Two Women Walk into an Elevator: Mad Men and Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sarah Seltzer

In Mad Men, the tough women are branded sexless wet blankets, while those who use their wiles and sexuality to advance themselves can have those qualities turned against them. Meanwhile, a sense of sisterhood is hard to find.

Mad Men’s unflinching a portrayal of gender in the workplace was exemplified in this week’s elevator conversation between office manager Joan and copywriter Peggy. Peggy has just proudly asserted her authority and fired a young freelancer, Joey, who sexually harassed Joan (and by extension Peggy and all women in the office) with an explicit, degrading cartoon. Joan responds to Peggy’s smugly-delivered but genuinely-felt overture with a “thanks but no thanks”:

Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.

Joan’s response resonates as a heartbreaking moment when a gesture at female solidarity gets swatted down. Instead of recognizing kinship with Peggy, Joan clings to her place in the pecking order. She does so even though her power–that of being a charming, competent hybrid mother-mistress figure–is losing its edge. Joan, who has been raped by her husband, is a victim of rape culture again, and the scene in which Joey responds to her scolding with increasingly barbed sass (he tells her she walks around trying to get raped, and calls her a madam from a Shanghai whorehouse among other insults) is viscerally painful to watch–she looks like a hunted animal. Her later claims that she could have handled the situation her own way seem dubious at best.

But Joan has also offered an accurate reading of how gender stereotypes can trap women in a no-win position. The setting in the elevator underscores Joan’s words about the way both she and Peggy are literally boxed in by stereotypes.

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Bloggers have been divided over who was “right” in this exchange–could Joan really have quietly dealt with the situation better than Peggy’s straightforward “look what I did for you Joan” approach? Or is Peggy, humorless bitch stereotype aside, demonstrating a new kind of power that Joan never thought possible? The answer is mixed. Of course, Joan’s analysis of the way men view women is absolutely correct. The tough ones are branded sexless wet blankets. Meanwhile women who use their wiles and sexuality to advance themselves can have those qualities turned against them: hence the suggestive, rude, and menacing jokes.

But the times they are-a changin’, and the momentum of progress lies with Peggy. She may have to be seen as a humorless bitch, and she may have to shoulder her share of exclusion and harassment, but she won’t have to put up with the vicious humor that Joey employs against Joan. She can fire him, and she does.

Peggy Olsen, the smart girl in the room, is the advance guard of this new battle of the sexes. Her background and personality are her own, but her struggles as the only skirt in a sea of suits, will be instantly recognizable to any woman who’s had to hold her own in a a male-dominated environment. Peggy makes the decision to pursue her career despite a work environment that is relentlessly hostile and a family and outside world that doesn’t understand her. Why? She confesses in a moment of candor to Don that she cares more about her work than her personal life. She knows she’s supposed to settle down, but she approaches the prospect with little enthusiasm.  In a previous episode Peggy chose to stay late to work on a project (and platonically bond with her boss); as a result, her nice young man, waiting to surprise her for her birthday, summarily dumps her. 

On the other end of the spectrum lies Joan, who was top (female) dog when Peggy first arrived, in charge of all the secretaries. She assumes that the goal of any working girl is a few years of fun followed by catching a good husband. Back then, she urged Peggy to watch her figure and buy fashionable, tight-fitting clothes, to get birth control, to be everything to her boss–wife, mother, mistress. These are qualities she herself has mastered, and she is still valued  for them by the firm’s partners. When an ad that Peggy helped conceive goes up for a major award, Joan rather than Peggy goes to the ceremony. She is needed to charm and impress potential clients with her statuesque beauty and conversational ease, and to comfort her male colleagues by holding their hands. But despite the reverence Joan receives from elder statesmen Don and Roger, she is losing control of the young men.

And Peggy, as she ascends the hierarchy, is gaining it. While her work experience is often frustrating, occasionally, the boys club opens its doors. And her burgeoning sense of sisterhood stands in direct contrast to Joan, who carps about Peggy’s weight and the secretaries’ appearances and rarely engages as an equal with other women.

