THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Self-Made Men

Wanting and getting in Mad Men

by Cate Turner

published October 25, 2019


Wanting to be a man, or a certain kind of man, animates most of the heavy-hitters of ‘prestige TV.’ These shows tell the stories of men who want to be the man in some particular area: meth distribution, Mob administration, borderline-paramilitary policing. But Mad Men, the fabulously popular AMC drama that ended after seven seasons in 2015, explicitly dramatizes that want itself. Mad Men focuses on 1960s Manhattan advertising agencies,  and advertising is, after all, the industry of orchestrated want.

Don Draper, Mad Men’s protagonist, is better at orchestrating want than anyone else in the show, because he is the best ad man in the game. It becomes clear early on that he is also the best man in the game, full stop. He starts the first season with a family in Westchester and a mistress in the Village, and he moves—at work, at home, and in the city—with total self-assurance. He drinks dark liquor and drives a Buick. Not only does he smoke Lucky Strikes, but he also creates their ads. What Don represents is a masculinity so distilled that evaluating its toxicity has always felt, to me, like missing the point. It is toxic, of course—all masculinity in Mad Men, without exception, is toxic. Don’s masculinity is unique not in the danger it presents, but in its concentration.

Don has an alcohol problem and a lying problem. But for a man in advertising, these are features, not bugs. For all his faults—in some cases, because of them—Don is the aspirational figure at the center of Mad Men, because he is good, if nothing else, at two interconnected tasks: his job and his masculinity. We see what aspiring-to-Don looks like very clearly in Pete Campbell, a junior accounts man. Over the course of the show, Pete strives, over and over again, to be like Don, but he can never pull it off. When Pete tries to flirt with women, he leers. Professionally, his attempts at mimicking Don are even more obvious and turn out even worse. In the show’s pilot, he takes Don’s notes out of his trash, then pitches an ad to a client based on them. He is roundly rejected, and Don has to swoop in with a moment of improvisational genius to save the working relationship.

Seasons later, after Pete is set up with a house in Connecticut, a wife, and an infant child, Don still surpasses him. Toward the beginning of season five’s “Signal 30,” we see Pete in his kitchen at night, unearthing a toolbox to fix a leaky faucet. He turns some valve with some wrench, and the rhythmic drip stops. Later, Pete invites Don, along with another accounts man and both their wives, to his home in Cos Cob. The sink Pete thinks he's fixed springs a worse leak during dinner, and the women scream as water shoots toward the ceiling. The men rush in; Don immediately strips to his undershirt and gets to work. While Pete stands by, rifling in a panic through the toolbox, Don goes to work on fixing the sink, finishing in seconds. Pete tells Don that he fixed a leak recently, and Don tells him that, actually, Pete’s ‘fix’ did nothing. “It was a coincidence,” he says, that it seemed to do anything at all. Don no longer has either a home in the suburbs or custody of his children, but Pete still hasn’t caught up to him.

Pete is far from the only character who tries to catch up to Don. Peggy Olsen, Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter, climbs the ranks from Don’s secretary to the head of his creative team over the course of the series.

Peggy is not indebted to Don for her success, but he is her mentor, often her advocate, and—especially as the series progresses—her friend. “I see you as an extension of myself,” he tells her in the third season, asking her to move to a new agency with him. Don sees himself in Peggy, but he also sees her for her gifts. “Nobody understands that,” he tells her, speaking of the forces that make people want. “But you do.” In the show’s fourth season, Don wins a Clio award for an ad Peggy contributed to significantly, and when she expresses anger that he didn’t publicly acknowledge her work, they end up in a screaming match in his office. “You will get your turn,” he tells her. She’s an extension of Don, it seems, not only in her talents, but also in the trajectory of her career.

But Don’s masculinity is embedded in his advertising talent, and vice versa. To want a career at all is coded masculine in the world of Mad Men—for advertising in particular, and for the Don Draper school of advertising most of all. Don’s professional skill is bound up in his masculine persona, so the transmission of skill is muddied and augmented by that persona. Some of what he ends up transferring to Peggy seems to be his larger-than-life masculinity.

