Writing Up Old Ideas VI: Problematic Relationships to Fictional Characters
Have you ever seen Mad Men? If you haven’t, it’s about a bunch of advertising execs on Madison Avenue in the 60s, and the protagonist is a guy called Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. Don Draper is a particular kind of character that I see a lot in popular films and TV shows - he is charismatic, intelligent, and successful. I can imagine a lot of men who watch Mad Men look up to Don Draper, and want to be like him. He is also an absolutely deplorable human being; he is manipulative, deceitful and wholly narcissistic. Perhaps the show’s writers take steps to gloss over this less appealing elements of his personality, or perhaps those that would idolize him simply choose to ignore them themselves, but either way, he is a shitty role model who is still undoubtedly placed on a pedestal by young, impressionable men.
There are infinitely more examples of this - Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is probably the most well-known and obvious example, but others that spring to mind are Walter White in Breaking Bad, both Mike Ross and Harvey Specter from Suits, even Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Yes, I guarantee you, an alarming number of men are capable of finding some kind of empathy with Bateman, redeeming him somehow, and admiring him despite the fact he is a brutal serial killer.
Obviously, this is completely fucked up, and there’s a lot of ways this exposes that the men in our society need to change. But, particularly in my original example of Don Draper, I can’t help but feel that he was designed to pander to these kinds of people. I get what the show is trying to say; “this character is externally brilliant but internally repugnant”, but I think the latter point is more subtle, and easier to be missed, especially by the kind of men who are not capable of much subtlety. I think a lot of those kinds of men are Mad Men’s target audience, and a lot of who the show appeals to are liable to romanticize Draper’s life and personality. I’m torn as to whether I think the show ought to be written differently, to hit home even harder that Draper is a villain, so as to hopefully encourage its viewers to act like him, or whether the show should be allowed to keep its nuance, as is its wont, and the rest of society needs to do a better job of villifying these ideas in the mind’s of young men.
Incidentally, I think this also shows that we need to make big-budget film & TV with more diverse characters, and fewer male protagonists. Or at least, I need to work harder to find and watch them.