Last spring, after seven seasons of women, work, two wives, and a lot of whiskey, Don Draper reached the end of his journey to define himself. And 3.3 million Americans settled in to watch how it would end.
The broad appeal of Mad Men was surprising, given that the show’s protagonist—an affluent, straight, white male working on 1960s Madison Avenue—epitomized everything that social media pundits critiqued in 2015. From Oscar speeches to countless thinkpieces, from Jane the Virgin to Orange Is the New Black, the entertainment buzzword was diversity. The discussion about an industry still dominated by straight, white, male creators and characters often got heated, paralleling tensions over race and gender in American culture. Comedy-sketch shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele satirized debates, suggesting pundits and politicians were missing the point, while the rest of us posted the clips online en masse.
Yet if we are trying to read pop culture circa 2015, Don Draper is actually a near-perfect decoder ring. His story embodies two current and contradictory obsessions: one, we celebrate each person and suggest all people have equal value; two, we elevate geniuses—individuals who possess abilities that far exceed what any of us can imagine—to godlike status. In 2015, we championed diversity while also worshiping super-competent protagonists, from superheroes to cops with uncanny powers to people who are simply extremely good at what they do.
But a few popular releases portray a healthier view of both diversity and genius, with Don Draper as our guide.
Finding the 'Authentic Self'
Born Dick Whitman, Don was raised in a whorehouse, a secret that profoundly shapes his life trajectory. He tried to shed his shameful identity following the Korean War, when he swapped dog tags with a dead foxhole companion. Mad Men slowly doled out the backstory, revealing exactly how Don became an award-winning creative director at a scrappy advertising agency—a business built on constructing an image in order to sell something to the public. Not surprisingly, Don was the best in the business.
All along, Mad Men was a show about not just characters but a whole country becoming self-aware: a nation made up of many unique individuals, all of whom wanted the freedom to be themselves. In the 1960s, the things that defined most people’s lives—race, class, gender, sexual orientation—went from being inescapable borders to hotly contested markers of social recognition. The key was to figure out who you were, be proud of it, then fight for others to accept you as equal.
Back in Don’s day, the idea of a television show about a black hip-hop mogul with a gay son (Empire, the most highly rated drama on TV today) or a young, pregnant Latina virgin (the CW’s Jane the Virgin) was inconceivable. Fresh Off the Boat is the first primetime show in more than 20 years to center on an Asian American family. And Blackish, about a suburban African American family, is one of the most-watched shows on television, alongside Modern Family, which includes a gay couple, and the female-led shows The Good Wife, Scandal, and Madam Secretary.
Nearly every critic agreed that the entertainment world has a long way to go before it will be “diverse.” But such an array would startle any time-traveling Mad Men character. And the viewership statistics indicate that people enjoy watching people on screen who are like themselves. We are pleased when our on-screen avatars are viewed and beloved by others. We feel validated by proxy.
The cultural importance of finding your “authentic self,” having others validate it, and fully living into it arguably started in Don Draper’s day and is now reaching its peak. Critic Wesley Morris, writing in The New York Times, called 2015 “the year we were obsessed with identity” and said we were a nation “in the midst of a great cultural identity migration.” Today, our culture talks about “identifying” with our race, gender, or sexual orientation. In church circles, Christians talk about “identifying” as evangelical or feminist or politically conservative. We assume that our process of self-identification begins at birth and continues over the course of our lives.
We usually talk about this pursuit as a process of finding our authentic selves—the “real” selves we were born into. We take tests to determine our authentic personality type, vocational strengths, and even spiritual gifts. Disney movies and Pinterest boards proclaim that we should never allow someone else to tell us who to be. “And above all: To thine own self be true,” Polonius’s exhortation in Hamlet, is both a favorite tattoo and the de facto motto of the 21st century. (We forget that Polonius is a blowhard.)
The Netflix comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidtwas all about the challenges of defining the self. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is freed from an underground bunker after 15 years of captivity. She decides not to return to her hometown in Indiana with her fellow “mole women.” Instead she starts over in New York City. Her new roommate, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), is a former prom king who left his conventional hometown, came out, and is now a struggling actor. Kimmy gets a job working for socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), who, it turns out, is hiding a secret, too: she is actually Native American but is posing as white. Even Jacqueline’s bratty teenage stepdaughter, Xanthippe, has something to hide from her popular friends: she’s an overachiever. All the characters struggle to let their “real” selves emerge, or sometimes to hide that real self so as to fit into their chosen niche.
Certainly Christians believe that God sees and knows each person and that our specific gifts and abilities can find their place in the body of Christ. Christians also believe in respect for all people, since we are made in God’s image and imbued with dignity. But we commonly assume, alongside mainstream culture, that the process of knowing our true selves is an individual one, something we necessarily undertake on our own.
In reality, though, we don’t first find ourselves, then participate in relationships. Instead, we were made to know our true selves in relationships. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor puts it this way: “No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us.”
Don Draper might have found peace with his true identity (though the show’s final sequence suggests he turns it back around as marketing material). But his breakthrough happens in a therapy session, when a stranger across the room unwittingly voices Don’s darkest anxieties:
I had a dream I was on a shelf on the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they’re happy to see you, but maybe they don’t look right at you. Maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.
This stranger has just voiced Don’s greatest fear—that everyone around him will experience a full life while he grows lonelier and more alone. Then Don crosses the room, his normally detached demeanor undone. He envelops the man in a hug, tears streaming down his cheeks. Soon afterward he calls Peggy, his confessor and closest friend, in tears. His personal moment of peace comes after their conversation. Even Don Draper can’t find himself without reaching out to those who matter to him.