At one point in season five, Peggy ends up at her apartment with Dawn Chambers, Don’s secretary, after convincing her to take a cab back with her. Dawn, the only Black employee at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, has been sleeping on the couch at the agency after staying late at work, because she hasn’t been able to get a cab to Harlem from the office.

Peggy drunkenly holds forth, interrupting Dawn whenever she speaks. Dawn waits for Peggy (who, eager to prove her progressive mettle, tells Dawn, “go ahead, you can talk!” at intervals) to wrap up. Finally, Dawn has a chance to tell Peggy what she’s been trying to since they were in the cab. “I hope you won’t tell Mr. Draper about me sleeping there,” she says. “You two talk sometimes.”

The grouping of Peggy and Don together seems to set Peggy off. She recites some platitudes about her and Dawn needing to stick together, then asks Dawn if she wants to be a copywriter. Dawn says no. “Yep,” Peggy says, “you’re right. Copywriter’s tough.” Then she adds, abruptly: “Do you think I act like a man?” “I guess you have to, a little,” Dawn says, and Peggy continues, as though she hasn’t heard her, “I try, but… I don’t know if I have it in me. I don’t know if I want to.”

Peggy is fixated, especially in the show’s middle seasons, on how much of a man she has to—or wants to—be, mostly to the exclusion of any other political self-reflection. This has something to do, certainly, with the fact that, for Peggy, self-reflection on masculinity isn’t really about politics at all. Whether she wants to be a man isn’t a moral question for her—it’s not a question of what she owes to other people, not really. It’s a question of what she owes to herself, or, more specifically, what she owes to her career. It’s also a question that she seems to already have the answer to. She wants to act like a man as much as she wants to do what men do—in this case, writing copy. Drunken vacillations aside, it’s utterly clear throughout the show that Peggy wants to write copy more than she wants practically anything else.

The better question than whether Peggy wants to be a man: What would acting like a man entail that Peggy hasn’t already done? By the fifth season, she resents her sexual partners and drinks heavily at work. She unceremoniously fires artists with whom she has problems and considers other offers when dissatisfied with her job. On paper, she has all the credentials for the masculinity Mad Men presents.

But Pete has all of these credentials, too, and they haven’t gotten him nearly as far as he would prefer. For all the ways that Peggy and Pete are radically different—she ambivalent about masculinity, he charging toward it at any cost; she a woman by any standard, he a man by the same—they share this not-quiteness, this position of almost-Don, of almost-really-man. They reside on the same asymptote.

Of course, Don Draper is hardly a stable ideal. The central thread of Mad Men is the dismantling of the Don Draper image, and all the nuclear-strength masculinity woven into it. His name and past, we learn, were stolen from his commanding officer in the Korean War, who died in a firefight only Don was present for. The man who was once named Dick Whitman took on the Don Draper name because he wanted to be discharged and because he wanted a fresh start. In other words, he pussied out—out of the war, out of his life. In a story littered with not-quite-proper-men, Don stands out as the closest thing around to a masculine standard. Then we bear witness as that standard is revealed as a sham.

In Mad Men, being born into manhood offers power, but it doesn’t seem to offer a real sense of security. Men don’t escape the desire to be men. That desire, in Mad Men, seems as certain a condition of maleness as any.

It isn’t just a condition of manhood, though—Peggy Olsen’s desires prove as much. It’s a condition of wanting power, of wanting to be seen as fully there, fully able, fully real. The world of Mad Men is ruled by two twin truths: wanting to be a man is rational, and actually becoming one is impossible.

 

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Mad Men reached me at the right moment, I guess. By the time I started watching it in earnest, I’d been tearing my hair out over the show’s central paradox for years.

I knew that I wanted to be a man, was the thing. It was as obvious to me that I wanted to be a man as it was that I wanted to pass my classes and get a job. These were, I thought, very sensible things to want.  Nobody I knew, of any gender, would dispute that being a man set you up better than being a woman did. Men didn’t have to worry about their weight, skin, or clothes. They never got interrupted, and when they interrupted, it was because they had something more interesting to say than whoever had been speaking before. They sent boring texts to women they liked. They said cruel things to women, did cruel things to women, and never saw repercussions. It would be nice not to be a target of such frequent cruelty, I knew.

