A few weeks ago, when the Mad Men episode “The Crash” aired, commentators reacted with varying degrees of bewilderment and exhaustion. The exhaustion stemmed primarily from the episode’s focus on what Tom and Lorenzo aptly call “Don Draper and his Big Bag of Fucking Bullshit”:
Show of hands: who found it shocking and revelatory that Don got his cherry popped by a blonde prostitute? Or that his stepmother abused him? There is nothing new to be found here and we found ourselves getting quite annoyed by the heavy-handedness of it all.
No, nothing about Don’s arc over the course of this season has been particularly new or subtle, but I’m a little curious as to why I haven’t heard or read anyone talking about that scene in which young Dick Whitman loses his virginity as sexual assault or abuse. After all, this was a young (14 year old?) kid having sex with a much older woman, a woman who had promised to take care of him. If you rewatch that scene, note how he pulls the covers over himself, says “stop it” and “no” before shutting his eyes with a pained look on his face as she ignores his refusals. The scene is shot with tight close-ups on his face, similar to the way in which Joan’s rape scene was shot. It’s really hard not to view this scene as a sexual trauma.
Perhaps people have simply overlooked that fact to talk about the other ways in which that plot-line was problematic, but it’s hard not to jump to the obvious conclusion that we as a culture still don’t see males–even young boys–as likely victims of sexual assault or abuse. The scene in which the prostitute reveals what happened and Dick is subsequently beaten by his step-mother contains some interesting gender connotations. “I popped that kid’s cherry,” she tells Uncle Mack. On the one hand, the use of that colloquialism–based on the penetration of the hymen–feminizes Dick while also suggesting that it was something that needed to happen. A boy’s virginity is less sacred than a girl’s, something that demands to be lost even as a girl’s demands to be preserved. Males are supposed to be sexually assertive. Note that the prostitute takes his obvious arousal as an overt invitation to sex while also reveling in the power she has to arouse him.
Likewise, Dick’s punishment at the hands of his stepmother can be read in two ways. On the one hand, she’s beating him for becoming precisely what his father was and at the same time, she is punishing him as so many female sexual assault victims are punished: for failing to prevent a horrible thing from happening to him.
All of this would seem like heavy-handed manipulation on Matt Weiner’s part, a ploy to get us to feel sorry for a character who has become progressively less likable over the years, if I didn’t think he had a broader point. On one level, there is the much-discussed implications of this scene for Don’s relationships with women. I think it’s no accident that this revelation comes in the context of his and Sylvia’s breakup after their weird little sex game in the hotel. Don desperately tries to assert his control–in a very creepy way–but ultimately, it’s Sylvia who has the power to end it when she chooses. And truthfully, that’s been the case in every relationship Don has had with a woman over the years. From Rachel Menken to Betty to Peggy to (through her decision to go back to acting) Megan, every woman he has screwed over and tried to keep under his sway has ultimately walked out the door, has revealed his illusion of control to be as ephemeral as it actually is. I find it significant that almost immediately on the heels of “The Crash,” we got an episode in which a radiant Betty comes back into Don’s life to prove that she can have him whenever she wants him and cast him aside without so much as a thought.
And while a lot of this stuff is specific to Don’s brokenness, I think it’s representative of the way many white men paradoxically felt and continue to feel in a world where women and minorities are gradually asserting their rights: institutionally and as a class, they have all the power, but on a personal level, as individuals, they feel powerless.
Now again, that misogynists are driven by deep insecurity is hardly news. Don Draper: child rape victim doesn’t make Don Draper: adult asshole any less responsible for what he does to the people around him. So if Matthew Weiner is adding anything to this Psych 101 conversation, it’s perhaps the extremity to which this sense of impotence goes. Back in Season 3, we had another similarly eye-roll inducing moment when it was revealed that Dick was named for the promise his mother never lived to see fulfilled (that she would cut Daddy Whitman’s dick off if he got her into trouble). On one level of reading, Don/Dick was named for the male member and its power to create (a child) and destroy (the life of its mother). But he is also named for it’s absence, for the very act of castration.
So, what Weiner seems to be inviting us to see in Don’s ever recursive journey back to these primal moments of rejection and trauma is that male power is both a presence and an absence, a thing that is present and can effect the world around it but is also somehow absent or under threat of being violently taken away. To borrow a line from everyone’s favorite eunuch, “Power is an illusion,” and white male middle class heterosexual power at mid-century is based on the illusion that it is inevitable, historically and biologically, and therefore invulnerable, while the events of 1968 proclaim in every possible way just how much it is not.