Mad Men and Rampant Sexual Harassment

Where we came from, not that Far Off from where We Are

In the iconic show Mad Men, rampant sexual harassment of the women, working the ad agency is the rule, and there are no exceptions.

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Ken saying sexually provocative things to Peggy at Work

Mad Men, is a show, about I think, existential American angst, occurring as a result of America’s midcentury success. It’s also about MAGA- the great America that was supposed to be. But a clear and critical look into the time period that Mad Men offers, shows that it really wasn’t that great for anyone except very affluent white men, very affluent; and even they weren’t happy with the vast material wealth that was at their disposal because they had to work so hard to keep it.

It’s about the rise and fall of a Madison Avenue advertising agency — and the nonstop pissing contests that the men at the top of that agency engaged in, in order to chase a sort of success that was always fleeting. Ever in search of that big multi-million dollar account, and all the perks that came with that, booze, expense accounts, beautiful women.

But the women…the women of the agency were truly dynamic, as the stars among them, had to rise above all kinds of handicaps, traps, pitfalls and every sort of imaginable inconveniences, especially rampant sexual harassment.

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Peggy’s First Day

The illustration of this dynamic begins in season one, episode one, when Peggy, a brand new secretary, is verbally accosted in the elevator on her first day. On an elevator ride up to the office, Peggy endures leering salivations by not one, but three junior executives, until one of them leans over to Peggy and says provocatively that he is “enjoying the view.” That one was Ken, who would actually turn out to be one of the least offensive characters on the show!

When asked by one of his peers why he insists on terrorizing the bright-eyed and bushy tailed Peggy on her first day, Ken replied, “so that she knows what’s she’s in for.”

Wow. Well…welcome to the workplace of 1959, when there were no sexual harassment laws on the books, and talk of “grabbing” a secretary “by the pussy,” was just your typical male office banter and past time.

And, what was Peggy in for, exactly? Well, the subtle and not so subtle hints dropped in the first two episodes implied she was in for being expected to have sex with junior executives of that ilk, on command…or else.

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While this was never explicitly stated to Peggy, (or any of the other secretaries in a vast pool) it was surely implied. By the end of the first episode, Peggy is attempting to figure out why the office seemed to suffer many unexplained secretarial casualties, as every day, Peggy was witnessing someone crying inconsolably in the ladies room. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” Peggy inquired. Meanwhile, all the other passerby secretaries seemed to understand, but deftly looked the other way, offering no consolation. Perhaps they understood that there could be none.

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Peggy always finds colleagues crying in the bathroom

What exactly was happening?

Think 1959…think of the sexual morales of that day? Could a casual sexual affair, even one that you were forced into, result in a career’s end? You bet. Was being a secretary in 1959 a catch-22 that could have no appropriate ending? Probably. Joan, lead secretary and self-proclaimed Marilyn Monroe wannabe, was responsible for orienting Peggy into her new role. With regard to that, Joan explained that the job essentially entailed “being something between a mother and a waitress and the rest of the time, well…”

And…due to that well…Peggy ends up — at Joan’s insistence — at the doctor’s office seeking a prescription for the pill. Mind you, this was 1959 and the pill was this entirely new invention. No one knew exactly how it worked, or even if it worked, or how it would completely upend sexual behavior. But the doctor examining Peggy was concerned about it, as he wanted to know why she was seeking the prescription in the first place, being unmarried. Furthermore, he chastised that abuse of the pill, (whatever that might be) would lead to him terminating Peggy’s prescription. He further clarified that, even though the pill was expensive, Peggy didn’t have to become the “town-pump” to get her “money’s worth.”

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Really? Really! The whole encounter was so degrading and humiliating, Peggy had to do that whole, staring-off-into-space-pretending-that-she-wasn’t really-there-thing, just to walk away with a shred of dignity. Because remember, while this conversation was occurring, Peggy had her legs wide open, in stirrups as is required by the OBGYN office visit.

Before the sexual harassment laws were on the books, these were the sorts of indignities working women of this time had to endure simply to protect themselves. If you haven’t connected the dots of why it was absolutely essential that Peggy, get on the pill by on her very first day of work, it becomes clearer, later that night.

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Actually Paul not Peter, but same Harassment

Peter, who comes across in the first episode, as an absolutely obnoxious, self-involved, endlessly entitled junior executive, somewhat aggressively pursues Peggy her entire first day, and almost gets her fired by Don, whom Peggy technically works for.

If that wasn’t enough, later that night, Pete visits Peggy at her house, and says something to the effect of I have to be with you. What does Peggy do? She takes him into her apartment and indulges him. Finally, Pete secures that which he has pursued obnoxiously, for Peggy’s entire first day.

This leads to disastrous consequences which almost derail Peggy’s entire career….wait for it, wait for it, about nine months later. And, if you could see several episodes into the future, you’d understand why all those women that Peggy observes crying lonesomely in the ladies bathroom are a sort of foreshadowing for Peggy.