But I knew, too, that the things men had were not so easily obtained as they sometimes seemed. Men around me worried about their weight and skin and clothes, and when they interrupted, it was often to say something so stupid that everyone rolled their eyes. Women laughed at men’s boring texts and passed them around. And a lot of the cruelty men did, they seemed somehow coerced into doing, by their friends or by their ideas of what it was they should do. This didn’t make the cruelty less painful, or the doing of it less cruel, but it didn’t seem like they got anything good out of it, not really. It seemed like the cruelty was a test, complete with the potential for failure. I knew more than anything that men hated to fail. When men failed, they weren’t punished the way women were, but they became something that occasionally seemed to me even worse than being punished: they became pathetic. It was horrible to see a man trying and failing to pull something—anything—off, because there was always that odd jolt of realization that any man, no matter how tall or gruff, was still too small and frail for the huge and jagged ideal he was supposed to house.

It wasn’t that I never wondered, in the middle of all this obsession with what men did and were supposed to do and how I could never do any of it, whether I might be trans. It was that I’d broken my thought process down into two parts, and both were insurmountable. One: it was not trans but reasonable, as reasonable as the eminently reasonable Peggy Olsen, to want what men had. Two: even men like Pete wanted what men had, and they didn’t have it, so even if wanting it were trans, the direction of that transness would be straight up an asymptote, one that never quite touched what it was that I wanted. I knew I had a desire, but ‘it’s only rational’  and ‘it’s impossible’ are the two best ways to silence want, and I’d deployed both.

TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) ideology was more or less designed to appeal to teenagers in my situation. These so-called feminists, whose communities have taken firm root in many social media platforms, focus most of their energy on harassing trans women, but use any spare time they have to express concern for young ‘women’ like the one I was. These feminists are concerned about us. They know that being a woman is terrible; in fact, they claim to know this better than anyone. But they know, too, that attempting escape is wrong-headed: it’s an abandonment of women, and, even worse, an abandonment of women’s collective future.

They wish we would realize that no one wants to be a woman, is all. Everyone wants what men have; the fact that they get it and women don’t is the major problem of modern society. They don’t bother to remind us of the corrupting influence of all this power we claim to want, the evils of these men we say we want to be, but they don’t really have to. We, being women, aren’t evil, but deluded. We’ll never become what we want to be.

What we want, they assume, is to get to do what men get to do. Men are what they have, and they have exactly what Mad Men tells us they do: power, decisions, freedoms everybody deserves, freedoms nobody does.

Unfortunately, what kept me from falling into this worldview had very little to do, at least at first, with any of the real bad it does in the world—the women it degrades, the communities it dissolves, the people it keeps locked in the closet. What kept me from signing on was how small a range of wants it actually seemed to account for. A lot of what I wanted from being a man, in the end, had vanishingly little to do with power, at least on the surface. What I wanted was tiny, stupid verbs. I wanted to be clapped on the shoulder, to say “what’s up” as one inflectionless syllable, to sit with my elbows on my knees and my hands clasped loosely. To drink dark liquor and like it, and, of course, to fix a sink effortlessly. There were some tiny, stupid nouns, too: apartments with barely any furniture, shampoo that smelled like nothing, deodorant that smelled, supposedly, like the Arctic. White undershirts; gray suits. The best thing about being a man, it seemed to me, was the silent transmission of these verbs and nouns. As much as I wanted to own a LazyBoy and smell like ice, I wanted even more to know the language in which these things are learned.

Men commune with men through nods, shrugs, and small, schooled gestures. They tell each other things they wouldn’t tell anyone else, anyone on the outside, through codes that no one else would understand if they ever were to see. Often, this language is used toward the ends of manipulation and ass-covering: we see the men of Mad Men deploying the fine art of leveling-with on countless executives, trying to win them over, and we see them shrugging and nodding and conveying without speech that wives are made to be lied to. But we also see where and how this language can sustain men in more redeemable ways—why, in other words, anyone could possibly want it for itself.

In the second season’s “Flight 1,” we find out early on that a plane has crashed. Moments later, Pete emerges from his office, looking blank. Without hesitation, he downs a drink, walks into Don’s office without announcement, and tells Don that he just heard his father was on the plane that crashed.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, shrugging, hands in pockets. He’s profoundly vulnerable in his lack of affect—in the matter-of-factness of his loss, of his being at a loss. Don simply shuts the door and pours Pete a drink.

