Home / General / Was the Sexual Harassment Portrayed On <i>Mad Men</i> Unrealistically Crude or Implausible? (SPOILER: No.)

Was the Sexual Harassment Portrayed On Mad Men Unrealistically Crude or Implausible? (SPOILER: No.)


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Hanna Rosin objects to the sexual harassment depicted on last night’s Mad Men as unrealistically crude:

My one problem with the development is that it depended on such obvious villainy. Typically on Mad Men the demons are internal, or historical, or temporarily conjured. But this episode depended on some pretty crudely-drawn enemies. The bros at McCann were like guys you usually encounter only on workplace training videos about sexual harassment.

I’m not sure who the “you” Rosin is referring to here is. Apparently, it’s not workers at the New York State Assembly:

Women were forced to massage [Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s] body, pressured to spend the night with him in hotel rooms, instructed to wear skimpy skirts and high heels and subjected to “forced intimate contact” as Lopez repeatedly rubbed their thighs, even as they tried to swat him away, they told investigators.

One woman was made to feel the tumors on his neck, shoulder and armpit as Lopez, who has cancer, told her he was dying and “needed” her. Another contracted pinkeye after being made to put drops into his affected eye.

Or a vice president of Madison Square Garden:

I had been experiencing inappropriate language, been referred to as a bitch, a ho, a m—– f—–, and was regularly bringing such issues to my management’s attention. And for two years I was not getting these issues addressed. If anything, it was getting worse. It started out as a lot of verbal abuse, and then it slipped into this, “I’m in love with you.” It was clear to me that [Isiah Thomas] was trying to make me very uncomfortable. I do think that he probably was used to getting what he wanted—meaning women falling all over him. The fact that this senior-level female executive was not doing that was totally an issue for him. And he felt like he needed to conquer me. And if he wasn’t going to conquer me, he was going to destroy me.

Or a woman working as a sales rep for Novartis:

“This jury learned that Novartis is not somewhere you would want your wife, your mother, your sister or your daughter to work,” said Kate Kimpel. “Novartis expected its female employees to do more than just go out and market its drugs — Novartis has a corporate culture that expects female representatives to be available and amenable to sexual advances from the doctors they call on. Time and time again, Novartis looked the other way when female representatives complained about inappropriate doctors. And then, to add insult to injury, Novartis paid those same women less, wouldn’t promote them into management, and punished them if they got pregnant. Novartis refused to treat its female employees as the competent and hard-working professionals that they were and are.”

On the first day of the trial in the defense’s opening statement, Novartis’ own attorney said of an abusive male district manager, who had shown female sales reps pornography and invited them to sit on his lap, “He wasn’t that bad a manager. He was just terrible with women.” Novartis kept that manager on staff, actively managing women in the field, for years after it first learned of his inappropriate behavior. Although several of Novartis’ witnesses claimed it had a “zero tolerance policy” for discrimination, those same witnesses admitted that managers were not terminated or demoted even when complaints of discrimination were substantiated by HR.

Or, if you’ll allow me to go back a little further in time to a landmark case, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank:

When, a couple of weeks after she had moved, he invited her to join him for dinner. While they were sitting there, she recalled, he said to her, “Mechelle, I have been good to you.” When she said she appreciated it, he said he didn’t want her to say thank you, she recalled: he wanted her to go to bed with him. And he warned her, according to Vinson, that “just like he hired me, he would fire me.” After dinner, she said, she got in his car, and they drove to a nearby hotel,where he got them a room. There, she recalled afterward, he told her to take her dress off, but she said no. He said she was a grown lady now, he wouldn’t hurt her, and she should take her clothes off. Again she said no. He went to take a shower. She waited, sitting on the bed. He came back wearing no clothes and told her to undress, she recalled, and when she said no, he unzipped her dress and took it off and began kissing her and, as she would eventually tell a courtroom, “he put his penis in.”…But the next morning at work, she said, he touched her buttocks and breasts. In the afternoon, when customers thinned out, she said, he touched her again. She felt sick inside. He told her that he was her supervisor, that he gave her her paycheck, and that she had to do what he wanted. In the coming months, she recalled being forced to have sex many times, always in the bank, even once on the floor of the bank’s walk-in vault. She had stayed late at Taylor’s instructions, to prepare for an inspection the next day by federal auditors. As she was working there, she later testified, the vault door closed, and Mr. Taylor grabbed me and said, “You are going to fuck me this evening.” I said, “Mr. Taylor, only thing I want to do is do my work and leave here.” He said, “You are going to fuck me before you leave here.” We got to tussling on the floor. He knocked me down on the floor and took my panties off and he forced his penis in me. After that, she found her vagina was torn, she said, and she bled for weeks. When he wasn’t forcing her to have sex, she later remembered, some days he would put his hands on her body, even from behind while she was working with customers. At times he would follow her into the ladies’ bathroom, she recalled, showing her that his penis was erect or asking her if she knew where he could get his “dick sucked” or telling her, “You are going to fuck me this evening.” When she told him he should stop, she recalled, sometimes he would respond, “I give you a paycheck.”…After she had become assistant branch manager, she said, two junior bank employees came to her to request that she, as their superior, intercede for them with their boss; they said they were “tired of Mr. Taylor touching them.” When she carried their complaint to Taylor, she would later recall, he told her that he was just “relaxing” his employees and the ones who didn’t like it could “get the hell out.” Vinson stayed. In years to come, after she finally told her story, many people asked her a one-word question: “Why?” “Because he had told me this is what I had to do— I owed him,” she would say. “Just like he hired me, he would fire me. So that was going in my head. This man would fire me. My God. I need my job.”
[From Fred Strebeigh’s Equal: Women Reshape American Law.]

We could keep doing this all day, but you get the idea. Not all of the tens of millions of dollars a year paid out to women every year as a result of EEOC sexual harassment claims involves conduct this egregious, but then even the harassment faced by Joan was more subtle. And of course it’s worse than that — we’re being asked to assume that sexual harassment that isn’t terribly unusual in 21st century workplaces is completely crude and unrealistic when depicted in a male-dominated workplace in 1970. Even now, sexual harassment isn’t something that’s just depicted in videos, and to argue the behavior of the McCann staff towards Joan is cartoonish in the context of Mad Men‘s era is frankly bizarre.

I know this makes me part of the dread P.C. police, but as long as Rosin keeps asserting, vastly overgeneralizing from personal experience, that everything for American women is pretty much just fine — now extended to an argument that things for American women in the workplace in 1970 was pretty much just fine! — I’m going to continue to disagree with her.

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