Examining Mad Men’s Don Draper: TV’s Most Successful Sex Addict

Note: For anyone who hasn’t watched previous seasons of Mad Men, but plans to, this article will contain spoilers.

Matthew Weiner, creator of the AMC television series Mad Men, has a lot to boast about. His enormously successful show Mad Men is preparing for its 6th season, and the series is top-rated not only for its dramatic storyline, but for its writing, casting, and costuming. It centers on the talents of mid-century Manhattan advertising executives and their secretaries, wives, and lovers. (It is the early 1960s, after all, and the Civil Rights era is only just beginning.) The show’s star, Don Draper, is wonderfully portrayed by actor Jon Hamm, and it’s the writing behind his character that is so interesting – not just from an entertainment point of view, but from a psychological perspective.

For most of the series, Don Draper is a fiercely ambitious ad man who rises from top creative to a partner in the agency. For the first several seasons he’s married to Betty, played by actress January Jones, who portrays the perfect wife and mother of the time – beautiful, passive, child-like. But Don has a secret. He isn’t the man he claims to be.

Character development, particularly in the case of the leading characters, was clearly important to Matthew Weiner and the writers of Mad Men, and Don’s story is especially well-conceived. He was the child of a prostitute who died in childbirth and a cruel, dishonest man. A strict woman who’d rather not have had the job raised him. Don enters the army to escape them, and when an explosion kills his officer – the only other man on duty with him – he switches dog tags and takes on the man’s identity.

Don’s childhood trauma and sense of abandonment, not to mention his obvious mother issues, make for a character who is living with a secret past and who turns to seduction and sex whenever he is hurt, or simply when things are not going his way. He repeatedly and impulsively cheats on his wife, and as many partners do, she uses denial to pretend it isn’t happening.

Conflict Makes for Good Plot, But Poor Living

Don Draper’s impulsive sexual escapades make for an interesting plotline: will he be caught? Will he cheat with someone who chooses to scandalize him openly? Will his wife leave him? But interesting plotlines in fictional stories rarely make for functional storylines in the lives of real people. Even Don Draper suffers from his impulsive behaviors. When Betty confronts Don over his cheating and kicks him out, he mourns the loss of the only real thing in his life-the family he’s created with Betty and the children. In later seasons, Don will struggle over his sexual impulsivity, not wanting to lose the love of his life, Megan.

A Relationship is Not a Panacea

Megan, Don’s second wife, presents an interesting element to the situation of sexual addiction. Although the writers would have us believe that Don’s great love for her has him on a new road-his past infidelities behind him – this is hardly the case in actual instances of sexual addiction. Although we too may be tricked into believing that a new and more purely honest relationship can change us, the root of sexual addiction-attachment trauma, such as Don Draper’s lack of connection to a maternal or empathetic paternal figure-is the more pertinent issue. Although secure attachments in the form of adult relationships can go a long way in helping us to heal old behaviors of hypersexuality, what happens when inevitable relationship conflicts arise? Even the best relationships have them. Nothing short of working through our original traumas or attachment disorders and consciously attending to our patterns will heal our problem of sexual addiction in the long term. Relying on a relationship to do it is unfair to the person we love.

Fictional characters are portraits of archetypal ones, and in the instance of Don Draper, there’s a ghost of him in all of us-male or female-who possesses the capacity for sexual addiction. We have hidden and lied, kept a secret self from our closest friends, colleagues, and lovers, and even from ourselves. We’ve turned to seduction and sex when we were hurt or anxious or bored, almost the way a child would turn to its mother for soothing for the very same reasons. We refused to look at how hurtful our behaviors were, and when we did look, we either denied the guilt we felt, or were so capsized by it that we could only drown ourselves in more acting-out behaviors in order to rid ourselves of the anxiety it caused. But it isn’t 1961 anymore. While it’s an altogether more liberated time, and no one has to feel ashamed for safe, consenting, sexual choices, there is help available for those of us who come to realize that our sexual choices have been mostly unconscious and largely damaging-to others and to ourselves.

There is still hope.

Our licensed addiction experts can help. Call us today for a confidential assessment.


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