You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one. -Don Draper
The American television program Mad Men is a sumptuous cocktail of a show. Thanks to the streaming capacities of Netflix, one can immerse oneself in the show’s over 80 episodes the same way one can dive into the weighty volumes of Tolstoy or Dickens. From the very beginning of Mad Men’s run the show’s creators knew exactly where its strengths lied: offering the viewer the sensuous pleasures of the body, wrapped in silk and cotton, on 1950s Madison Avenue. And no body it offered to the viewer’s gaze was more beautiful or sleek then that of Don Draper, the tortured ad man who stands at the center of Mad Men’s narrative system
Draper is a cheating, whoring, self-centered alcoholic who damages almost every person he comes into contact with. Precisely because he possesses such repulsive traits he is also a deeply compelling and, yes, even sympathetic character. A PTSD’d Korean War veteran, he has an inability to feel anything despite the buzzing social life around him. It is a fascinating conceit for a show: to build an entire tapestry of bourgeois life around a man who can’t connect to any of it. Wives, children, and friends come and go through Draper’s life, but he looks on all of it with a bemused, disconnected sense of awe, as if he is merely going through the motions of a life that is not really his own.
To watch all 80 hours of the show in a relatively short time period is actually a detriment to it, for it only amplifies the repulsive nature of its main character. Sexual conquest follows sexual conquest, each woman tossed aside with a sly smile, the long draw of a cigarette, and the rueful clink of a whisky glass. After its sixth or seven iteration, Don’s routine becomes predictable: sorry sweetie, but I feel nothing. It was fun while it lasted, now move along.
Mad Men gets, then, to have its cake and eat it too. While posing as a serious engagement with racial and gender disparities through America’s tumultuous 1960s, it also plays as the ultimate male fantasy: wear sleek suits, pick up gorgeous women in darkly lit bars, and never pay the emotional or financial check. The show’s narrative arc actually becomes ever more humdrum as its seasons move on. Don’s advertising firm gets merged and reorganized multiples times; wives are divorced and re-married; historical forces (the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam) push in on the characters in only the slightest of ways.
Will Draper ever find self-actualization amongst the rubble of his marriages, mistressess, and one night stands? Despite the high-minded seriousness the show treats this question with, at a certain point it ceases to matter. Exposé turns into glorification, as male audiences get to grin happily at all the high-fashioned fucking even while they can take comfort in the show’s feminist bonafides. Defenders of the show will likely cite the presence of one of its major supporting characters, Peggy Olson (played by the magnetic Elizabeth Moss), a secretary turned ad writer who must negotiate the rigors of a male-dominated industry. One could almost believe in the show’s feminist commitments, if only its camera didn’t linger so lusciously on full-breasted, garter-wrapped women and the men they live to serve. There is simply no way around it: to watch the show is to be Don Draper, at least for an hour.
The show then is, ultimately, about male power. It is fitting to watch it in the context of the two elections that Canadians are currently enduring- our own national election and the corporate orgy that passes as the American presidential primaries. On the Canadian side, there has been ample analysis of the various platforms of the parties, their leaders, and their campaign tactics. Despite all of the tremendously legitimate criticism that has been directed at Stephen Harper, his poll numbers have been trending upwards in recent weeks, potentially into majority territory.
What would it mean for Canada to re-elect (with a majority) a prime minister who has wasted billions of dollars in militarist adventurism, rolled back our constitutionally protected civil liberties, muzzled our scientists and intellectuals, corrupted our senate with bag men and sycophants, and cut funding to our health care, education, and arts programs? Even owing to the insane distortions created due to the first-past-the-post election system, what kind of message would it send to the world that we’ve re-elected Harper to another five year majority?
It would send the exact same message that, in its own distinct way, Mad Men itself sends: that male power reigns supreme. While nobody would take Harper to be a dashing lady-killer, his essential message is one that is at home in a world dominated by the masculine ethos of Madison Avenue. His two essential campaign messages exemplify this to a tee: I am a strong man who will keep you safe while protecting our economy.
This is the vision of power that the Conservatives project out to Canadians: steady-handed on the finances and willing to go abroad to kill any and all extremist muslims behaving badly. They have even used an utter non-issue over the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies to further reinforce their vision of a white, Anglo-Saxon, normative world. Despite the Conservative disregard for environmental protections, civil liberties, freedom of information, and democratic process, they bank on the fact that none of those things really matter much to Canadians. These are abstract concerns: who really knows how parliamentary sub-committees are supposed to work? Who really cares how much CO2 we pump into the air (the sky is blue in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver is it not)? And who cares about the integrity of the library sciences, not when average Canadians have bills and mortgages of their own to pay!
The conservatives bank on one thing and one thing only: Canadians want a government in charge, capable of rallying the economy and killing those who would walk into our public spaces and fire weapons at innocent civilians.
A Harper victory would only confirm what I have long suspected: Canadians respect power, authority, and wealth, far more than they do environmentalism, democratic process, and social redistribution. They want more Xi Jinping than Tommy Douglas, and Harper provides the middle ground between the two. It is no use railing to the sky that Harper is an autocrat and a militarist: Canadians know this and are, judging by his poll numbers, largely fine with it. One is only fooling oneself if you don’t think that the Conservative’s muscular strength doesn’t play well in every corner of the country.
Harper’s strong-man approach has made Canadians reticent to throw their lot in with the other parties. Certainly, the trust-fund baby-turned-talking point actor Justin Trudeau can’t stand up to Harper’s solidity. The old liberal machine still has enough pull to get the baby boom Ontario establishment out to vote, and the ambitious corporate youth from Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto still consider themselves the natural ruling class, smugly assuming that liberal predominance is inevitable (because in their enlightened hearts they can’t but know what’s best for the rest of the country).
Meanwhile, Canadians have largely gotten over their flirtation with Thomas Mulcair. Although he is considered a more reliable person than Harper, an intelligent, silver-flecked lion of a man, Harper has chipped away just enough to convince Canadians that he can’t be trusted on the two areas that count the most: guns and money. So as fascinating a socialist hybrid as Mulcair could be for Canada, we will likely never get the chance to see that story written.
Thus Canadians return once again to Harper, who continues machine-like to champion the political pressure points that he knows will get him his majority. What Draper and Harper tell us is that all sins can be forgiven- in the former’s case misogyny, dishonesty, self-destruction, and in the latter’s case the infringement of rights, the violence of militarism, the browbeating of the powerless- if one can project an image of manly solidity. Whether it is dropping bombs on ISIS convoys from ten thousand feet above the earth or stradling up to a bar, ordering an Old Fashioned, and light up a cigarette, its all part and parcel of the same grammar of power: be a man, project strength, kick the shit out of all those who stand in your way, and have no sympathy for those who suffer (it’s not your problem).
The people who vote, just like the people who watch, respect power. That is the political and aesthetic language that resonates with our ever so enlightened populace.
Surely, socialism’s inability to gain the support of the majority of people is due to its incompatibility with that language of power. Bleeding heart progressives just don’t know what its like to build a business, to take what’s yours, to apologize for nothing, to keep your kin safe.
They simply don’t know what it’s like to be a man.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.