Don tells Pete to go home to his family. “Is that what you would do?” Pete asks, and Don responds, “Yes.” As Pete leaves, Don tells him, “There’s life, and there’s work,” then claps him firmly on the shoulder.

On some level, Don’s advice, and the care behind it, is hypocritical. We have seen that, for Don, life is secondary to work at best, a mere tool toward work’s perfection at worst; we’ve seen, too, that Pete has tried to undermine Don at every step, going so far as to reveal Don’s old identity, and that Don has not taken kindly to the treatment. But they share a language still. It doesn’t matter that Pete speaks it haltingly and with a cracked voice; it doesn’t matter that even Don is only faking fluency. They get each other, and they get each other.

The language, of course, is mostly comprised by silence—or, failing that, stale scripts with about as much real verbal content as silence. The first time Don speaks in his conversation with Pete, it’s to say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” a phrase pat enough that it conveys very close to nothing. Much has been made of how repressed and repressive this kind of functional silence is, and with good reason. But it also serves a purpose. Men learn to cultivate silence as a space for misery, and it’s a uniquely capacious one: any kind of misery, any kind of bad at all, fits there. Accepting silence offers a blank check for care. I love you the same, no matter what it is that you aren’t saying: at many different levels of love and investment, that’s what silence means.

In practice, men use this silence as license to do anything, anything at all. Within that silence lives the whole range of shitty male behavior, from the basically-harmless to the irretrievably harmful. Men cash in checks on all kinds of cruelty, and they know none of them will bounce. From each other, they get the whole world.

Nobody, of course, should get the whole world—and if you asked me, straight-out, whether I wanted it, I would say no. For all that I can entertain my past self’s conviction that she was just like Peggy Olsen, or just like Pete Campbell, or some strangely outfitted hybrid of the two, I know that I’m not actually like either—not more than anyone else is, and maybe even less. I can tease out my desires, unpeel the layers of money and admiration and power, and see that what I want most isn’t what men have; it’s what they have with each other. On balance, it doesn’t make sense to want this for itself: the shape silence takes is, in nearly all cases, terse, mutually incomprehensible resentment. A blank check is only as good as what it’s used for. But—call me irrational—I want one anyway.

 

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If what I wanted wasn’t rational, that left impossible. So long as I wanted something that could never come true, it didn’t matter that I wanted it.

Everyone wants there to be something true in the world, some faith-deserving object. Everyone wants there to be something certain and beautiful out there, something obvious, and Jon Hamm in an undershirt, crouching to fix a sink, is one of those, at least. The logic of calculus is this: You grant that things are real because you need them to be.

But there are benefits, too, of losing faith. If what I wanted was already broken, I couldn’t break it with my want.

Put a different way: In “On Liking Women,” Andrea Long Chu writes, “To admit that what makes women like me transsexual is not identity but desire is to admit just how much of transition takes place in the waiting rooms of wanting things.” Waiting rooms make every moment feel interminable; they make the world stretch out, or narrow, until waiting is the only thing left.

Waiting for my call out of this room sometimes feels like waiting for the call you get when the organ you need a transplant for becomes available, or the call you get when your best friend gives birth, or the call you get when someone dies. Mostly, though, it doesn’t feel like any of those. It feels, instead, like waiting to be called up, as from the minors to the majors. It feels like waiting for something I want badly, something I think will make me feel more like myself and less like a test-run of the same—but it also feels like waiting for a tap on the shoulder from a group I don’t know, can’t know, whose motivations for taking or leaving me I’ll never fully understand.

My saving grace: this room, at least, isn’t empty. I’m surrounded by men, and none of them is wearing the right jersey. We all want to play on a team that doesn’t exist.

Waiting rooms are quiet, and this one is particularly silent. I used to think that it was the silence of everybody looking at me, waiting for me to give up and leave. I’m starting to think it’s a different kind altogether—the silence of getting, not as in having but as in knowing. I'm starting to think it’s precisely because being a man is impossible that someone like me can do it.

 

CATE TURNER B’21 is a guy’s guy.