Donald Draper’s Moral Code


Donald Draper’s Moral Code – Secret Identity Group

What is a “mad man?” While the word “mad” does not have a positive connotation, many people in this world strive to become a mad man.

Urban dictionary defines “mad manning up” as:

“Abandoning the overly sensitive, healthy, monogamous traits that have become so prevalent among the modern man, and instead, embracing the booze drinking, steak eating, secretary pinching behaviors of the swinging 1960’s man.”


This doesn’t sound like a man who has morals or who should receive respect yet Don Draper of the award nominated hit TV drama “Mad Men” does just that.

Living multiple secretive lives, Don Draper, a top creative director of a successful ad agency in the 1960s, has enabled himself to become a well respected man in the office as well as at home.  Most of the characters in the show know little, if anything, of Draper’s history but through flashbacks, behaviors, and confessions throughout the season, his secret lives begin to unfold. Although immoral and corrupt, the motives behind his behaviors are understood and accepted, allowing him to maintain his morals.

The first of Draper’s secret lives is his early years. He was born to a low income class family as “Richard Whitman.” His mother was a prostitute and died giving birth to him, leaving him to be raised by his father and step-mother who gave birth to his half brother, Adam. Living in an emotionally abusive household, Don wanted more for himself and obtained a new life when he stole a murdered comrades’ identity during the Korean war. Such identity theft is immoral to himself, his family, and his friends yet the viewer understands the reasoning behind it. He was determined to make a better existence and ditch the previous life of an unhappy car salesperson descended from a family he felt no connection to. One’s goal in life is to achieve success and Draper has made this happen. He became one of the most respected ad men of his time. As an audience we gained respect for Don by seeing the hardships he endured in order to get where he is today, even if that means going against the system, which many people do.

It’s easy to see that Don’s secret identity is more of an internal problem than an external one. When an account executive, Pete Campbell, discovers Don’s true identity he tries to blackmail him by taking it to the senior boss. Don fears that he will lose everything and decides to confront their boss personally. When the boss admits that he doesn’t care about Don’s identity, we understand that Don is where he is today because of his talent. When it comes to profession, one’s morals are achieved by being good at what one does and the audience admires that.

Draper goes against the system in another, less admirable secret identity: infidelity. While infidelity is a common theme among the males in Sterling Cooper and the degradation of women is outspoken between the employees, Draper’s cheating ways are hidden from the world completely. Draper repeatedly cheats on his wife Betty throughout the seasons until it finally (SPOILER ALERT!) leads her to ask for a divorce in the third season (END SPOILER ALERT). A cheater is dishonest and not easily respected, yet the audience continues to root for Draper because it is understood that his infidelity is his way of dealing with internal conflict. Once again, the viewer knows what it’s like to make mistakes and behave badly because of unhappiness or in order to fill a void and Draper is showing that it even happens to the most “put together” people.

Seeing faults in others is reassuring for audiences. Shows in the media often fail because they try to make characters seem like heroes. Don Draper is by no means a hero and this is what we respect. He might behave in dishonorable ways but at least he has morals. Although cheating on one’s wife is morally wrong, Draper continues to support and care for her and their children. In one scene, Betty speaks to her lawyer and asks if she could file for divorce after finding about Don’s infidelity. Her lawyer asks “Are you afraid of him? Is he a good provider?” When she answers no to the prior and yes to the latter, he suggests that she stay with him. The role of man was different in the 1960s which adds to our acceptance of Draper’s immoral behavior. 4:30 – 6:40 min

Don’s immoral behavior is a way of making the viewer feel better about themselves. In season 1, episode 8 (The Hobo Code) Don is called into Bertram Cooper, the senior partner’s office. After being given a $2,500 bonus, Cooper says to him:

“I know what kind you are. Because I believe we are alike. You are a productive and reasonable man and in the end completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different; Unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.”

For one moment the audience realizes how “mad” Don is. We want to hate him and see him as a villain but we cannot. We sympathize with him and we want to see him escape from these secret identities which are haunting him every day of his life. He is a tragic hero and is unable to experience true happiness. The closest he gets is by temporarily filling his emotional void by sleeping with multiple women and we want to give him that. He dreads looking into his past and while he tries to move forward and forget, it catches up to him which ends up hurting the people around him.

Interesting discussion: Jon Hamm on Don Draper (Paley Center)

Plus, Sesame Street’s take on a Mad Man – (weirrrrrrrrd)


One Response to “Donald Draper’s Moral Code”

  1. kbwebster Says:

    great dissection of the beloved mr. draper!
    i completely agree that audiences, as you suggest, are reassured by seeing faults in people portrayed on tv. we like don because, despite likely disagreeing with his morals, he sticks to them. i can’t help but wonder how the sort of “theme,” i guess, of exposing don’s mad nature, appeals to a particularly american audience…in another class, i’ve been reading about globalization/americanization and the self-serving nature of this process (and how altruism is looked down upon as a result of an ideology where self-interest is valued). our (the audience’s) love for don draper could be viewed as showing us how ingrained we are in this kind of ideology, but the unravelling of it also shows that it has to change.

    also…that sesame street clip is NUTS. i think it’s pretty funny/cool how much kids shows target their parents, or at least give them a nod. from what i’ve seen, yo gabba gabba is as much a parent favorite as it is for tots.

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