The desire to be a better man is leaving machismo in the dust and driving modern manhood forward
Don Draper made quite a splash in his 2-hour season premier Sunday night. Much has apparently changed in the fictionalized Mad Men world. The tall, dark and handsome leading man has turned 40, he’s a divorced dad and husband to a woman who embarrasses him with her French song and dance routine. To top it off the new firm is failing and Civil Rights bookend the episode. But Don is the same guy. That’s the show’s central fact: Don will never find his way out of the box of manhood. When it doubt have sex and look forlorn when it’s all over.
A lot has happened to men in the real world too since the last time we got to watch Don delude himself en route to new and more profound forms of self-destruction. Just as Don was proposing to the wrong woman—Megan the secretary over Faye the accomplished peer—Hanna Rosin was publishing her Atlantic article about how the 21st century man has fallen far behind the real-life Peggy Olsons of the world.
Since that time we’ve witnessed the star of the highest-rated TV show melting down into a drug- and stripper-induced haze. Notable politicians were caught flying to South America to visit a mistress, hiring an aide to take the fall for a love child, and sending electronic photos of their manhood. And the star of West Coast Choppers turned out to be just as bad as he looks.
Don Draper epitomizes, it seems, a certain basic truth about men not only in the 1960s but today too. Men drinking, lying, womanizing and generally behaving badly dovetails nicely not only with the Tiger Woods headlines—all men who appear morally pure have a dark side they are hiding from us—but also with macro statistics, often characterized as the end of men. Us guys are the laggards in education, employment, and parenthood. The very image of the highly stylized black and white of masculinity in free fall is something us 2012 men can identify with. Right?
The answer is an emphatic no.
Don Draper is the worst kind of male cliché. Mad Men leaves out a fundamental shift in how men perceive their own manhood, their emotional lives, their families, and how to be good.
There’s a men’s revolution that is far more profound than the fringe group of men reading Robert Bly and beating drums in the woods of years past. This is happening on the battlefield and the factory floor, on Wall Street and in prisons, among gays and straights, blacks and whites, poor and rich.
I’ve spoken to thousands of men, and boys, over the last three years as part of a The Good Men Project and the universal theme is an end to men’s silence. And they don’t take kindly to being criticized for it. Not long ago, I was being interviewed on a Boston radio show about the “new macho” when I got a couple of callers in a row questioning my manhood. The very next caller was Andre Tippet, the Hall of Fame Linebacker who grew up in the roughest part of Newark. He’s a black belt in karate with hands the size of a catcher’s glove. We once spoke together to 400 teenage boys packed into a, school chapel hanging on our every word because the kind of manhood we talked about wasn’t something they hadn’t been exposed to before, particularly not from two oversized guys with deep voices.
“Emotion is the key to manhood,” the local sports hero told the radio audience, putting an end to any question of my machismo.
Men no longer want to be defined by their professional success either. The guys I know live for their kids, many staying at home to take care of them. While sex is certainly a complex issue, the men I have met want to be in committed relationships where emotional connection is just as important as a physical relationship. The stereotype of the philandering celebrity or politician may sell magazines but it doesn’t apply to us as 21st century men.
None of this is meant to imply that the new American man is perfect. In fact, a lot of what I have talked about with men in my travels is our very weakness, our failures, the things that in the past we would have taken to our grave. But that, too, is the fundamental difference. Don Draper never gets down to what is really going on. Denial is a never-ending loop with one lie required to cover another. The strong silent type is by definition incapable of admitting fault, of allowing humanity to show through the thin veneer of gray flannel.
The very first time I spoke about manhood, I was led down hall after hall of concrete blocks and through locked gate after locked gate. Finally, I was led into a room of what I expected to be the scariest dudes I had ever met. Nothing in my career as the Chief Financial Officer of a media conglomerate or Managing Partner of a venture firm prepared me for that moment. I was shaking with fear.
I sat down and a convicted murder brought me a cup of coffee, put his hand on my back and whispered, “We are so glad you are here.”
I proceeded to tell the class about my own failings as a man and how I came to realize how much I wanted to be a good husband and father. I then asked each of the inmates to share a turning point in their lives. One talked about holding his baby son in his arms during visiting hours. Another talked about being carted off to Rikers Island while he watched a childhood friend walk down the sidewalk and into a library. One talked about visiting his mother on her deathbed.
“I shuffled down the hospital hallway in shackles with two armed guards on either side,” he told me in whisper. “The nurses begged them to take the shackles off but they wouldn’t. Finally they wrapped a towel around my wrists so she wouldn’t have to see me that way.”
He stopped as tears dripped to the ground. His and mine.
“The day I couldn’t even hug my mom goodbye was the day I decided to do whatever I could to improve myself,” he finally managed to get out.
And so he had. These men were all in a master’s level theology seminar, having graduated from both high school and college while inside.
I left Sing Sing that day a changed man because I suddenly realized that even the supposed worst of the worst had inspired me to be a better man. And since that time I have met countless others: the veteran who survived the war but lost his toddler daughter to a freak infection at Fort Bragg; the investment banker who quit to stay home with his kids; the photojournalist who risked his life day after day to show the world the brutal truth of war; the husband who stood by his wife’s side as she suffered from profound mental illness, begging her to come back to him; the son who found a way to shine despite his enormously famous dad.
I keep looking for Don Draper but I have yet to meet him. The closest I can come to seeing Don is in the ad business in which the fictional character spins his tales: the But Light commercial, the film produced to recruit Navy SEALs, the diaper so perfectly engineered that even a dad can operate it.
I have met plenty of guys who, like me, tried to tackle manhood with false bravado only to realize how godawful painful the result was. The new macho isn’t about not making mistakes, it’s about the reawakening after all that is over. It’s about the man at his mother’s death bed, the sober alcoholic, the reformed womanizer, the man in all of us who realizes that loving your spouse and your kids is as good as it gets. It’s about laughing and crying and being a guy.
More than anything it’s about breaking the silence and telling the truth, whether you’re an inmate or a venture capitalist.
Don Draper is a lie. Within the show, he’s a harmless lie, an identity Dick Whitman steals to reinvent himself. In the real world, the lie is far from harmless.
Photo credit: Flickr / star.rush360