Mad modern men, only make-believe

The modern American man may be in crisis, at loss for an identity.

He seems to be resentful of the emergence of his feminine side and, while ashamed of his repressed baseness, fearful that the culture has rendered him less a manly man than his father or grandfather.

You’re thinking maybe I should speak for myself. But I’m talking about this recent poll to rank our 49 most influential men. It’s conducted each year by askmen.com, which is said to be, next to espn.com, the most popular Web site for men in America.

Barack Obama predictably won the poll last year, but he came in third this time. He got beat first by Usain Bolt, the tall Jamaican who runs far faster for short distances than any other person ever has before. Why simple foot speed over an inconsequential distance would be considered more than breathtakingly remarkable, but influential, is, while a splendid question, not germane to the point.

The point is that our most influential man, according to the millions who cast open-ended ballots in this online survey, doesn’t exist. He is fictional, a creation of television scriptwriters. He lived in fantasy in 1963.

He is, in fact, an exponentially fictional character, make-believe piled atop more make-believe. The identity by which he exists in his fictional world is itself uncertain, mysterious, a fraud.

This would be a man calling himself Don Draper, a dapper, good-looking, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, woman-bedding and professionally brilliant creative director of a thriving Manhattan advertising agency at a time that just seems to be begging for something awful and transformative to happen, as, with JFK’s assassination, we know it soon will.

He’s a family man who provides well and responsibly and authoritatively. He’s a traveling man who relents stoically and lets the flight attendant, or stewardess as she was known then, have her silly way with him. He’s an idea man, respected and a natural in his job, who knows instantly what will and won’t sell amid the whim of the popular culture.

He’s a man of the world who makes a fine drink for a talkative stranger at a bar who turns out to be Conrad Hilton. But he doesn’t want an employment contract because then he is owned, bound, foiled in his essentially impenetrable solitude by formal association. He’s sensitive and cold. He’s good and bad. Through it all, there are things in his background, even his present, that he desperately conceals.

I refer to “Mad Men,” a critically acclaimed and widely unseen television drama on one of those cable channels, AMC.

Don Draper’s victory in this survey suggests many things, one of which is the possibility that a merry band of pranksters voted for him over and over in the hope that some fool newspaper columnist would take the selection entirely too seriously and draw far too many conclusions from it.

But there’s nothing at all new or odd about the influence of fictional characters. We’ve always been more thoroughly revealed in fiction than nonfiction.

The cult-like following for this quirky period piece and the fixation on this main character — they suggest at least our fascination with, and perhaps in some respects our repressed longing for, certain elements of the way things were.

Maybe modern men want to be less as they are and more like Don Draper. Or maybe they know that, in the secrets they keep deep within, they are already.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about and want to find out, “Mad Men” is telecast on AMC on Sundays at 7 p.m. in Nevada. Only three fresh episodes remain this season, but previous seasons are available on DVD.

It might be the best television show ever, although Sheriff Andy Taylor was a quirkily iconic man’s man himself. Barney, too.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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