Last night, the show Mad Men returned for its sixth season. The period drama set in the 1960s has been an unmitigated hit for AMC, both critically and in terms of ratings. The show centers on ad man Don Draper, played impeccably by Jon Hamm, who rises up the ranks of an advertising agency while simultaneously sleeping with a myriad of women and searching for meaning in his life.
After last season’s seeming redemption with a new wife, this season looks poised to return Draper back to his nefarious, womanizing ways. All the while, the cast of characters around him slides into its own moral decay. But they look great while doing it.
Twenty- and thirty-somethings rave about this show and it’s central rogue, Draper. It’s not hard to see why. The characters are impeccably dressed, suave, and charming when they want to be. Further, success comes easily to them and enjoying whiskey at 10 am is not uncommon throughout the show’s history. There is a certain sense of “respectable rascal” that emanates from the show.
I have often heard men my age praise the show and lament the passing of a time when “men were men.” It is all too easy to see how characters that make money, sleep around, drink too much, and smoke too many cigarettes would be appealing to young men. This is not shocking as American men continue to slide into oblivion. The New York Times covered this in some detail a few weeks ago. In short, among people who were 35 years old in 2010, women were 17% more likely to have attended college and 23% more likely to have an undergraduate degree. One large correlation with the decline of men is the exponential rise in single-parent households. In short, it seems that men without fathers are doing worse then men with fathers.
Which brings me back to Mad Men. There is no doubt that Don Draper looks the part. His character radiates stoicism and a cool calm that any man would love to have. Indeed, the women love him and the men want to be him. However, he is not indicative of what the archetype for manhood was in the 1960s. Middle-aged, family men were expected to provide for their families, work hard and not step out on their wives. Did this generation of men live up to those standards at all times? Of course not, but culturally they valued them.
Now we see a generation of men who love Mad Men because it looks the part. It creates a sense of nostalgia for a time period they never lived in (and indeed had many social problems). They are missing what it meant to be a man in our fathers’ and grandfathers’ younger years. Don Draper is a horrible father, but young men today idolize him because they are so desperate to find a pattern of masculinity to imitate that they will take it from a popular television show. It’s a shame that many men could not find a respectable pattern closer to home.