This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.
The fourth season of “Mad Men” has just concluded: the brilliant, beautiful, painful, inspiring, fascinating TV series on AMC about a New York ad agency in the early 1960s, and the screwed-up, rapidly- changing- but- not- rapidly- enough world of gender and race and sex during that place and time.
And it’s reminding me of a rant I’ve been wanting to rant for a little while now:
Why are so many women hot for Don Draper?
The lying, philandering, self-absorbed, work-obsessed, emotionally warped, goes- through- mistresses- like- cigarettes, sexist prick of a lead character, Don Draper?
Via Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, we have this charming article in the New York Observer, speculating on why Don Draper is inspiring so much lust in so many women. The gist of the article is that feminism has been too successful — and women aren’t happy with it. We’ve gotten our equal partners, men who share housework and child-care, men who express their emotions and support us in our careers, men who treat women with respect and value home and family more than work… and it’s letting us down. What we really want is Don Draper. And we’re hypocrites for expecting men to be more feminist… while fantasizing about sexist bad boys who treat women like dirt.
Speaking as someone with a mild Don Draper fetish (although Joan Holloway is the “Mad Men” character I really crave): This is just silly and wrong. It’s silly and wrong for so many reasons, I can’t even begin to outline them all. (Although I’m certainly going to try.)
Especially given the context of his time. I think this is something that gets overlooked in this “women really want sexist manly-men” analysis of “Mad Men.” It’s not like “sexist” versus “feminist” are all- or- nothing categories, with everyone falling into one or the other. It’s a spectrum. So yes, in the context of 2011, Don Draper falls squarely into the “sexist philanderer who uses women and discards them” end of that spectrum. But in the context of the early 1960s, in the context of the other men all around him in the Manhattan ad agency world? He’s Gloria Freaking Steinem. Which makes you start to wonder: if he was this forward- thinking about women and gender in 1961, what would he be like today? Which makes him interesting… and attractive.
But while all this is important, I think it’s missing the most important crux of the matter:
What we fantasize about, and what we want in our real lives, are not necessarily the same thing.
It’s a huge mistake to assume that what people fantasize about is the thing they most sincerely want. People can be very happy and satisfied in their lives, and still fantasize about a life that’s different. People can be happy in fairly settled, stable lives, and still fantasize about danger and adventure. People can be happy in unstructured lives with a lot of travel and unpredictability, and still fantasize about a life of calm, peaceful contemplation. People who’ve happily chosen job satisfaction over money can fantasize about winning the lottery. Happy urban dwellers can fantasize about bucolic tranquility. Happy parents can fantasize about quiet and cleanliness.
So to ask women, “How can you be hot for Don Draper and still say you want men to treat you with respect?” is like asking women, “How can you have rape fantasies and still say you want rape crisis centers?”
I do think fantasies can offer a clue about our desires. If there’s a fantasy I’m having very consistently, it’s often a clue to what’s missing in my life. I have more fantasies about submission when my life is feeling overly managed and scheduled. I have more fantasies about being sexually powerful and dominant when my life is feeling out of control. I have more fantasies about men when I’m mostly having sex with women, and vice versa. It’s even true of my non-sexual fantasies. I have fantasies of peaceful retreat when my life is becoming too harried; I have fantastical, grandiose, Mary Sue-esque fanfic fantasies when I’m feeling like life is too ordinary, too much of what a friend described as “the quotidian march to the grave.” Fantasies can be a clue about what we don’t have in our lives: a portrait drawn in negative space, a signpost to the road not taken.
But the road not taken isn’t necessarily the road that ought to be taken. Or even the road that we most sincerely and secretly want to take. Every choice means giving up a different choice, and we can be happy and at peace with our choices, while still recognizing that other choices have their pleasures to offer… and while still enjoying fantasies about where those choices might have taken us.
And it’s entirely possible to enjoy idealized fantasies of being special, so special that we inspire the dangerous, callous, villainous bad boy to change his ways (while retaining his dangerous edge, of course)… and still, in our real lives, recognize these bad boys as the self-absorbed jackasses they are. It’s possible to recognize that the reality of bad boys is nowhere near as much fun as the fantasy.
Which was absolutely correct. Not about Xander — I’m definitely a Willow or Giles girl — but about preferring funny, good-hearted, and down- to- earth over dangerous, unpredictable, and amoral.
Sometimes, obviously, fantasies really are a sign of what we want. The years-long persistence of my lesbian fantasies was a big freaking clue to the fact that I’m a dyke. Ditto the years-long persistence of my kinky fantasies. And that’s worth paying attention to. Sometimes, fantasies do tell us what we truly want and are not getting.
But sometimes, they really don’t.