New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently wrote an essay titled The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, lamenting that as the TV show Mad Men draws to a close, there are no more men like Don Draper in American culture, saying that “Tony (Soprano), Walter (White) and Don (Draper) are the last of the patriarchs.”
This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood — rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now — as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.
A.O. Scott is teetering on the brink of a red pill epiphany, and if he reads this article, it’ll either send him over the edge or make him run screaming in the other direction. The disgust he reflexively feels at seeing a grown man wearing flip flops is not the problem, but rather a symptom of a larger cultural shift. Why are so many men and women drawn to the masculinity of a character like Don Draper, while simultaneously shaming the beliefs and cultural conditions that create men like him? Why doesn’t anyone know what it means to be a grown-up anymore? Who killed adulthood?
What problem did adulthood solve?
When discussing the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan ask the question “what problem does becoming Saul solve?” The title character of Better Caul Saul is a decent man who slowly transforms into the sleazy crooked lawyer that meth dealer Walter White meets in Breaking Bad. “What problem does becoming this character solve?” is a great question, and one worth asking of other characters.
Why does Don Draper become Don Draper? What problem does becoming Don Draper solve? In fact, stepping back further, why would someone become an adult? What problem does becoming an adult solve?
Author and gender theorist Esther Vilar defines a man as someone who must work. In the past, women had the privilege of allowing their husbands to provide for them. While a woman might consider taking work, she would never assume she had to provide for her spouse. It was always him working, or both working, but never the woman as sole breadwinner.
Feminism has made us all metaphorical men. Even stable monogamous two parents families require two incomes. The modern economy caters to single women, gays, and incels. Traditional men and women who wish to create children face a hefty price to raise each child, and often cannot do so without both parents working.
In the past, becoming an adult solved the problem of family. Being an adult meant you could provide. You were a man, manhood being defined by man’s ability to care for women and children. Now, wanting to care for women makes you sexist, because you’re privileging women—or oppressing them, depending on who you asked. Becoming a patriarch was a solution to the problem of raising children. It was a division of labor. “I’ll take care of the office, baby. You stay home and watch the kids.”
Does adulthood solve any modern problem?
Now—what problem does the adulthood of Don Draper solve in modern times? I own a custom tailored suit, can mix a few good drinks, and know how to handle myself in a professional setting, but that’s never got me the job or the girl. The people I know making six figures in their twenties are tech geeks who wear hoodies and flip flops. Mark Zuckerberg is the model for young earners, not Don Draper. If you walk into a tech interview wearing any shirt with a collar, you’re out of job.
Likewise, if you want to attract a woman, model yourself after playboys like party photographer KrillWasHere or Instagram millionaire Dan Bilzerian. The model for men who want success with women is closer to clown school than traditional masculinity. I’ve seen men intentionally develop themselves as assholes and scumbags—the kind A.O. Scott might brand as misogynists—because becoming that person solved the very real problem of getting laid.
You wanna be like Don Draper? Don Draper isn’t like Don Draper. Fans of the show know that (spoilers) his name is actually Dick Whitman. He grew up in a whorehouse and assumed the identity of a fallen comrade during his military service, to take the opportunity to start a new life. Becoming Don Draper solved the very real problem of becoming a man who could have the suburban family and white picket fence. Now, it doesn’t. You want girls and money? Become a charmer, and get good with computers.
What do we become instead?
Before we degenerate to a mass of pickup artists and internet marketers (too late, I can hear some of you saying), lets look at another popular television character who A.O. Scott cites as epitomizing modern adulthood and masculinity: Walter White.
Vince Gilligan has said he created Walter White to show that anyone could become Scarface. Breaking Bad follows Walter’s journey from mild mannered middle school science teacher to meth kingpin. In the pilot episode, he is emasculated by his wife who harasses him over credit card bills and gives him a handjob with one hand while using her computer with the other. Over the course of the show, Walter transforms into a hardcore gangster and dealer, wins back the respect of his family, and becomes incredibly wealthy at great personal cost.
Walter White is not a traditional adult, like Don Draper. In fact, Walter began as a traditional adult. He held down two jobs, took care of his wife and disabled son, and spent his day serving his community by teaching children. Walter was a model citizen. Clearly, adulthood wasn’t working for him. Becoming the drug lord “Heisenberg” solved that problem. But who is Heisenberg as he is known in criminal circles?
Heisenberg, aka Walter White, is a gangster. He is ruthless. He does what it takes to get the job done and has no regard for the law, beyond not getting caught. Walter is a man of his word. He exhibits the characteristics of traditional masculinity outlined by Jack Donovan in his book The Way of Men—strength, courage, mastery, and, at times, honor. But he does not try to conform to social standards or the wishes of women. He forms a gang and begins to dominate the world outside the rules of society rather than through them.
Men will always become what they have to become in order to solve their problems. In the past, we rewarded men for becoming like Don Draper. Now, we don’t. Traditional adulthood doesn’t solve men’s problems anymore. If you want to know where adulthood is going, look at Walter White, not Don Draper.