Writing at Slate XX, Jessica Grose argues that the ideal of the American male has remained basically unchanged since the ’50s. It was Mad Men’s Don Draper then, and it’s still Don Draper now.
Here’s the catch, though: we don’t love Don Draper because he’s cut from some midcentury mold of masculinity. On the contrary, we love the ways he varies from and complicates that archetype. He’s mysterious. He’s unreliable, unpredictable, and unsatisfied. If Draper were a Platonic shadow on the wall of a suburban three-bedroom, he wouldn’t be anchoring a successful TV drama. He’d be fucking boring.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find the anti-Draper, the “omega male,” exemplified in comedies starring Ben Stiller’s “frat pack” and Judd Apatow’s sad sacks. Grose slags off the man-children of cinema for their general lack of employment and their inability to function in relationships, but her biggest gripe appears to be that they’re not even trying to succeed in these arenas of responsibility. Her central problem with these omega males isn’t their “inability to live up to the demands of the world,” it’s the ease with which they disengage from those demands.
“[T]he omega male has either opted out or, if he used to try, given up,” Grose writes. That lack of effort tips you off that the guys she’s talking about aren’t at all conflicted. They’re aggressively, proudly apathetic toward any form of responsibility, which leaves them without any discernible tension or motivation. That makes omega males every bit as boring as the generic ’50s breadwinner who mutated into Don Draper. We wouldn’t watch movies about these guys if Hollywood writers didn’t force them to meet responsibility head on, with improbably hilarious and sympathetic results.
Back in the world of nonfiction, though, the boring man does exist. Whether he’s an “omega male” with no job or romantic prospects or an alpha frat-bro with a high-paying job and a stale suburban existence, it’s difficult to accept him as our masculine ideal. If there’s a “perfect man,” he’s not someone who’s just going through the motions, any more than he’s someone who refuses to go through them. Grose didn’t pick the wrong target — I agree that there’s something worrisome about the type of guy she’s identified here — but she missed the mark on the reason omega males rub us the wrong way. Blame it on the stultifying lack of passion common to nearly every species in the Field Guide to Undesirable Men.
Don Draper may be a quintessential specimen of masculinity, but not for 1950s reasons. The one-size-fits-all definition of the ideal American man has been stretched, twisted and washed in the wrong detergent. It’s not dead, it’s just become a little bit more complicated. What we demand in 2010 is a complex man. Employable, responsible, sure, but complex. And, above all, never boring.