From the beginning, Mad Men has shocked with its brutal portrayal of sexism (Don outright refuses to do business with a woman in the very first episode) and skirt-chasing. As the mores of society loosen up and more women enter the office, the sexism has changed to more blatant and vulgar, the “liberated” young men quite comfortable making ribald jokes right to their female colleagues’ faces rather than chuckling at them behind semi-closed doors or giving their secretaries’ rear ends an appraising stare. If the relentless stream of sexist drivel that emerges from the men’s mouths can seem tiresome to viewers in the span of an hour, the writers seem to suggest, how would it feel day in, day out?

Think of all the confident, beautiful female attorneys and detectives and doctors on television–certainly representing an improvement over past portrayals–and then think of how sanitized their workplaces are without the aggravation they probably face due to their gender, even today. The sheer grit Peggy and Joan must muster reflects on the experiences of women working right up to our enlightened era. Just look at the treatment of the Hillary Clinton campaign to see that the “humorless bitch” stereotype has endured–and look at the Jets sexual harassment scandal this week to see that Joey’s treatment of Joanie has endured along with it.

Mad Men occasionally veers close to being a mite too cold, an impeccably-produced mix of obvious symbolism and characters as unlikable as they are well-dressed. This season, when principal character Don Draper “turned heel” and began to bury his sorrows in drink, lash out at the world and mope, I began to feel alienated. Perhaps the writers wanted to create that effect, but regardless, it’s been a relief in the past few weeks to see the show returning to what it does best, which is give its characters just enough humanity to invest us in the social issues they contend with. The more one turns the Joan-Peggy encounter over, the more one sees a layered story that represents both the importance of feminism and the hurdles it faces. Mad Men works best when we can see how much has changed and how much hasn’t.

Analysis Abortion

What’s the Answer to Abortion in the Age of the Prison-Industrial Complex? Lock Women Up and Throw Away the Key

Farah Diaz-Tello

Women were once seen as "second victims" of abortion. Now, as women face murder trials for unintended pregnancy losses, they're potential fodder for a prison system that is steadily becoming one of the biggest businesses in the country.

A mini-documentary on YouTube from 2007 has recently gotten a new lease on life. The filmmaker asks protesters outside of a women’s health clinic in Libertyville, Illinois whether they think abortion should be illegal. They do. What should the penalties be, he asks? What happens next is fascinating: they fumble.

Anna Quindlen, writing for Newsweek in 2007, noted that “the doctrinaire suddenly turn squirrelly at the prospect of throwing women in jail.” Some say they would just pray for the woman. Some grasp at quasi-legal reasoning, saying the woman should be punished based on her level of awareness that she was “killing her child.”

The inconsistency isn’t isolated to clinic protestors. Remember Herman Cain’s incoherent position on abortion? “I believe that life begins at conception. And abortion under no circumstances.” And then moments later: “[I]t comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. …  So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.” He later clarified that he was referring to an individual family’s decision about abortion, not “the whole big issue” of abortion. He was not talking about women’s access to health care, he was talking about his family’s choice. That’s different.

Cain’s thinking reflects the bad-old-days before Roe v. Wade, when illegal abortion was a misdemeanor reserved for the women who couldn’t afford a flight to California or Mexico. Sure, women died inflicting all manner of horrors upon themselves in desperate attempts to end pregnancies. But daughters of millionaires could quietly leave town and get things “taken care of.”

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But that was then, this is now.

What we have now, as Katha Pollitt explains, is a concerted movement to redefine personhood to include fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses “in so many parts of the law that when the Supreme Court finally revisits Roe v. Wade, a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy will look like a bizarre exception.” In the intervening decades since Roe, 38 states have passed laws that create a crime for causing the death of a fetus (feticide or fetal homicide), at least 23 of which apply at the earliest stages of pregnancy.

What we have now is a what Professor Angela Davis calls a “prison industrial complex”: a system of for-profit prisons so hungry for more inmates that it drives immigration policy, and pays off judges to fill jail cells with children. A system so bloated that rural economies have become dependent upon the influx of inmates, mostly young black and Latino men. We’ve lost our belief that women are too delicate, vulnerable, or necessary to family life to incarcerate: since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration for women has increased over 700%.

