Don Draper’s Class-Traveling Adventures And My Own
Now that “Mad Men” is over and we can dissect the show as thoroughly as an overachieving student would pick apart a poem in an AP English class, it’s time to revisit Don Draper’s role as poster child for class travelers everywhere.
If you are a regular Billfold reader, you may remember JoAnn Anderson’s excellent piece describing all the ways in which Don Draper struggles with his place in the American class hierarchy. For the uninitiated, “class traveler” describes a person who was born in one social class but who ends up in another. The rise of Don’s character is stratospheric: he leaps from a whorehouse and an outhouse to mistresses and Madison Avenue.
Of course, Draper’s rise is exaggerated for dramatic purposes. In most cases, people move up and down the class ladder a rung at a time. My own “class trip” involved lingering stops at multiple rungs. I was born to an upper-middle-class family that suddenly lost its small business due to the cruelties of market forces. When I was eleven, my parents declared bankruptcy and moved us to a rental in another city, where they could start from scratch.
At first, my parents worked odd jobs and cobbled together just enough to get by. Eventually, they rebuilt their finances. Even though they never owned a business again, they rebuilt their savings and found their financial footing. We were privileged because the bankruptcy couldn’t take away their education; but the change from high to low was sudden and painful for all of us. Whenever we get together for the holidays and reminisce, we usually skip over talking about that time.
As a real-life class traveler, I identify with Don Draper’s character. Today, I look like I fit in one class, a yuppie, to be precise. But, deep down, I don’t fit in among the uppers, middles or lows. I’ve always been on the outside looking in. I was always playing catch-up, trying to figure out the class that circumstances plopped me into at that moment. I have trouble “reading” social signals because they are different in every class. I have a tendency to believe that money solves all problems.* In some situations, most often at work, I find myself working hard to present an image of myself that doesn’t match who I really am. Sometimes, I’m not even sure who I really am. It depends on the social class I’m in at the time.
I should be writing about how Draper is my spiritual touchstone, or at least saying that he is the most authentic example of a class traveler to grace modern television. But my identification with the character stops after a certain point. In fact, I gave up on “Mad Men” after season four.
Why? Because the fictional Don Draper, unlike the real-life class travelers of my family, never seemed to appreciate the advantages of his class journey. Here’s the truth about class travelers that “Mad Men” never reveals: after a person goes from low to high or middle to low and back again, a class traveler gets to see the world with fresh eyes, beyond all the assumptions that people of all classes carry. Being a class traveler is hard, but it has its advantages. I accept my past and try to use it as a way to understand others. Don Draper has always treated his class history as a source of shame.
Since I’m part of a small family of class travelers, I can say that instead of being ashamed of his past poverty, as Don Draper seems to be much of the time, he could have learned something from the experience. Yet Don Draper can’t go near those scary feelings. Even when big ad boss Bert Cooper essentially declares “IDGAF!” to Pete Campbell’s revelation that Don is not who he says he is, Don still acts like a man with something to hide. He can’t see the absurdity of his situation, and nor does he seem to realize that he’s in advertising, in which the whole point is to be something you’re not.
Maybe that’s why “Mad Men” started to annoy me after a while. Instead of accepting his past or treating it as a strength, Don just kept running. He made pit stops in the past, but he never once paused to realize how good he had it. He had moved up, but congratulating himself for that considerable accomplishment would have been an admission that he didn’t emerge from the womb as Don Draper. Any time his perception of himself as the greatest ad man alive was threatened, he ran to a new state, a new woman or a new bottle of liquor.
I’m not saying that having to change social class is more fun than travel, sex, or liquor, or that it should be celebrated. Going from having money to being broke sucks. Just ask my family.
Everyone could benefit from being more honest about the role social class plays our lives. The long, strange trip of class travel itself can be a privilege. It is nothing to be ashamed of, yet Draper always seemed to be laboring under some burden that only he cared about. Even worse, the character behaved as if he were the only person in the world who ever moved up or down. Don could have taken some lessons from his working-class colleague Peggy Olson. She faced a steady stream of obstacles and indignities, but she never backed down as she crashed the boys’ party and also the corporate class. She faced down her class history, and it made her stronger.
When I heard that Don cracked a smile at the end of “Mad Men,” I watched the montage and said it’s about damn time. Maybe, as he was meditating, he finally let himself in on the cosmic joke that is social class in America. After all that time insisting that he wasn’t an outsider, he finally realized that his outsider position gave him power in the first place.
*In fact, money solves 90% of problems. Anyone who says otherwise has not spent a second in a lower class.
P.J. Morse is a cubicle jockey by day and a mystery author by night. She writes the Clancy Parker mysteries, whose heroine is a downwardly mobile guitarist for an indie band. She will eventually take Ester’s advice and watch the rest of “Mad Men.”