Even Geniuses Need Friends
Last year, movies and television shows asked another question, one they have been asking for a long time but now ask with greater force. As several critics noted in 2015, our obsession with “genius” is greater now than ever before. Nearly every TV show about crime fighting, for instance, needs some gimmick to make it into a production, whether the fighters are superheroes, serial killers, or detectives.
So we have to wonder: What if your authentic self isn’t just different from everyone else but also better than everyone else? Do geniuses—people with uncanny talents we normal people can barely imagine—need others in order to understand themselves?
For a while now, the answer has been no. Flick on the TV or saunter down to the multiplex, and you’ll encounter a genius getting special treatment even when he or she behaves badly. There’s The Blacklist’s Red Reddington, an unbeatable criminal mastermind with a heart of gold. Or Olivia Pope, the crack political operative of Scandal. Procedurals serve up mind-reading cops and can’t-lose undercover agents. Marvel gives us characters with special powers that render them invincible, or at least more powerful than mortals. At the movies this fall, we got another portrayal of Steve Jobs, the founder and longtime CEO of Apple, whose gifts led to both immense profit and personal isolation.
The way we portray geniuses is aggressively individualistic: they stand alone, as hyped-up versions of what we all want to achieve. Geniuses own their unique identities, never apologizing for how they’re different. They don’t care if anyone validates them; the results speak for themselves. From these mythic portrayals of geniuses, we often absorb the idea that becoming our best selves means breaking away from others. To be a truly realized individual, we must march to the radically different beat of our own drum.
Draper, like a number of other TV antiheroes (Walter White of Breaking Bad, Frank Underwood of House of Cards), is a classic genius. He’s the skeleton key his advertising firm uses to unlock big clients and big bucks. No matter how foul his attitude or how drunk he is, Don is untouchable. Even when his life is in shambles, at work he’s on top.
But as the show explored Don’s personal side, that genius construction got dismantled until it lay in shards. Don’s relationships with his family, friends, colleagues, and romantic interests slowly peeled away. Mad Men explores, but also eventually repudiates, the myth of the lone genius. By the finale, nobody is alone. Even geniuses need others in order to live well.
Other stories of 2015 (mind-reading cops notwithstanding) began to challenge the lone genius trope. For instance, The Martian features a brilliant protagonist who’s literally the only person on the planet. But as the story goes on, we realize that it’s actually a movie about how people achieve great things only by working in concert. Lone genius is limited and sometimes pointless.
Genius also isn’t morally neutral. Last spring, critics were abuzz about The Jinx, an HBO miniseries that asked whether, how, and why eccentric real-estate heir Robert Durst murdered his first wife and at least two other people. If he had done it—and gotten away with it—then that would make him a genius, wouldn’t it? Serial killers push the limits of our appreciation of genius, partly because they are inherently those who have disconnected themselves from those around them, willing to define themselves based only on their own rules. They are radically true to themselves. Evil geniuses are the nadir of the lone genius.
By contrast, it seems, we are coming to terms with the idea that true genius requires humility, principles, hard work, and, above all, other people to keep us on the right path. One great example came in the Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks plays attorney James Donovan. He’s not a superstar attorney. His specialty is corporate law, and his only superpower seems to be decent negotiation skills. But as the film develops, he becomes, if anything, a more virtuous man, dedicated to saving others and willing to forgo praise as long as he does right by a friend.
Pop culture seems to be bumping up against the trouble with lone geniuses: unhooked from those who matter, we fall prey to self-defined moral horizons. Who’s to say that my “authentic self” isn’t mean, abusive, even deadly? If identity really is formed by interactions with those around me, then I need relationships to develop morally and personally. Even Steve Jobs gets there, with Jobs’s late realization that he might have been doing good business, but was going about the business of living all wrong.
All of this dovetails with a bedrock Christian truth: God designed church to be the place where our most important identity formation occurs, among other people. We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there. But too often we think we must have our spiritual house in order before we can fully participate. Or, by contrast, we see the church as a place of performance, instead of a place where we are developed into more fully authentic—that is, more Christlike—humans.
Further, our Christian subculture is marked by church hopping. We stay put as long as it suits us, until we are offended or decide we’re not being “fed.” So, wanting to quietly validate our own identities, we tend to silo ourselves into churches where everyone looks like us, talks like us, likes the same movies, and won’t embarrass us in public. But what if we took a cue from popular culture’s push for diversity and realized that surrounding ourselves with our duplicates only makes us more self-centered?
The repudiation of the lone genius is a special challenge to evangelicals, whose culture is marked by the faulty assumptions inherent in the worship of the lone genius. In church, this takes the form of celebrity pastor worship, which can lead to inflated egos or, worse, abusive or egomaniacal leaders. It should also lead us to greater humility about our culture-making endeavors within the church. For instance, we might seek greater input from those around us before we embark on a life change, or we might choose to remain in a difficult church situation in order to be forged in its fires. We might seek out criticism instead of brushing it away. We might develop a love for those who challenge us both within the church and outside it, understanding that we are placed in this culture, at this time, to be the body of Christ for our world.
Don Draper had to get to the end of his rope in order to find some kind of satisfaction and be willing to pass it on to others. Pop culture is following his path, turning away from an individualistic take on authenticity toward real relationships and humble brilliance. Do we dare to learn from the inadvertent prophets? Can we do the same?
Alissa Wilkinson is CT’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College. She is the co-author of the forthcoming book How to Survive the Apocalypse (Eerdmans).
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