AMC The man topping AskMen's list of the 49 Most Influential Men of 2009 has all the qualities an iconic male personality should possess: He's compelling, distinctive, a commanding persona, and a manipulator of larger trends. So does it matter at all whether or not he actually exists?
After over 500,000 votes were cast by AskMen.com readers, "Mad Men's" Don Draper landed the No. 1 spot on the websites list of the 49 Most Influential Men of 2009, beating out Usain Bolt and Barack Obama, who came in second and third, respectively.
It may seem strange, at first, to accept the idea that a fictional character trumped an athlete who embodies our ideals of a timeless Olympian (Bolt) and a politician who personifies mankind's ongoing fight for equality (Obama), but Don Draper did just that. It's not that Don Draper, the character, is ultimately more important to the history of the 21st century than Bolt and Obama; it's that he embodies the character traits that the 21st century man wants to have and, at the same time, he is not without his flaws. He is the Everyman without being an actual man at all.
Don Draper does exist. He is the end result of the work of 11 writers, eight directors and one actor (Jon Hamm). It might take that combined effort to make Don Draper come to life but, in that sense, he is real. Built on a contradictory mix of postwar sensibilities, Don Draper symbolizes a bygone style of masculinity more than any other man in popular culture, real or fictional.
Consider the fact that any cultural figure is mostly just an image or a brand anyway -- still infinitely less real to us than the bartender or the mailman. Contemporary real-life dapper gents George Clooney and Brad Pitt both made AskMen.com list, coming in at No. 20 and No. 21 respectively, but are they any more real to us than Draper? In that sense, Don Draper could be real. There were certainly plenty of Don Drapers a generation ago. What's important is that he represents something integral and meaningful to male identity, something tied to a desire to reclaim the best aspects of a largely abandoned value system. Men have been looking for an embodiment of what they find lacking in contemporary culture, and they found it in Don Draper.
1. Draper values personal honor
Recent history has not done much to endear the business world to modern men. The professional classiness and mutual respect of the last generation is absent in the current professional climate, and that was even before recklessness and greed sent everything lurching toward financial disaster. A handshake used to mean something but, if recent insidious Wall Street behavior has opened our eyes to anything, it's that the handshake is a dead symbol, not longer representative of trust or a sincere deal.
In a recent survey conducted by AskMen.com -- The Great Male Survey -- 75% of the readers believe that moral standards in business are on the decline, resulting in a less desirable work atmosphere.
Don Draper's business culture might have its share of viciousness and intrigue, but it's also one in which identity and personal accountability is sacrosanct. He might not be as successful professionally as some of the other business men who made AskMen.com's list of the Top 49 Most Influential Men of 2009, such as Steve Jobs (No. 7), Mark Zuckerberg (No. 4), and Jack Dorsey (No. 14), but Draper represents a professional demeanor that is not only admirable to the average man -- it's attainable too.
2. Contemporary men respect chivalry
The era Don Draper lives in embraces chivalry and -- his serial infidelity aside -- Draper abides by that code of conduct too. The feminist movement really only took off in the post-Draper era, but decades later, men don't feel that chivalry and gender equality have to be opposing forces. In fact, over two-thirds of AskMen.com readers, according to the aforementioned survey, believe that a man should pay for the majority of dates he has with his significant other, even if we're getting closer and closer to closing the gap between the average man's salary and that of the average woman. And there are many more common courtesies that still resonate with the contemporary man. Opening the door for a woman, for instance, doesn't mean that there isn't a door for her to walk through in the workplace as well.
3. Men see themselves as husbands, fathers, and providers
Despite what we may once have thought about Generation X and the generations to follow, family is still an important part of men's lives, and many modern men either have or plan to have families in the future. Take Ashton Kutcher, who made the list coming in at No. 17, as an example of a real-life unlikely family man. Kutcher married Demi Moore when he was just 27 years old. Moore was 42 at the time with three children. Over four years later, they're still happily married -- something that used to be more of a novelty in Hollywood.
Well over half of AskMen.com readers believe that the ultimate sign of a man's manliness comes from his ability to provide for his family. Maybe the modern man isn't marrying at 25 and having his first child before he's 30, but he still plans on leading a family life -- just later than his father did.
For his part, Don Draper wants to be the ideal family man. At times, it seems like that's the only thing he wants, even if that possibility is always out of reach.
4. Like most men, Draper is a realistic, complex, conflicted guy
Even as a model for these past values, Don Draper still epitomizes the same struggles and conflicts contemporary men have to deal with. He's the ideal figure precisely because of his contradictions, his catalogue of talents and shortcomings. Brilliant and respected at his job, deeply career-driven and defined by his work, publicly chivalrous but certainly no saint, Draper is torn between his personal and professional lives. Don Draper is an imperfect guy with his own share of failings, but he is above all realistic, which is precisely why his is relatable. And that might be his most important characteristic.