantasies.
So to ask women, “How can you be hot for Don Draper and still say you want men to treat you with respect?” is like asking women, “How can you have rape fantasies and still say you want rape crisis centers?”
I do think fantasies can offer a clue about our desires. If there’s a fantasy I’m having very consistently, it’s often a clue to what’s missing in my life. I have more fantasies about submission when my life is feeling overly managed and scheduled. I have more fantasies about being sexually powerful and dominant when my life is feeling out of control. I have more fantasies about men when I’m mostly having sex with women, and vice versa. It’s even true of my non-sexual fantasies. I have fantasies of peaceful retreat when my life is becoming too harried; I have fantastical, grandiose, Mary Sue-esque fanfic fantasies when I’m feeling like life is too ordinary, too much of what a friend described as “the quotidian march to the grave.” Fantasies can be a clue about what we don’t have in our lives: a portrait drawn in negative space, a signpost to the road not taken.
But the road not taken isn’t necessarily the road that ought to be taken. Or even the road that we most sincerely and secretly want to take. Every choice means giving up a different choice, and we can be happy and at peace with our choices, while still recognizing that other choices have their pleasures to offer… and while still enjoying fantasies about where those choices might have taken us.
And, of course, one of the most crucial things about fantasies is that they always turn out exactly the way we want them. This is something that most sane adults understand, and that Observer writer Irina Aleksander seems to have overlooked. When we fantasize about bucolic retreat, it’s never suffocating or tedious; when we fantasize about adventure and danger, it’s never uncomfortable or terrifying. And when women fantasize about bad boy rogues who treat women like dirt, the bad boys almost never treat us badly. They’re fascinated with us. They find us hauntingly compelling: so hauntingly compelling that, even though they usually use women and toss them aside, they somehow can’t tear themselves away from us. (Boy, is it embarrassing to admit that.) I think that’s something people forget about bad-boy fantasies. Much of the time, they’re not about bad boys. They’re about bad boys going good because of us. They’re not about wanting to be mistreated. They’re about wanting to be special.
And it’s entirely possible to enjoy idealized fantasies of being special, so special that we inspire the dangerous, callous, villainous bad boy to change his ways (while retaining his dangerous edge, of course)… and still, in our real lives, recognize these bad boys as the self-absorbed jackasses they are. It’s possible to recognize that the reality of bad boys is nowhere near as much fun as the fantasy.
I once took a silly test in a celebrity gossip magazine, testing which male hero in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” you’d want to be involved with: Riley, Xander, or Spike. (Angel, for some reason, was not on the list.) At the time, I had a huge clit-on for the dangerous, unpredictable, amoral, bad-boy Spike; he occupied an embarrassingly large portion of my fantasy life, and I whacked off to him more often than I care to admit. And yet, when tested on what kind of man I might actually want to be in a relationship with, my answers pointed, with startling consistency, to the funny, good-hearted, down- to- earth Xander.
Which was absolutely correct. Not about Xander — I’m definitely a Willow or Giles girl — but about preferring funny, good-hearted, and down- to- earth over dangerous, unpredictable, and amoral.
Sometimes, obviously, fantasies really are a sign of what we want. The years-long persistence of my lesbian fantasies was a big freaking clue to the fact that I’m a dyke. Ditto the years-long persistence of my kinky fantasies. And that’s worth paying attention to. Sometimes, fantasies do tell us what we truly want and are not getting.
But sometimes, they really don’t.
And it’s ridiculous to call women hypocrites for daydreaming about one thing, while wanting something entirely different, something better, something far more richly and seriously satisfying, when we’re back on earth.