Mad Men’s Trans Narrative


I recently finished watching the fourth season of Mad Men, and am glad to call myself All Caught Up with the rest of the AMC-watching world, which in the grand scheme of things, is not that large. I’ll add here that I’m not nearly as happy to hear that Jon Hamm refuses to wear underwear unless he’s wearing skivvies in a scene. He may be handsome, but all I can think of is the unlucky dry cleaner on the set. Regarding his character, Don Draper, audiences have known since early in the first season that his identity is a stolen one, and the narrative around this subplot only gets more complicated from there. There are spoilers from here on out, so please consider this my warning.

Don Draper writing in his journalI suppose I watched the story unfold with some amount of insight regarding a character who covers up a name change and previous life, given that I’ve done both at some point—and no, I have not served in Korea. But it wasn’t until the fourth season, in the wake of Betty’s discovery of Dick Whitman, that Don’s own feelings about his past began to take on the form of words, expressed to others and to himself. At that point it wasn’t just that I saw a few echoes from my personal transgender history, but that the progression of Don Draper in coming to terms with his past and himself was on a parallel course for a lot of folks I know who have made this particular gendered journey. I am not saying that Don Draper is trans, and I’m not saying that transfolk are Don Drapers, although some trans individuals may be—I wouldn’t rule the latter out, at any rate. But there are a number of moments that are on point, including:

The shock of having his old life brought back up—when Don’s younger brother shows up out of the blue in New York City, Don is rattled in a way we haven’t seen prior to that moment. He’s left it behind and has no space for who he was in his new life, or so it would seem, and yet he is articulate about where and who he has been. It’s not a story about fugue or another dissociation. He knows full well he couldn’t live as Dick anymore.

Having a special person who knows the whole story—Don escaped to California, where he could be his complete self, having befriended the real Don Draper’s widow. Her death in season 4 meant that he would need to walk through the world hiding himself from everyone, or start letting new people in to his history. Refreshingly enough, Don chose the latter, telling Faye and Peggy, and even giving a little bit of information to his daughter Sally. While being stealth may work for some trans people I know, it didn’t seem to be working for Don.

Hiding shame about changing his identity—Many moments pop up when the “truth” about Don threatens to break wide open, as when Pete Campbell steals Don’s package with childhood pictures, and when Betty Draper opens his desk drawer. Don responds initially by fending off the threat, but his secondary defenses break down, and he goes straight to alcohol and carousing. Some of these feelings of shame come out in his journal—the act of writing blew away most of the Mad Men blogoverse, by the way, as being too “feminine” an act for Don—and he even shows us that he realizes he has a drinking problem. He takes up swimming laps for introspection and to handle his stress level.

Meeting people who would use this information against him—Pete Campbell went direct to Cooper’s office without passing GO and collecting $200, to tell him that Draper was really Whitman, and Don did sweat it out for a while, even though he put on a brave face. Betty divorced him after trying to make a go of their dysfunctional marriage, because she  couldn’t get over his “lies.” This reminds me of the stories I’ve heard of relationships breaking up when one partner learns of the other’s past. Bad, bad Betty. But the juggernaut of all announcements comes in the form of a federal contract with the Department of Defense, which threatens to unravel not only Don’s name and identity change, but his Army desertion as well. Oh, those government agencies, not understanding name changes. I’m looking at you, TSA.

Starting to admit that being stealth is exhausting—Don really unravels to Faye and Peggy at the end of season 4, saying he is too wiped out to keep up these different lives and compensating behaviors anymore. So of course he marries a woman who gets him and who is nice to his kids. If I follow Don Draper’s story arc from an angle of transgender experiences, I see this choice as a healing one. But he could have been nicer to Faye, for sure.

Coming to terms with bringing his two lives together—He will continue to need to hide his desertion if he wants to avoid prosecution, but who knows what will happen in season 5? And certainly not every trans person wants to bring their worlds together, but in this series, Don Draper acts like he doesn’t want to keep his history silent anymore. The trend has been for him to share more with more people. He’s writing in a journal, for god’s sake.

Well, I’m okay with Don finding some femininity, if journal writing has to be feminine.

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Categories: ponderings


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  1. Ridiculous Ways Viewers Think Mad Men Will End | Trans/plant/portation - May 11, 2015

    […] of the show that have kept me watching, fascinated. I’ve posted before about how I see Dick/Don as a kind of trans narrative but there are other interesting interpretations of the show, like the limited ranges of success, […]

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