“You deserve a man who isn’t afraid of you, & who isn’t afraid of everything that brought you pain, & who will face that pain with you, no matter how ugly it is…who will tell you when you’re wrong, and who will listen when you tell him he’s wrong, and a man who is going to be just as open as you are, and just as free with his thoughts as you are, & just as willing to struggle with himself as you are…” – Asha Bandele
A girl friend of mine messages me, she couldn’t resist re-watching Mad Men’s Season 4 finale and of course it was as emotional as watching it the first time. No matter how many times I go over it in my head, it remains a shocker: the alluring and complex Don Draper, dashing John Hamm, gets engaged to Megan, his secretary, over the dynamic, powerful yet loving Dr Faye Miller. Us strong, independent women seem to encounter this scenario daily, I mean even Beyonce sang about it in “Why don’t you love me”, exploring the struggle to find a man who is willing to love a multifaceted and empowered woman. The question is whose fault is it?
“These men they aren’t looking for an equal partner,” my friend proclaims frustrated, “they are looking for a nurturer”. And regardless of the fact that some may argue that this is merely a TV show and that of course it is unfair to homogenize all men’s preferences, desires and actions, I can’t help but feel my friend has just brought to light some serious points about the nature of love and patriarchy on relationships in society.
Mad Men’s Loveless Man
Mad Men since its premier in 2007 has gone on to receive countless awards and nominations and it is undoubtedly the complexity behind lead character Don Draper that has seduced both male and female audiences into a committed viewership. The San Francisco Chronicle described Mad Men as “stylized, visually arresting… an adult drama of introspection and the inconvenience of modernity in a man’s world”: Don Draper quickly becomes the man that men want to be and women fall in love with.
He is man who is deeply melancholic to say the least. Battling with a life of deception, loss and a haunting past, and despite his considerable success as the creative director of a lead advertising firm in the 60s, he is left longing for both acceptance and understanding. We watch him slip in and out of adultery, become embroiled in a spider web of complicated relationships with different types of women, and by the beginning of season 4 witness the ending of his marriage to his first wife Betty.
Betty is not an easy woman, she too is facing a number of personal struggles with herself, and in failing to deal with them she simultaneously becomes unable to emotionally support, cultivate and lovingly nurture her husband and children. When he eventually tells her about the double life he has led throughout their marriage, unable to understand the root cause of his lies, she too begins to look elsewhere. The loveless Don Draper continues on his search and he eventually develops a secret romantic relationship with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s new market research consultant, Faye, whom he unravels, undoes and in a moment of vulnerability for the first time since reveals his true identity to. Even so, we see him in the final episode of the season rashly make an
overnight decision resulting in a marriage proposal to his secretary Megan on their trip to California. Back in New York after much avoidance he finally informs Faye of his new fiancée, heartbroken and teary-eyed she hopes that Megan knows that he only “likes the beginning of things”.
Don’s choice of Megan over Faye as well the other tedious and strenuous romantic relationships Don engages in reveal something a little deeper than just a preference of particular types of women: they in fact provide clear examples of what I’ve come to call vertical constructions of ‘love’. Vertical love is not designed to nurture partnership primarily because it is rooted in hierarchies. Within this framework not only do masculinities and femininities become restricted, rigid and defined gendered roles, but so do the ways in which men and women conceptualize and ultimately ‘love’.
The Dirty ‘L’ Word: Patriarchy and the Caregiver
In ‘Communion: A Female Search for Love’, bell hooks explores differential, socially constructed gendered attitud
es towards love that eventually help to sustain and reproduce patriarchy through one of the most powerful bonds of the human condition. She argues that women are socialized from a young age into externalizing the search for love, always seeking validation, worth and esteem primarily through others and where heteronormity is prevalent, through the opposite sex. We see this most clearly identifiable in his young daughter Sally Draper, unable to cope with her parent’s divorce and her mother’s lack of understanding, as daddy’s little girl she is most at ease with her father or her friendship (that her mother tries to deprive her of in season four) with neighbour Glen Bishop. Men on the other hand, via notions of accepted manhood, are taught to internalize love, that expression of or need for love undermines a masculinity that is based upon domination, power struggles and coercion: a man must ultimately sustain himself. Love instantly becomes an entirely feminine endeavour where women spend their lives in search of it and men spend their lives shut off from it: both however are detrimentally affected by their relation (or lack of) to it. .
