The Zen of Don Draper’s Frown

Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Don Draper

Jon Hamm’s compassionate sneer manages to capture the Zen koan of Draper’s ambivalent soul.

I pick up different accents and mannerisms with relative ease. After spending some time in Europe or Asia around non-native English speakers, or native English speakers with inflections different from my own, my accent tends to morph just a tad. It’s an unconscious process on my part—a process that I don’t like. Whenever I head back to the town of my birth, I have to explain to folks, that yes, I was actually born there—those strange ‘t’s I’m pronouncing come from hanging out with too many English people. They’re not a result of some affectation I’m putting on for show. Thankfully, after a few days back home, my original accent quickly returns (it’s a two-way process of assimilation).

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of AMC’s ‘Mad Men.’ While I haven’t taken on Don Draper and company’s speech patterns, I think I might have picked up a bit of Don Draper’s frown. I can’t be 100% sure, since I haven’t been near a mirror when I’ve pulled the face, which has only happened a few times, yet I suspect it in my bones. And what an odd feeling frown it is.

Perhaps “frown” really isn’t the best word to describe this expression. If you watch the show regularly, you might know what I mean. It could also be described as a grimace, or a look of introspection combined with contempt and wonder, or possibly a countenance of curiosity and superiority paradoxically combined with doubt and the fear of being unfavorably judged and abandoned in the world—or it might even be an uneasy sort of smile, in perpetual search of affirmation. In other words, Don Draper’s “frown” is a mixture of a lot of conflicting emotions.
Carl Pettit, The Good Life, Root Down, The Good Men Project, Ethics, Values, current events, politics, justice
If you know anything about the Draper character, you know the man is a complex jumble of handsome, self-assured and often overbearing creative advertising genius, merged with an insecure boy lying beneath who was raised in a brothel among a specter of abuse, absent his father or a real mother. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those articles comparing the “Mad Men Era” (which never really existed) with modern society, or attempting to equate the constant infidelity and charming appeal of the show’s anti-hero with modern-day sexual politics and norms. No, there will be none of that here. All I’m interested in is the man’s expressive scowl.

I don’t know if Jon Hamm, the actor behind this incredible frown, comes by the expression naturally. Perhaps he does this in his real life, or perhaps it’s simply a sign of his acting prowess. Maybe Hamm spent hours in front of a mirror perfecting the nuances of the down turned mouth, wrinkled forehead, and judging yet at the same time wounded eyes peering out into the world.

Regardless of the art behind the craft, it’s something to behold, and possibly project. Like a Zen Buddhist kōan, Don Draper’s frown is a study in contrast:

“Be assertive and disapproving, yet give voice to the frightened child living inside you, for he has much to say.”

“Your lofty and intimidating gaze should betray the curiosity, and the insecurity of someone who knows—and possibly fears—that he might be wrong.”

“Judge your enemies harshly, but give them a small sign, beneath your eyes, of your compassion and understanding as well.”

While my own expression, which I’ve never seen, created by my subconscious because I watched too many episode of ‘Mad Men’ in a row, is undoubtedly only a poor imitation of the real (acted) thing, I can still appreciate the complex beauty, and the Zen-like qualities of Don Draper’s frown. In a world where the projection of power, and the endearing qualities of vulnerability both have their respective places, the look Jon Hamm manages to achieve so often on the show somehow melds these contrasting qualities into one complex, yet ever so telling face.


Read more of Carl Pettit’s weekly column, Root Down, on The Good Life.

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About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.

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