Sex & Relationships

'Mad Men's' Don Draper: TV's Latest Sex Icon

He's an outlaw. He can be cruel. And surprisingly, his part is written by women.

He's an arrogant, adulterous, deceptive, narcissistic, selfish bastard. And if you pay attention to the rumblings in media and at the water cooler in these dog days of August, you'll see him being crowned as America's newest sex symbol.

In the lead-up to the launch of the third season ofMad Men on cable TV's AMC, people have been focused on the narrative, but more on draping themselves in the new fantasy male icon.

Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), a stylish, 1960s New York ad man with more than one double life, has seduced his way into the popular imagination. Some people like him, some worship him, some hate him, but none disagree he's taken hold.

It's partly about timing. Few would argue that Americans love a hero, or anti-hero, to project our cultural fantasies on, and that for a while, we've been left a little dry in that department. One of the favorite archetypes of late, the bad boy, has been showing his age, leaving voters and viewers politically and sexually frustrated.

In some cases, those bad boys' immaturity and lack of intelligence just got a bit old (see Bush, George W.; Lee, Tommy); in others, although some argue they still have it, their partying, winking ways are fading out of the spotlight (see Clinton, Bill); in others, they seem to have grown up (see Pitt, Brad), and still others, their shows got old and died (see Soprano, Tony).

I have no interest in those cheeky bad boys in my personal life anymore -- they seem so high school -- nor do I have any time for them in public life. And I don't think I'm alone.

It's fair to say there's a cultural hunger for some sophistication and intelligence. For someone who can stick around after the party to help with the clean up. For someone who can seduce a grown woman and help battle the recession to boot.

Sure, there's a new prototype in the White House. But it's hard to keep the early days' flame of passion alive for someone we only see at news briefings, town hall meetings and date nights. Barack Obama might be the country's new husband, but there's still an appetite for a lover on the side.

Gawker thinks it's a summer fling, that Don Draper is the antidote to the summer of death; "With the stink of celebrity deaths and recession wafting around us, we need a restorative figure of youth. A symbol of American virility. A man who, despite his antiquated views of women and Jews, can make America feel giddy again."

But though his reign will certainly be fleeting, as all are, and though he's highly problematic, he's more than the August cabana boy. Even though he's highly problematic as a hero, dozens of stories have run over the past weeks and months, calling him "spellbinding and elusive," with an "effortless masculinity and swagger that sets him apart from our other TV crush options."

It's not just anachronistic types, or women who grew up in the '60s and wish for the return of those values. And though all women, even feminists, have been known to fall for assholes, it's not just that either. Draperphiles know that although he is immoral, and even amoral, he's more woman-friendly than any hero in recent memory.

Maybe because he's one of the first prime-time male leads to be written mostly by women, a ground-breakinganomaly. The Wall Street Journal said, "Seven of the nine members of the writing team are women. Women directed five of the 13 episodes in the third season. The writers [have created] a world where the men are in control, and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize." And one in which the hero is a bastard (literally and behaviorally) but values and appreciates women more than most who seem nice and woman-friendly on the surface.

Sure, Don stole another soldier's identity and cheats on his wife to the point that one of his lovers, Bobbi Barrett, tells him most of New York's women know of his reputation (and that he doesn't disappoint). He's an outlaw. And he can be cruel, even to women. But all of that doesn't undo his appeal, and might even add to it.

Despite most people's best intentions, it's hard to create chemistry with a vanilla, well-behaved guy, no matter how much good he earnestly promises to deliver. It's just not erotic. And after he shows histeeth to Bobbi, a powerful woman who clearly thought she had the upper hand in the relationship, their affair heats up.

Unlike the other men in the show, he seeks out powerful, smart, accomplished women who don't pull their punches or play the expected roles for women.

In the first season, he escapes the prison of his domestic life, married to the beautiful but childish and pre-Friedanized Betty, by having an affair with an anti-marriage East Village bohemian, Midge Daniels, and then with the smart, independent owner of a family department store, Rachel Mencken. In the second season, he moves on to Bobbi, who manages her husband's comedy career.

With them, he shows more sides of himself than to his wife or colleagues. He rises to the challenge of an equal -- and makes it clear despite the way he talks to them and treats them, that he considers them as such.

And although he is challenging to his lovers, he also shows them more of his vulnerability and sadness than any other character in the show (except Peggy). He lets them rescue him a little without becoming dependent, which proves irresistible.

And though he doesn't tell them that he's haunted by his past, by his stepfather who regularly beat up him and his mother, his long, smoldering looks are enough to provide intrigue and a sense of mystery.

And at work, his closest ally is a woman. Don is clearly the smartest guy in the room and keeps his distance from most of his colleagues, both personally and professionally, but is closer in many ways to Peggy, his protégé, than any other character. In his mentoring of her, he shows she's the only one smart or savvy enough to be worth his efforts. Pete Campbell practically begs Don to take him under his wing, but Don repeatedly shoos him out of his office, until Pete's rejection turns into resentment.

Peggy and Don share not only talents, but secrets. Don rescued Peggy from being committed to a mental institution, something no one else at work knows about. And Don called Peggy when he was arrested after a DUI accident – something Don didn't even tell Betty about.

Only a few other people in his life know his secrets, and he paid them off and kept them away. But he keeps Peggy around. He holds secrets, and those who keep them, dear.

His sense of mystery has downsides but many benefits and pours him into the mold of the handsome-stranger archetype. In times of frustration or boredom (a recession? the dog days of summer?) mystery can be more intoxicating than a party. (The fact that Jon Hamm, the actor who plays him, is tall and dark doesn't hurt.)

He joins Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice; Clint Eastwood as Robert Kincaid, the character he plays in Bridges from Madison County; Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; and even Robert Pattinson, the newest, young, dark, brooding, mysterious sex symbol.

No one knows where he came from, or who he really is, but the puzzle is full of suspense and sex. And no matter what you think of his morals, his skills in deception make him the perfect affair.

For viewers, he appears once a week for an hour on the (cultural projection) screen, offers respect to women, good sex and conversation, makes no demands, then disappears.

It doesn't hurt that the new trailer for Season 3 has so much sex it could be confused with a porn flick.

Or maybe that's using too much analysis and not enough women's intuition. Maybe it's just what happens when women finally write fantasy male leads.

Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.
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