Don Draper: A Rake without the Romance?

Mad Men advertisement…or cover of a steamy romance novel??

(Post updated 3/20/2012)

Don Draper: A Rake without the Romance?

When I first started watching Mad Men, I (like most humanoids) was intrigued by the enigma of Don Draper. He was cool, he was calm, and he didn’t care what anyone thought of him. After watching the first two seasons, I thought Draper was an anti-hero of the Nietzschean variety. However, I was viewing him through the lens of two books I was interested in at the time, Herman Hesse’s Demian and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Even without those books in the mix, it was kind of hard not to. I mean, the character said things like this:
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.

See what I mean? The nihilism is strong with this one.

But THEN…I glommed episode after episode of the show, straight through season four…after a period of gorging myself on Regency romances instead of existentialist tomes. Now, I could finally see Draper for what he really was: the shadow version of a rake from any number of Regency romances. He is what the heroes we swoon over could have become if they took the wrong path, chose the wrong heroine, and never faced their fears.

Below, my list of ways that Don Draper is actually an unreformed rake in ad man’s clothing.


Women Want Him: Don Draper, as played by Jon Hamm, is what the ladies refer to as “foin.” (Please say this word aloud. Got it? Good.) This is reflected by the parade of women constantly throwing themselves at him, or, more accurately, by women throwing their faces at his crotch area. No matter how big of an asshole he is to them; how much he reeks of booze, cigarettes, and scotch-flavored tears; or how unlikely it is that he would even be able to get it up after drinking an entire case of Glenlivet in his office—ladies still want to hit it, in the worst way. And he is happy to give it to them.

A rake, by definition, is a man “habituated to immoral conduct” (see nearly every Regency romance ever written). Rakes booze it up, smoke cheroots, and sleep with numerous women. Ladies (with a capital L) are always flinging themselves at them, husbands and societal strictures be damned. By this model, Draper is a rake par excellence.

Men Want To Be Him: The rake is often surrounded by a group of adoring male cohorts who put him on a pedestal as the epitome of manliness, even if he treats them like something unpleasant on the bottom of his shoe (see Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase). Whether it’s at the gentleman’s club, a gambling hell, or in his private office, these men seek him out to get his advice or simply to bask in his presence, perhaps hoping some of his innate rakishness will rub off on them.

In Mad Men, Draper is followed by a loyal group of male co-workers who put up with his mercurial temper, his drinking, and his unpredictability, and who laud him for his behavior, even when his actions put the entire firm at risk and cause them to lose clients/money/prestige. Why? Don’s rakish self-assuredness makes them believe that no matter how much he acts like a dismissive jerk, he won’t let them down.

Rakes don’t lose.

He’s Got A Troubled Past: The rake’s sense of superiority and desire to break the rules is pretty much always caused by some childhood trauma. Mommy didn’t love him enough (see Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean). Daddy didn’t think he was worthy (see Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman by Lorraine Heath). The list goes on and on. Something occurs during the formative years that turns our sweet young hero into a cold-hearted lady killer.

Don Draper got it from both ends: born to a prostitute mother who died giving birth to him and raised by an ornery and abusive father, young “Don” was looking for a way out of the life he was born into. Which leads to…

He’s Got A Secret: A rake usually has a secret. That secret is often related to his troubled past, and is usually the catalyst for his rakish behavior. He can’t share this secret with anyone, and thus he has to leave broken hearts in his wake wherever he goes. DUH! Life’s just easier that way.

Don’s secret is pretty big: He isn’t really Don Draper. His real name is Dick Whitman. During the Korean War, an opportunity arose to take a fallen comrade’s identity, and he went for it. With his shiny new identity, he’s no longer the earnest boy from Illinois. He can be whatever he wants, and it turns out that what he wants to be is a rake.

He Can Only Be Redeemed Through the Power of Love: A rake struggles to be a rake until the end. No matter how many women throw their love at him, he ain’t interested. That’s just the way he is people. Deal. With. It. Until, suddenly, a woman appears who just gets him. She knows what he needs and is willing to do anything to give it to him, no matter how hard he fights against her. And then he knows it’s love. In the context of a well-written romance novel, this understanding and acceptance goes both ways and is a mutually beneficial life change for both the hero and the heroine.

It is important to remember that Don is a deluded rake and not a real romance hero, so he doesn’t want someone strong enough to actually change him. He doesn’t want to be with someone who will help him to come to terms with his problems and change his ways for the better. Instead, he goes for the next best thing; it’s his cipher of secretary that finally wins his heart.

His prerequisites for popping the question to his secretary were as follows: she is (a) young; (b) hot; (c) will bang me in my office and not expect to cuddle after; (d) knows how I like my liquor; (e) can manage to be around my kids without emotionally scarring them; and (f) I have this engagement ring anyway…what else am I gonna do with it? Oh, and she’s (g)French Canadian. What more can you ask for in a woman, eh?

Don Draper isn’t living the real-life version of a romance novel; he is making all the mistakes a rake must make before he finds his true purpose in life. Thus, his supposed happily ever after will probably turn to tragedy this season. But perhaps he’s not beyond redemption! Every romance reader knows that there is always hope for a second chance. With season 5 of Mad Men starting very soon, we’ll be able to see whether Don Draper will be the hero or the villain of his own story.


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