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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus

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.