Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mad Men: The Thematic Connection Between Don Draper's Journey and the Trans Experience

Mad Men is my favorite television drama of all time. Millions of critics and normal folks agree with that sentiment, and with good cause. It’s one of the best written and acted shows to ever appear on television in any era, and it doesn’t hurt that 90% of the cast is scorching crazy-hot. I have my own, more personal reasons for my Mad Men obsession, though... and my own hopes for where the show will end up at the end of this final batch of episodes.


First, it’s one of the best depictions of patriarchy’s awful toll on society I’ve ever seen in popular culture. Beyond the obvious harm patriarchy inflicts upon women (even successful ones- One line from Peggy after being dumped by Ted in the season six finale, “It must be nice to have decisions,” cut down to the marrow), Mad Men also captures the corrosive effect patriarchy has on men. It alienates them from their loved ones and friends, it alienates them from their own emotions, and it can deny them any hope of true self-actualization- Of, as we like to say in the trans community, “an authentic life.”

Secondly, while Mad Men doesn’t DIRECTLY deal with trans issues, it constantly deals with questions of identity. Yes, we’ve seen a number of gay and lesbian characters on the show (I could do a whole separate post about Bob Benson alone), but it’s been Don Draper’s journey that has most closely paralleled the trans experience in a lot of ways.

Draper carries a knapsack full of dark secrets, and the biggest one is about his basic identity: He is not Don Draper but Dick Whitman, the son of a sex worker who died giving birth to him. He was raised in a squalid whorehouse by people who not only didn’t love him, but barely even tried to hide their loathing and contempt for him. He stole the identity of a man who perished during the Korean War, and built a new life- Unfortunately, this life, while financially and professionally successful, was filled with deceit, self-loathing, and self-destructive behaviors (that have shredded the lives of his family, friends and co-workers).

Every trans person, on some level, can relate to Don/Dick. I have had a lot of the same feelings, and sadly engaged in a lot of the same self-destructive behaviors. Every trans person longs to hear what Don’s friend Anna told him before she succumbed to cancer: "I know everything about you, and I still love you."

Thus, even when Don is blowing himself up (along with anyone unlucky enough to be in his blast radius), even when he’s been a loathsome asshole, I have hoped for his redemption. In the season six finale, we might have seen Don’s first major steps towards salvaging his soul- towards living a more authentic life.

The episode started with his usual moves. Hey, I’ll drink! Hey! I’ll flee from my problems! However, during the Hershey’s pitch, he snapped. He told one final lie about his childhood, looked at Ted’s forlorn face, and couldn’t take it anymore. He finally laid down his burdens and told his partners and the Hershey’s executives the brutal truth about his harrowing childhood. He lost the account. He lost his job. His relationship with his daughter was severely damaged, and his 2nd marriage was frayed beyond repair.

My decision to finally start my transition came under similar circumstances. I was in a place where I had little to “lose” anymore (in a traditional American middle-class sense). My marriage was over. I was relegated to “weekend Dad” status with my children. I had no property, no real assets, no full-time job, no benefits, etc. Those things are all still true, but every day I’m a bit more honest with myself. Every day, my life becomes a bit more authentic. I lost all those exemplars of “success,” but I’m happier and more fulfilled than ever.

The season six finale ended with Don taking his children to see the rotting husk of the whorehouse he grew up in. It was a monumental step in his self-actualization, analogous to the moment when I came out as trans to my children last summer. Since then, it's been a journey from my son initially not wanting to speak to me to us now being closer than ever, bonding over shared loves for the Seattle Seahawks and Mario Kart. Since then, it's been an evolution from my daughter incessantly telling me "I wish you were still a boy," to her drawing a picture of her, her brother, and I, with me in a dress.

In season 7.1, we witness Don gaining a previously absent sense of humility- Humiliated by his demotion/sidelining, he rebuilds his intermittently dazzling working relationship with Peggy Olson. Over the final stretch of episodes that start tonight, can Don find the "peace" that Sylvia longed he'd discover in back in season 6? Remember the preacher in the flashback who said "The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you?" I'm an atheist, so I'm not buying into that, but can Don finally, sincerely love and forgive himself? That's an important question in any person's life, but trans folks have no choice but to peer DEEPLY into that psychic chasm. We have to live the examined life, or we meet a particularly nasty end. Either before our times at our own hands, or decades later, consumed by regret that we never even tried to live authentically.

I don’t think we’re headed for a traditionally “happy” ending to Draper’s saga, but I hope the show concludes with Don finding some of that "peace." I hope that he shows that he can continue to grow and evolve, because I want those same things for myself.

Share your thoughts about Mad Men in the comments. please!

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