The other day, I saw Don Draper in a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Or rather, I saw Jon Hamm, the award-winning actor who plays the ad exec anti-hero on AMC's Mad Men which kicked off its third season Sunday night. He was dining with friends in a quiet corner of the bar, his broad shoulders hunched over his appetizer, thinly disguised by a pair of nerdy glasses that Draper wouldn't be caught dead in. Despite his unobtrusive air, Hamm was causing quite the stir. The hostesses stared. The waitresses giggled and gaped at him. Female patrons sized him up like tigresses in heat. Even the manager was giving him her best seductress eyes.
When I told my friends about the sighting, their reactions were similar. "I don't get excited about celebrities," one said, "but if I saw him, I'd tear off my clothes." "He is sexy," said another. "I love him," said a third. "He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right."
Why are we so wild for Draper? By any measure, the character's a cad. He constantly cheats on his wife. He skips town for weeks and won't write or call. He doesn't talk much, and anesthetizes any feelings with copious amounts of booze. He's an enigma, a locked box of a man who resists, maddeningly, easy explanation. And yet he excites an attraction among women—particularly ones my age, women in their late '20s and '30s who were born after the era that portrays—that seems unmatched by any leading man on television today, with the possible exception of Lost's con artist, Saywer (another strapping scoundrel with a deeply troubled soul). We describe our obsession in words that, like the show itself, are somewhat retro. "He is a straight-up man. He makes me feel like a woman via the TV." "He's a throwback to a time when men were men. "It's the thickness of his body." "Shoulders to cry on and a jaw that causes women to swoon."
A man's man. A virile man. A masculine man. Strong terms. And ones that would make our postmodern gender-studies professors blush. After all, we're the generation of women who grew up beating the boys in math class, reading Judith Butler (by choice or by force), celebrating "Grrl" power. Traditional male-female roles were going out the window while we were still toddlers. And maybe that's why we feel a little guilty when we stop to admit to ourselves why Draper excites us. Because we're not supposed to be using those terms anymore to describe our desires. Those words threaten a backsliding—they hint at some deep, unspoken turbulence; that, as if by saying we want a "real man," we threaten to erase all the gains our mothers made in terms of equality in the workplace and the home. After all, we don't believe in that evolutionary "me Tarzan, you Jane" nonsense anymore. We're supposed to want men who are sensitive and respectful; men who emote and help around the house, and talk openly about their feelings. And we do want these things. Don't we? So then why are we fantasizing about Draper rather than Jim from The Office?
"Would I want to marry him?" one acquaintance—an executive assistant at a high-end financial firm, and the dictionary definition of "independent"—asked rhetorically. "No. But he has that whole 'strap a sword to me, I'll cut down men and then ravish you' thing." We have to clarify this matter, you see, lest men misunderstand us (or, worse, lest we misunderstand ourselves). So we lay it out very clearly: we don't want to wed Don Draper. We know madness that way lies. We see how Betty Draper is drowning in loneliness, one more beautiful woman trapped in her suburban prison, desperately trying to pull devotion out of Don. We see how she's had to resort to silent fury to make him come around again. And we're cynical about this next season, for Betty's sake—sure, Don wrote her a letter saying he can't live without her. Sure, she let him back in the house. But a baby's on the way, and nothing says ball and chain like a newborn. And men like Don Draper don't change their spots. Already in this season’s first episode, he's undressing a stewardess. My mother's generation—who had to live with such men, whose hearts were broken by such men, and whose careers were stymied by such men—don’t seem to have much interest in Don Draper. They know all too well the downside of a man's man. And they made sure as hell to raise us differently.
So we've been raised to marry different men. Men like our president, Barack Obama: supportive, mature, levelheaded, equal partners. A bit sexless, OK, but who these days still thinks that a gal can have it all? Better a sexless Obama than a philandering Bill Clinton (speaking of men who make powerful women simultaneously swoony and ashamed of said swoon). And anyway, there are so few men like Draper around that we're not in any real danger of meeting one—at least not in the affluent, cosmopolitan jungles where Mad Men's viewers are concentrated, and where smart young women flock to make their careers take flight. They're a dying, if not dead, breed: these men who came back from the battlefields and settled down in whitewashed houses and were somehow expected to find the same visceral rush in office jobs and country clubs and nice, sweet wives that they gained from far-off adventures and wars. Men who couldn't be satiated by these staid substitutions; men who were made caged animals by domesticity; men who unleashed their restlessness in ways both erotic and destructive. These types of men are not the men we marry anymore. But, apparently, they're still the ones we love.