That doctor should have informed Peggy, the pill doesn’t work instantaneously. It take at least a month to kick in; and if you feel as if you have to service a junior executive, if it’s unofficially a part of the job description, as Joan implied, at least insist upon condoms before the deed is done.

But again…what choice did she have? Could Peggy have refused Pete? Maybe…but, he was a junior executive, and clearly in a position of power far above Peggy’s stature at Sterling and Cooper. If she’d declined Pete’s request, could Peggy have realistically expected to keep her job? Probably…she was not his secretary, after all, but Don’s; and already Don had spoken to Pete about the obnoxiousness of sexually harassing the brand new secretary, just because one had the power to do so. Sure he could do it, Don admits, but no one would like him, or respect him if he did. But even as Don said that, I wondered if that was in fact true. I don’t think anyone within the fictional managerial structure of Sterling and Cooper, particularly cared about the sexual harassment of anyone in the Sterling and Cooper vast secretarial pool. But, at least Don, a senior executive, was aware of the practice and tried to discourage Pete from pursuing Peggy, who had, only moments earlier, expressed to Don, her brand new boss, her discomfort interacting with Pete.

Don, initially acknowledges that she has a reason to be uncomfortable with Pete, but then later, expresses anger and impatience over Peggy’s inability to appropriately handle Pete. Later, when Pete shows up at her home, if she had refused Pete’s request for sexual favors, what kind of experiences could she expect to have with Pete, at that office?

As the character of Peggy is revealed, little by little, later in the series, it’s clear that she has regrets about the decision to sleep with Pete, primarily because of the consequences of that action. But, as is also revealed in the series, Peggy wanted to work. Working was very important to her, and she was the type who would have done anything to keep her job. Based on what she knew, from her experiences on that very first day, she probably believed that she had to sleep with Pete, in order to keep her job.

There are actually two types of harassment at play in Peggy’s situation — hostile environment, (as when one is being constantly approached for sexual favors at work, and it makes one uncomfortable in their working environment) and quid pro quo- which means this for that. With quid pro quo, sexual harassment, someone will agree to perform sexual favors in exchange for certain benefits at work.

While Peggy was clearly subjected to a hostile environment, from day one, given all of the unwanted attention she was receiving from the junior executives at the office; and yet, the reason that she decided to engage Pete, could have been of a quid pro quo nature. It could have been that Peggy believed that, by granting Pete that which she wanted, she was securing special work-related favors for herself; that she would not have gained, had she refused Pete.

Did that actually happen ? Maybe. It’s hard to say. When Pete returned, from his honeymoon (did I mention the thing between Peggy and Pete occurred the night before his wedding), he told Peggy that he was married and would not be showing up at her house with special requests, again. Peggy told him she understood, but seemed a little disappointed. If she was expecting an office romance that would have led to her getting special benefits, (and she very well may have had that expectation) all those hopes were dashed when Pete informed Peggy that whatever had been between them, was over.

Nevertheless, Pete and Peggy went on to have a work relationship that was relatively productive. Pete did look out for Peggy, in the office, when he had a chance. Was this because of their very brief encounter with intimacy on her first day? It probably did have something to do with it. It’s difficult to think it didn’t.

This is the reason though, that quid-pro-quo is a type of sexual harassment that is considered harmful to others, in the workplace, others who did not, for example, have the opportunity to advance in the workplace simply by providing sexual favors.

The long and short of it is this- bringing sex into the workplace, brings about all sorts of problems and complexities, that are not easily resolved. It makes workplace relationships very messy, because once these lines are crossed, it’s not clear if the relationships at work are working relationships or intimate relationships- and the nature of these kinds of relationships - are different. Mixing it up at work, usually leads to disaster. But when it comes to disasters at work, we’ll revisit Don — and his sexual harassment of his secretary.

Back in 1959, it was entirely normal to mix it all up. Joan clearly described the work of a secretary as “being something between a mother and a waitress and the rest of the time, well.” These women were expected to meet a lot of different needs entirely unrelated to the actual work they were tasked with doing.

And, even though, there are all kinds of laws on the books, prohibiting this kind of dynamic from occurring at work it still happens, all the time. The article that I just wrote about McDonald’s sexual harassment illustrates, not only that this exact same kind of hostile environment harassment is still rampant, in certain industries, to this day, but furthermore it’s not likely to stop.

There are certain business models where, no matter what the laws say, sexual harassment is going to occur, due to the nature of the business. If the #metoo and Times Up movements have shown us anything at all, it’s that in certain industries, sexual harassment runs rampant. If you are in one of these industries, the best thing to do, is to be aware, of the pitfalls, and take precautions. Awareness helps, and all of the awareness that has been raised of late, should help to curb this rampant harassment.

But there’s an upside; and that’s the Peggys of the world. Is it possible to survive, and thrive despite rampant sexual harassment? Yes it is, if Peggy, albeit a fictional character, serves as an example. Peggy finds ways to avoid the various pitfalls of the office and ultimately crushes it, during a time when the rules where entirely against her. In the end, she wins.

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