“Can There Be Two Don Drapers?”
In the 19th century, the theatrical melodrama built its structure around moments of emotional tension which would end scenes, acts, and sometimes the play itself, allowing people to contemplate the high stakes of morality on display. Characters would freeze into a stage picture, and the curtain would go down on this painterly tableau. One of the fascinating things about Matt Weiner’s television drama, Mad Men is its resurrection of this 19th century melodramatic tableau. Many episodes end with a complex mise-en-scene built around the physical and emotional stasis of a character, coupled with the show’s signature use of popular music to cap off, and allow our meditation on, the emotionally draining experience of the last 48 minutes.
No episode of Mad Men better illuminates this use of the melodramatic tableau than “Maidenform,” first aired on the AMC cable channel on August 31, 2008. Peggy has been struggling with being taken seriously as a valuable creative contributor to an ad campaign for Playtex brassieres. She goes so far as to accompany the clients and her male advertising colleagues to a seedy strip club.
The advertising campaign they settle on splits the ideal woman into two halves: Jackie Kennedy by day, thin and elegant, and then Marilyn Monroe, buxom and sexual, by night. For much of the episode, the show’s critique of sexism seems to be getting swallowed up by its glorying in the representation of such offenses. We feel sorry for Peggy, and glad that we don’t live in the 1960s, but very little in the way of a systematic critique of sexism sticks. However, Weiner has held his last card until the very last moment. What we think is an episode about the bifurcation of women by patriarchal culture becomes as precise an interrogation of split masculinity as television has heretofore depicted.
This transformation begins on the heels of Peggy sitting in a sexy dress on the lap of one of the Playtex executives. In the next scene, Don Draper continues to revel in the sexual power of being a man in the 1960s. He lays his latest adulterous affair, the sultry wife of a stand-up comedian, Jimmy Barrett onto a bed in a hotel room. As Don ties up her hands, Bobbie Barrett lets slip that Don is as good as her friends have told her. Don is shocked, and angry that women have been talking to each other about him. Bobbie tries to laugh it off, claiming smugly but quietly that Don’s lovemaking has garnered a reputation. This infuriates Don, who leaves Bobbie tied to the bed as he dresses and storms out of the room, mumbling that he told her not to talk.
In the show’s final scene, Don wakes up the next morning and begins shaving. His daughter Sally sits on the toilet next to him. He seems delighted for the company, and we feel good about his quiet moment with his cute daughter. However, when Sally says, “I’m not going to talk because I don’t want you to cut yourself,” Don is floored by the resonance between his demand for his mistress to shut up, and his daughter’s verbal self-censorship in order to protect him from harm. Don turns pale, demanding that Sally leave him alone. As he sits down on the toilet, the camera slowly tracks back out of the bathroom, revealing a doubled Don, one his direct image, and the other his reflection in a mirror.
Don Draper and his imaginary doppleganger replicate the visual design of the Maidenform campaign. With the sexist ad images, at least there was a palpable difference between the two kinds of women represented by Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Furthermore, Peggy fought against the virgin/whore dichotomy, while at work in her critique of the concept. Later in the strip club, when she demeans her creative and intellectual talents by wearing a sexy green dress and sitting on the client’s lap, we feel her pain.
But since there exists no equivalent two stereotypes for men, the two Dons are merely hollow repetitions of one another. His behavior as a sex-obsessed letch has no counterpart in some other image. His psychic inability to separate his whoring from his parenting of his daughter is disastrous, and points to one of the great problems with masculinity. While patriarchy restricts women’s behavior, at least the policing of types implies that women have choices as to how to portray themselves. Don, on the other hand, is trapped in a prison of one acceptable, conventional masculine performance, embodied by his static crisis.
The thesis argument of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, a compelling study of the contemporary American male in crisis, is precisely reactivated by this episode-ending tableau. At the end of Stiffed, Faludi interviews Sylvester Stallone, who cries over Hollywood’s treatment of him: he is not allowed to make an intelligent movie, instead doomed to be known for his string of Rambo’s and Rocky’s. His only choice as male image is action-based hard body, or abject invisibility.
This is the story of Don Draper as he sits on the toilet: his only escape from the contradiction of trying to raise Sally while treating adult women like sex objects would be to escape entirely from the social construction of masculinity. This would produce a very different “mad” man, indeed, but alas, it seems too much to ask of Draper, or indeed, most American men to this very day.