The Age of Relational Insecurity
AMC’s most popular and stylish drama, Mad Men, is approaching its final episodes, and throughout the course of the series viewers have observed suave playboy, Don Draper, reliably destroy relationships with his prolific and alluring love interests. Underneath the façade of mid-century perfection, Mad Men reveals the demise of modern relationship constructs that are only more prevalent today.
The trademark of Don Draper’s catastrophic love life is individual freedom, a cherished principal of nearly every modern American relationship. Ever since the turn of the 14th century, the philosophy of democracy has popularized the idea that humans should be liberated from social scripts about whom to marry. Individuals allowed themselves to desire – or not desire – whomever they chose. Conversely, individuals were forced to accept that others could desire – or not desire – them. Thus introduced the age of relational insecurity.
“My value was once ensured by submitting myself to the traditional authorities. Now it is quoted in the stock exchange,” says French philosopher Yann Dall’Aglio in his February 2014 TED talk entitled “Love – You’re Doing It Wrong”. Dall’Aglio speaks of the anxiety of contemporary humankind to negotiate one’s personal value by constantly asking one another, “Am I desirable? How desirable?”
"Am I Desirable?"
In Don Draper’s career as a marketing director on Madison Avenue, he is tasked to explore how to make products appealing to the American consumer. And yet, behind the handsome suits and pocket squares stands a man who is anxiously attempting to determine his own desirability and worth.
Confident as he may appear in the boardroom, Don Draper is compensating for the insecurities of his childhood through his narcissism. Raised in a brothel and a survivor of abuse, Don Draper doesn’t have what psychologists refer to as ‘ego strength’: a secure sense of one’s own identity. To soothe his anxiety and confirm his self worth, Don Draper collects symbols of desirability: an admirable career, a polished image, and sexual partners who belong on the cover of Vogue.
“Bringing in business is the key to your salary, your status, and your self-worth,” said Don Draper in the first season (Season 1, Episode 13: The Wheel). Similarly, Draper’s romances throughout Mad Men’s six seasons have uncovered his subconscious belief that “bringing in a perfect woman is key to your status and your self-worth.” Draper has bought the lie that many modern individuals have also accepted: that relationships satisfy the quest for confirmation of desirability.
This lie is exposed when one simply observes the characters of Mad Men. If self worth could be determined by possessing perfection, the relationships of Madison Avenue would be confident and satisfied. And yet, one doesn’t even have to watch past Mad Men’s troubling title sequence to notice that the poised characters of Mad Men come tumbling down.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
Couples may attest to the continued temptation to seek validation of their desirability both inside and outside of their marriage, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree than Don Draper. And yet, how else are humans to determine whether they are worthy of love in this age of relational insecurity?
Perhaps Mad Men’s viewers can avoid Don Draper’s relational pitfalls by boldly confronting a primary cause of relational insecurity: the erroneous assumption that one’s value is determined by the judgment of others. Yann Dall’Anglio notes that if a human’s value only comes from someone else valuing them, humans have no inherent value. In other words, if humans all assign value to other humans but not themselves, humanity ultimately has no value on which to judge. In the era of relational insecurity, societies have become one another’s false idols.
When individuals allow social or relational perceptions to determine their own self worth, the question of “Am I desirable?” fuels a life driven by performance and perfectionism, and in the case of Don Draper, dissatisfaction. The attempt to receive endless validation in relationships fosters a neediness that wears down intimacy. The search for endless validation from peers is equally tiresome: when individuals become dependent on the emotional high of accepting validation of their worth from others, they may find themselves overly invested in feedback on social media, overworked in their careers, and with over-extended bank accounts from trying to maintain a impressive appearance.
Getting Off the Carousel
Rather than anxiously trying to keep up with the Joneses, consider an alternative: refusing to promote the belief that self-worth is a finite, competitive and manufactured product and instead accepting worthiness as a God-given characteristic of all humans. Believing this, perhaps individuals could vulnerably and safely accept their own shortcomings and challenges and graciously extend compassion to one another in committed relationships.
At the finale of Mad Men, what will happen if Draper releases the fear that his painful past and mistakes will be exposed? Embracing the belief that relationships consist of broken individuals worthy of love may be far-fetched for Don Draper, but perhaps there’s more hope for the viewers.
Weiner, Matthew M (Director). (2007-2015). Mad Men. New York, NY: AMC Networks.
Love — you're doing it wrong [Motion picture]. (2012). France: TED