Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Don Draper: Jewish Avatar

I had drafted and outlined this essay and was feeling good about my interpretation of Don Draper that cut through the bull. Then Mad Men creator Matt Weiner opened his mouth and said it.
This is the story of America, this assimilation. Because guess what, this guy Don has the same problems. He’s hiding his identity, too. That’s why Rachel Menken understands Don, because they’re both trying desperately to be white American males.
This might sound confusing since Don Draper was a white American male, played by a white American male actor. Don Draper is an avatar for the Jewish experience of otherness. It is not about Don being a symbol of declining mid-20th centruy American power. Don never declines. He actually rises to control the Coca-Cola marketing that shows up on your television screen repeatedly. He is not the symbol of the reduction of male power through the '60s, as he ends the decade a multi-millionaire with young, strange women still sleeping with him. The Draper experience is the 2nd half of the 20th century Jewish life.

Let's review Don Draper's life.

1. He is born in the '20s to a poor family.
2. He reinvents himself, living a lie to cover his roots to everyone around him to fit into rich and powerful white NYC society.
3. He has great verbal IQ and is creative.
4. He is a sales man, a hustler, a smooth schmoozer.
5. He is a degenerate.
6. He lies constantly.
7. He always has one foot out the door.
8. He is in high need of praise to feel good about himself.
9. He marries a good blonde WASP.
10. He is self centered, self obsessed and constantly hung up on his background and history.

Don is Dick Whitman (white man) might be from Appalachia Pennsylvania, but is definitely rural prole. You could erase that childhood bio, substitute born to a poor Jewish immigrant family that lived in settlement houses and read Marxists texts, and the rest of his life would be the same and stereotypical of many succesful Jewish guys' lives in 20th and now 21st Century New York. Jordan Belfort is Don Draper-esque but a full blown criminal. The Ivy League is full of children of these Jewish men who married outside their faith after they "made it". I met an assortment of Cashews (Catholic-Jewish), Mu-shews (Methodist-Jewish) and P-shews (Protestant-Jewish) who all had the same backstory of dad making big bucks and meeting a cute shiksa.

Don's feeling of an outsider, unaware of how the establishment works, is the Jewish POV of that old WASP leadership gang. He is an outside observer, new to this world of money and success. His worry that they will always uncover his secret and cast him out mirrors the nagging feeling in that Jewish, middle man minority mind. Don apes the look, thoughts and actions of the WASPs he has to deal with, but he never feels quite at home. Don constantly feels like he is a fraud and needs validation in everything he does, which is an amazing neurosis for such a successful man. The fear is not just in his environment but in his identity, his core. That is not a stereotypical WASP or white concern but more in line with the self-obsessed culture and religion that spawned psychoanalysis (Dr. Freud's).

Steve Sailer has been all over Matt Weiner's retconned childhood fueling this show. Sadly, Weiner's lack of dealing with the past and properly viewing the past colored this show in weird ways. Weiner is a critically acclaimed Hollywood artist with a very high net worth, yet he cannot let anything go. That is something stressed in the finale where Don says to Anna Draper's niece, "blah blah put it behind you, blah it gets easier as time moves on". The irony is it does not. Draper was standing in California in 1970 at the end of a weird odyssey, strangely trying to fix a woman he barely knew who was the niece of the wife of the man he assumed the identity of, defeating his very statement. That is not Draper talking. Those are Weiner's written words. This is Weiner's creation, his story, so stop looking at Don Draper for the handsome, Anglo male of money and power that he appears to be. See him for what he is: a vessel to tell the story of insecure Jewish Americans coming to grips with their place in the American power structure. It is 2015, and even now, they do not want to admit it.


PA said...

From the mouth of the reptile: " because they’re both trying desperately to be white American males"


Not men. Males.

This time around, the nation-wrecking perfidy has been recorded. Never again.

Son of Brock Landers said...

No PA, an even bigger slip. Why would Rachel want to be a male? Weiner reveals his object of frustration (white guys) when he could have just said "white society"

deconstructingleftism said...

I always thought the premise was a little forced. What did Whitman accomplish by stealing Don Draper's identity? He got to claim a college degree, but he had the GI Bill and going to college would not have been a problem. He always made a living as a salesman, which doesn't require education.

Funny thing is Don Draper sounds like a pretty Jewish name. Even the original Don Draper seemed to be Jewish. So Whitman is a poor WASP, pretending to be a Jew, pretending to be a rich WASP.

But everybody assimilates. My mother's Irish Catholic family was all pretty obsessed with showing they were as good as the Protestants. I found my mother's obsession with fitting in and social climbing off-putting, and I never had the personality for it anyway. Neither did my father, so she was disappointed in both of us.

Weiner grew up in LA but he seems to have a very NY sensibility, which maybe rich Jews in LA have. The obsession with class and status you see in LOTB is foreign to most of the country. The Jews I knew in California were mostly pretty easy-going and relaxed.

With the general collapse of America's fortunes, I think everybody is going to be a lot more class conscious. It wasn't too hard for Don Draper- it was all there for the taking in the 60's- but it's a zero-sum game now.

NZT said...

IIRC he stole the Draper identity mainly because it meant an early trip home from the war, and a way to hide from his impoverished prole family once he got back.

The scene where he tries to console Stephanie in the finale sums up how terrible the ending was. A big part of Don's conflict was always that he was the man who could have anything he wanted, but was too selfish and neurotic to make wise choices that would lead to lasting satisfaction. This tied in well to the advertising theme: the whole world is a buffet of delicacies, but will any of them actually make you happy?

Stephanie was very similar to Don: she was young and beautiful with the world at her feet, and she made terrible self-indulgent choices and left a trail of wreckage in her wake, which she then fled from and tried to erase (that's what she's doing at the retreat). When someone else calls her out on her BS and reminds her that her destructive behaviors affect other people, she melts down. Don tries to build her back up with some crap about "you weren't raised with Jesus, these bigots actually think there's such a thing as right and wrong!" showing he has learned nothing from his own degenerate life (earlier in the episode he was reminded of how he too had abandoned his children, and responded by going on a bender in a cheap motel room).

I had always assumed the show would either end with Don having an epiphany and accepting his responsibilities to his family and his business as a permanent part of himself, and finding some satisfaction from a sense of rootedness and belonging, or else with his bad decisions finally catching up to him and ending up drunk in an alley pissing himself (both were teased at various times). Instead we get him worshipping the sun at hippie summer camp. I think I'm just going to pretend that everything after season 3 never happened.

WowJustWow said...

Don met his shiksa before he was a success. Recall that Betty was the model in his fur-store advertisement when he first met Roger.

Suburban_elk said...

The original character of Don was appealing, though. That is what made the show. Who is Don Draper, everyone wanted to know. SoBL's list of how Don is an avatar for Weiner is on target, and Weiner said as much. But look, the question has to be, how is it that the story that Weiner told, was convincing? Well now but white Americans don't know who they are.


The obsession with class and status you see in LOTB is foreign to most of the country. [ … ]

With the general collapse of America's fortunes, I think everybody is going to be a lot more class conscious.

Was there ever a time and place in America, that people were not uncertain, and so obsessed with their status? Plenty of people are not obsessed with their status though, even now - these are the people who are high up. Which is how it has always been. But even among high up people, there are those with an inherent confidence, and those whose confidence is upon externalities. In the recent past, white Americans had inherent confidence because they were tough guys with strong hands.

No one in America now is secure in his position. The one exception to that might be American Indians who are accustomed with rituals.

But to get back on topic, why did Mad Men resonate?


Not men. Males.

Everyone has their own struggle but finally it comes to that.