Remember when Mad Men teamed up with Banana Republic to promote an upcoming season? The contest was simple. Enter a picture of yourself in your best "Mad Men style" and you could win a walk-on role. Awesome, right?! Welp, when I saw that ad I didn't bat an eye, considering that Mad Men's setting and narrative scope meant even if I won, at best I'd score that prime elevator operator role. Or maybe a waiter forced to give a polite smile to smug jackass Pete Campbell, or a driver opening the backseat door for Mrs. Draper the Second. Which, nah.
Don't get it twisted. This isn't a screed against Mad Men not having enough, or any, substantially speaking, black characters (word to Dawn the secretary though). The show's world is true to what it wants to be, and shoehorning black characters in during an era when there would be zero chance of an African-American copywriter would feel phony and pandering, like when that fuckboy Paul Kinsey bagged up his supermarket grocer to show how hip and progressive he was back in season 2.
During a guest spot on Charlie Rose (but with guest host Gayle King), along with the cast, creator Matthew Weiner said this on the race issue: "I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America...If I was telling a story of the black experience, it would be very different. But I’m very proud of the fact I’m not doing this guilty thing. Like you see a movie about California in 1970 and you see black and white kids going to school together. Guess what? There was no integration in California public schools until, like, 1972. It’s a shameful part of our past. Guess what? It’s real."
That's 100% his prerogative, and a very respectable approach. But it does make being a fan kind of weird. Someone fully interpreting the show knows that Don Draper and his cohorts aren't the heroes bros make them out to be, but rather sad depressed drunks that no one well-adjusted to life should want to actually be. On the other hand, they close big deals, make beautiful speeches, and do so while dressed to the fucking nines, '60s-era suits and grooming notwithstanding. It is fair to idolize the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce & Partners to a degree, and it's just too bad that none of them look like me.
I could probably give you ten of the most stylish moments of the show, if not just Don Draper's off the top right now (first is clearly the too-swagged sport coat he wore to Pete's dinner in the instant classic "Signal 30"). And while I don't begrudge the show for being true to both the times and its goal, it does serve as just one more example of most of TV's new classic leading men (and most times, by extension, the rest of the cast) being middle-aged white men.
Say someone's throwing a Mad Men-themed party, as has been done ad naseum since the show blew up in 2009. If I were to commit to said corny, tired theme, there's no one for me to really emulate to a point where someone looks at me and immediately knows which character I'm trying to emulate. But at the end of the day, so what, boo-hoo, the effects of segregation still lingered in the '60s and that's just the way it is.
Embodying the swag of Don Draper is more of an intangible state of mind, anyways, which hews closer to the character than just slicking your hair back. Don's confidence is a carefully constructed persona; he walks in the boardroom ready to hit a pitch out of the park like the "Trophies" beat is playing on an endless loop in his head; he's already humming Chris Brown's creepy hook on "Back to the Crib" within one minute of talking to his next conquest. Everyone on the show is projecting some kind of IDGAF fearlessness. That kind of assured grandstanding is the real reason he and his co-workers are hailed as the ultimate swag lords, and will continue to be even as they self-destruct for one last season.
You don't have to be white to relate, to be honest. Any time you walk out of the crib, swagger down the block and into the office like you run shit and dare someone to disagree, you're taking style cues from Don Draper.
Frazier Tharpe is a Staff Writer at Complex.
His Mad Men season ranking is 4-5-2-1-3-6.
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