Why Do Feminists Love Don Draper?

Don Draper’s insightful ad pitches are full of arrogance and sexism, but they’re also full of rhetoric, history, philosophy, psychology, and even pure, sexy poetry.

Feminists have been warning heterosexual women for decades about the dangers of romantic relationships with emotionally-unavailable men, insisting that if we’d only respect ourselves and project the “right” image, we’d attract the kind of men who will treat us as equals.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that those same feminists have also made a show like Mad Men so successful, and in the process fetishized its main character, Don Draper?

How do we know feminists are watching Mad Men? In “its first two seasons, half of Mad Men's adult viewers (25 to 54 years old) had household incomes over $100,000, making it the most upscale audience on cable TV” (“Mad Men Scores Where It Counts” by Lacey Rose, Forbes, 17 August 2009)

“Upscale” means educated. And educated, at least for women who attended college in the ‘90s, as many of these women viewers must have, means exposure to academic feminism with all of its jargon-laden treatises on empowerment and politically correct language. Given this sort of academic-political indoctrination, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to assume that a large number of Mad Men’s viewers identify as feminists.

These feminist fans of Mad Men are no doubt some of the same women who swooned (and still swoon) over Bill Clinton, implicitly condoning his bad boy behavior. In any other context, these liberal professional women would have turned Clinton into a scapegoat (he cheated on his feminist wife, lied to the American public about it, and abused his position of power by “taking advantage” of a young, vulnerable colleague). But his cult of personality prevailed, and lots of feminists found themselves in the ironic and hypocritical position of trying to excuse behavior they would have otherwise deemed indefensible.

It’s the allure of the Alpha Male. Even feminists aren’t immune.

All of the education in the world, all the feminist rhetoric about change, cannot change one thing: biology. Some women may simply be hardwired to be attracted to the most confident, commanding, charismatic man in the room. Don Draper is precisely that sort of man, and there are a few different facets of his persona that contribute to his allure.

Part of Draper’s appeal is that he reminds women viewers of their fathers. (Yes, Freud would love Mad Men.) Seeing Draper in his dapper business suits and hats, drinking cocktails and smoking, is bound to awaken all sorts of nostalgic memories for 40 and 50-something women. No, I’m not saying that we’re all sexually attracted to our fathers, or that we all had fathers like Don Draper, but most girls’ first object of devotion is Daddy, and for many of Mad Men’s viewers, Don evokes a “Daddy”, of sorts.

Indeed, Draper is the antithesis of the Gen X slacker. Most of Mad Men’s women viewers have come of age in a world in which men don’t know how to dress, don’t know how to take care of a woman, and simply don’t know how to take charge. As often as feminism has told us we shouldn’t want these things, the runaway success of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, as well as Mad Men, suggests that there are lots of women my age who are attracted to men like the ones their mothers married (ah, there’s that Daddy thing again): suave gentlemen with more in common with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart than Michael Cera and Justin Long.

Draper also has an alluring dark and kinky side, to which his lover Midge appeals in Season 1, Episode 5 when she says, “I want you to pull my hair, ravish me, and leave me for dead.” Women, especially smart ones, aren’t supposed to want to be with a man who wants to tie them up, or get rough with them – all of which are behaviors Don has exhibited on the show. Our glimpses of his shadow side are so brief (no more than teasers, really) that women viewers who might be inclined to be interested in such things are left wanting more. In essence, Mad Men, like the Fifty Shades franchise, provides a socially acceptable outlet for naughty fantasies.

Furthermore, Draper is brilliant, and what educated woman hasn’t carried a torch for a brilliant man? (For many of us, it’s an inspiring teacher or male professor who initiated us into the world of sapiosexuality.) And of course, the reason Draper comes off sounding as brilliant as he does is that the show’s savvy writers, the majority of whom are women (an anomaly in the world of prime-time television drama), are enlightened enough to be able to see beyond the politically-correct mores of the feminist present, yet also tap into the complex psychology of 21st century women without insulting their intelligence.

Yes, Draper’s insightful ad pitches are full of arrogance and sexism, but they’re also full of rhetoric, history, philosophy, psychology, and even pure, sexy poetry. Watch this classic scene from the show, one of television’s finest moments, to understand why women might fall in love with Draper’s mind:

And finally, Draper is a mean, uncaring bastard, and lusting after a bastard is deliciously subversive – especially for an educated woman who comes from a privileged or sheltered background and who should know better. We’re not supposed to want bad men who use us and cheat on us, men whose moral compass is broken, yet sometimes we do. How else to explain the appeal of a character like Tony Soprano for women viewers? Even my own mother fell in love with him.

And make no mistake, Draper is bad: he has sexual relationships with six women while married to Betty, lets his family and colleagues down time and time again, disappears for days at a time, and treats the women who risk their marriages to be with him dismissively. Consider these lines from Season 6, Episode 3, during Don’s dinner conversation with Sylvia: “Now I understand. You want to feel shitty, right up until the point where I take your dress off. Because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine, but don’t pretend.” His condescending attitude should, theoretically, be a turn-off to any smart woman, but instead it turns Sylvia on. This is the sort of treatment most feminists would never condone in real life, but when Don uttered those lines, I’m certain that women viewers all over America were turned on, too.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Don will continue filling the role of American Alpha Male in Mad Men’s final season, or if he’ll become a casualty of the West Coast hippie aesthetic, in the process becoming precisely the sort of safe, sensitive, “enlightened” dude that feminists have been applauding for decades.

Me? I’ll lust after the man who is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, every time.

Laura Halferty teaches literature, creative writing, intellectual history, and pop culture studies at the State University of New York at Oswego. Her work has been published in Feminista!, Blink: Stories in the Blink of an Eye and Women Behaving Badly: Feisty Flash Fiction Stories.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.