If you think Don Draper is a misogynist, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong, but I will suggest you might be missing an opportunity. Don Draper changes the world he lives in, the only way it’s possible to change the world you live in, by existing in it. That includes being influenced by it. The arc of season five has Don’s new wife quitting the agency to pursue an acting career. Don is initially supportive but then his sacrifices begin to pile up.
A favorite line of mine comes from a children’s story I wrote and gave to my niece a few years ago. It’s actually an adaptation of my second novel, but for the kids’ version I made it about two eight-year-old girls who end up with different teachers for third grade. The one girl, Cindy, is having a tough go of it, but she sucks it up and goes to her class “full of no one she knows and a mean teacher who will tell her she’s late even though she’s early by ten minutes.” The teacher ends up being super nice, and Cindy has a fine morning. She can’t wait to go see her friend at lunch and tell her all about it, but Cindy discovers her friend finishing lunch as she arrives. This just blindsides her, and she decides “if she doesn’t get to see Jen at recess, she is done with school.” And then the line I love is “How much am I supposed to take?”
Don has a How much am I supposed to take? moment when his wife is on the verge of winning a part that will force her to spend two months in Boston. How much am I supposed to take moments generally occur when people are too self-congratulatory about how well they’re handling disappointment. If you’re that proud of the way you’re dealing with a setback can you, by definition, be accepting it? This is quite clearly happening with Don Draper. He surprises his wife by supporting her decision to quit her job. He encourages her acting and even accepts that she won’t always be home to greet him, but it becomes obvious he was keeping a tally of his sacrifices and waiting to win something at the end. Then she tells him about the two months in Boston, and Don has his meltdown. He was ready for a reward for his sacrifices so far, but instead he needs to sacrifice more. How much is he supposed to take? As his wife leaves and slams the door, Don hears his last words to her: “Just go do whatever the hell you want!” Then, alone in the room, he looks around. And it’s a fantastic Mad Men moment, because he’s looking at us. He’s looking around at modern day viewers who find it perfectly reasonable for wives to do what they want.
In the same season, Don is the only one to storm out of a meeting when it’s suggested they prostitute one of the female workers to get a client. Don tries, which is more than a lot of people on that show, who simply accept the world as it is. Like most people accept the world they live in. The thing is he doesn’t know. He’s not a feminist activist, so he’s going to get it wrong sometimes as he navigates a misogynistic world as a reflective man trying to get it right. Seeing him that way gives you the chance to do something magical, be in that world, feel that social pressure, and then ask yourself: what would you do?
Then the show ends. And when it’s really clicking, as that show often is, you find yourself in this world, with its social pressures, and you can ask: what should I do? If the generation next were watching our lives, what would they not be able to believe we think? What would they not be able to believe we believe? We kind of know. We kind of know the way Don Draper kind of knew when he was looking around at us alone in his house. What are we going to do about it?