We have lawmakers admit that they believe that women should face “serious” criminal penalties for having abortions.  We have so dismantled the right to privacy that state-mandated technological surveillance can literally invade women’s bodies.  We have Kafkaesque bedside interrogations and arrests of women who fall down stairs when they admit ambivalence about young single motherhood.

It is not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. Indeed, this has been a long time coming. Writing in 2006, National Advocates for Pregnant Women‘s Executive Director Lynn Paltrow observed:

[I]t’s worth remembering that much has changed since 1973, long before states began declaring that zygotes are full persons under the law and before the US became the country with the largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Fast forward to the present day, NAPW is helping to represent two women who are facing murder trials for losing pregnancies. Bei Bei Shuai spent over a year in an Indiana jail when her friends rescued her from a suicide attempt during pregnancy, but doctors were unable to save her baby’s life. Rennie Gibbs, the odds of a healthy pregnancy outcome already stacked against her due to her youth, race, poverty, and state of residence, suffered a miscarriage and is being tried for “depraved heart” murder in Mississippi. If women are being prosecuted for murder for unintentional pregnancy losses, we can expect no less for women who seek abortions. In fact, women are already being arrested for having abortions. While right-to-life groups claim that they see women as “second victims” of abortion rather than perpetrators, just this week, a deputy Attorney General from Idaho defended the state’s right to arrest Jennie McCormack, a woman who terminated a pregnancy using misoprostol obtained through the internet (audio of Ninth Circuit oral argument).

Make no mistake: the criminalization of abortion will send women to jail. Groups around the country are hard at work to ensure that if abortion becomes a crime again, it will become the crime of murder. For better or for worse, there is no going back to the days when clinic protesters weren’t sure what to do with women. The answer from organizations seeking to re-criminalize abortion is now is loud and clear: lock them up for a very long time.

Analysis Sexual Health

He-Men, Virginity Pledges, and Bridal Dreams: Obama Administration Quietly Endorses Dangerous Ab-Only Curriculum

Elizabeth Schroeder, Debra Hauser & Monica Rodriguez

Thirty years of public health science clearly demonstrates that providing young people with information about the health benefits of both abstinence and contraception and condoms, does not cause young people to initiate sex earlier or have sex more often. Abstinence-only-until marriage programs leave young people unprepared. They are unethical.

This article was also co-authored by Danene Sorace, MPP, a prominent sexuality education consultant and former director of Answer, Rutgers University. 

See all our coverage of Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education here.

Sometime this month, an updated list of “evidence-based” teen pregnancy prevention programs was endorsed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and posted to the website of the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH).

No notice, not even a press release to announce the addition of three programs to the coveted list of 28 deemed effective and carrying the HHS seal of approval. Until now, this list was the holy grail of the Administration’s commitment to a science-based approach to teen pregnancy prevention and a directive for grantees of the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI).

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So why the secrecy about the new additions? What does the Administration have to hide?

We have been around long enough to expect politics as usual in Washington, D.C. The backroom deals and secrecy should not surprise us. The jettisoning of young people and their sexual health for political expediency is not new. But, this blatant hypocrisy needs to stop. This latest example is just too much.

Perhaps the Administration realized that the inclusion of Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education on this select list would call into question its commitment to young people and their sexual health. Once again, they have succumbed to the political pressure of social conservatives and allowed the ideology of the right to prevail over the health and well-being of the nation’s youth. The Obama Administration’s endorsement of this abstinence-only-until marriage program runs in direct contradiction to its stated commitment to the health and well-being of young people and, quite possibly, its promise to uphold science and evidence. 

The Trampling of Young People’s Sexual Health

The President has talked about his administration’s commitment to LGBT health and rights by recording his own “It Gets Better Video” and announcing support for both the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act. And, the CDC has recognized the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on young men who have sex with men and has committed millions of federal dollars to reducing the burden of disease on this population.

Yet, at best Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education ignores LGBT youth – and at worst it promotes homophobia. The stigmatization of LGBT youth throughout the program reinforces the cultural invisibility and bias these students already face in many schools and communities. The curriculum’s focus on marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual behavior further ostracizes LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents who still cannot legally marry in most states.

The Director of the CDC has called teen pregnancy prevention and HIV prevention two of the country’s six “winnable battles,” and recent analysis of National Survey of Family Growth data trends indicates that significant reductions in teen births have been primarily fueled by increased contraceptive use.