As the family remains the first site of socialization and as women tend to be the primary caregivers as mothers, it is within this context that most children first experience (or fail to experience) acts of kindness and care which are part of, but not definitive of, love. This relationship between mother and son becomes a real tender one, providing a space where men can be nurtured and cared for much more openly, giving way to an element of emotional vulnerability. This relationship, however, is not based on mutuality but hierarchy precisely because it is not between two equals: the mother has an element of power as carer over her son. Even the most ‘manly’ of men develop a soft spot beyond childhood for mothers who provide this kind of basic ‘love’, even if it is only partially and alongside levels of abuse.
Despite the absence of Don’s own mother throughout his childhood, a 22 year old prostitute who died giving birth to him, he finds it virtually impossible to escape the only socially accepted framework for men to ‘love’ within. His relationship with Anna Draper, the wife of the real Don Draper who had died in the Korean war in battle with him, is quite a maternal one to say the least. Anna is not only the first person he reveals his deep and dark true identity as Dick Witman to as well as his stolen one as Don, but ultimately the only person who accepts his duality. Despite such a contentious and almost immoral deception, Anna looks beyond the man and his mask and reveals a softer Don in search of healing. It is through her that we witness Don lovingly seeking approval from someone in order to finalize life changing decisions such as his engagement to Betty. He financially supports Anna until her death and the mother-son like relationship between them becomes ever more evident as he prepares for her death and concurrently mourns her loss. But why or how is this problematic? Shouldn’t this teach men an element of mutuality?
The irony is that patriarchal love is real incestuous. It may not be sexual in the Freudian sense, but what it does do is sustain the idea of love as always being one of hierarchy and power. Vertical constructions based on imbalanced power structures and hierarchies push through the idea that the potential nurturer/caregiver becomes the most important and attractive feminine characteristic and trait to base a heterosexual romantic relationship upon, both familiar and in line with maintaining hegemonic masculinity that the conventional mother should not interfere with or aim to undermine. Women who offer this role in addition to say mutual challenges and growth, such as Faye, and demand more than a passive giving role in a relationship, are not as easily accepted or even deemed as desirable as women, such as Megan, who more conventionally fit into this role without disrupting masculinized assertions of power. Betty failed to do this and becomes a primary reason as to why he hid his past and present from her, using infidelity and sex as an escape from the many lies his own home becomes based upon. Faye comes too close, his vulnerability and honesty with her is dangerous ground, namely because it is more than companionship: it is romantic, sexual and uncomfortably challenging.Sex with other women ironically becomes a space of emotional intimacy, and as we see Don fall in and out of bed with so many different types of women, we too begin to judge which types stimulate him, unnerve him, draw him in or push him away to differentdegrees. He wants a woman similar to his mother-figure Anna but who cannot occupy the same power she possesses: his romantic partner must be like but cannot be the same as his maternal one.
I am left wondering a number of questions as I await the next season, will Megan be able to help him overcome his issues? Is this just companionship or will Don ever realize that he needs communion? Will she ever be someone that can aid his growth and healing fully through partnership in the way he needs, not as he thinks he wants?
Don wants to be understood but no more than that; he wants to be loved in the only way that he can understand love: a definition constructed, sold, and sustained across society by patriarchy, gender roles, power and sex. Popular culture and the media can offer poignant real life examples of how these roles, ideas and systems are perpetuated. Mad Men shows just how complex human relationships and identities are, the misunderstandings between men and women, and simultaneously revealing just how radical and fulfilling love could be if we were given the opportunity to challenge these precise notions.
Despite the assumption that us feminists are in search of a power reversal, to keep men down, this show reveals just how much women desire real loving, partnerships as well as men who are desperately in need of them too. We, like Faith, or Joan, or Peggy, want to struggle with our men as they struggle, to heal as they heal, we want to nurture, grow and commit to and with them, just as much as we need them to do so with us. Patriarchy makes this almost impossible; denying men from being able to fully love someone who irrespective of gender is just like them: human, struggling and living.
Communion based on equal partnership requires dismantling all the ways in which both genders are taught about and act upon patriarchal conceptions of ‘love’. The reality is that we cannot blame either genders or proclaim women are from Venus and men are from Mars to explain relationship failures, but instead look to do the real work of love and create a shared definition that gives way to nurturing, kindness and understanding, as well as honesty, commitment and mutuality that both need to lead happier and fulfilling lives.
Please note that this is an observational and analytical piece aiming to locate and understand heterosexual love and patriarchy within popular culture and in particular a specific TV show. It is not a holistic piece aimed at generalizing all experiences, perspectives across time, space, race, gender, class etc and has many limitations.