Today roughly 40 percent of high school students have had sex and young people under age 29 continue to account for approximately 30 percent of all new cases of HIV infection.

Yet, Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education does not include information about the health benefits of contraception or condoms.

Igniting Fears and Spreading Misinformation

In fact, Heritage Keepers contains little or no information about puberty, anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, or sexual behavior. Instead, most of its lessons are devoted to promoting the importance of heterosexual marriage and the value of abstinence before marriage. Students are asked to take virginity pledges and class time is devoted to having students envision and plan their wedding days. Heritage Keepers also teaches students that:

  • “Males and females are aroused at different levels of intimacy. Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated.” The implications of this difference are explained further: “This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46)
  • “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous.” (Heritage Keeper, Student Manual, p. 22)
  • “Cohabitation (when two people live together before marriage) is not like marriage! [Heritage Keepers, p. 30] When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are weaker, more violent, less [equal], and more likely to lead to divorce” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26)
  • “One reason may be that when people bond closely through sexual activity, then break up and bond with someone else, and then someone else, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain a lasting bond.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 56)
  • Sexual activity outside of marriage can lead to:“Sexually Transmitted Viruses, Sexually Transmitted Bacteria, Cervical Cancer, AIDS, Legal and financial responsibility for a child until he or she is at least 18, Raising a child alone, Emotional hurt and regret, Increased chance of abuse from a partner.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 35)

When planning their weddings during class:

  • Young men are asked to envision their wedding day: “The doors swing open and there stands your bride in her white dress…This is the woman you have waited for (remained abstinent for) who has waited for you…This woman loves you and trusts you with all that she is and all that she has. You want to be strong, respectful and courageous for her. With all your heart, you want to protect her, and by waiting (sexually) you have.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 59)
  • Young women are asked to envision their wedding day: “Everything is just as you have seen it in a million daydreams…” When the bride takes her father’s arm: “Your true love stands at the front. This is the man who you have waited for (remained abstinent for) and who has waited for you…This man wants to be strong and courageous for you, to cherish and protect you… You are ready to trust him with all that you have and all that you are, because you have waited (sexually) you have it all to give.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 49)

Limited Evidence of Effectiveness

Not only does the Heritage Keepers program ostracize LGBT youth, withhold life-saving information from sexually active and HIV-positive youth, and use fear-based messages to shame sexually active youth, youth who have experienced sexual assault, and youth living in “nontraditional” households, there are also questions about the effectiveness of this program to delay sexual initiation or favorably impact sexual behavior among youth. The original evaluation by Stan Weed, et al., of the Heritage Keepers program in 2005 was criticized by other researchers for having a flawed design and was never published, much less published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Next, the program was reviewed in a congressionally mandated study of Title V abstinence-only-until marriage programs conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and published in 2007. Mathematica found no evidence to support the effectiveness of the program. Specifically, their interim report stated:

…the [Heritage Keepers] Life Skills Education Component did not have significant impacts on 11 of the 12 intermediate outcomes related to sexual abstinence. The one exception is a significant impact among middle school youth on their friends’ support for abstinence.

Mathematica’s final report concluded:

Findings indicate that the [Heritage Keepers Abstinence Program’s] Life Skills Education Component had little or no impact on sexual abstinence or activity.

But, we are expected to believe that the third time must be a charm?  This winter, Mathematica was contracted by HHS to review evaluations for their rigor, and this time they recommended Heritage Keepers for inclusion on the list of HHS-approved programs. To date, there is still no published peer-reviewed manuscript to help assess what, if anything, changed for the program to make the list. Was a new study conducted? Did the authors submit new data or simply rework the old?

A Call for Evidence and Rights

Whether the data exists to support the program’s effectiveness is still in question, but the egregious content of the program is crystal clear. The Administration’s hypocrisy must end.  It is time to embrace both an evidence- and a rights-based approach to youth sexual health promotion. Evidence of effectiveness is important, but it should not be sufficient. It is not enough to help some students delay sexual initiation while leaving others ill-equipped to protect themselves when they do have sex. It is unacceptable to promote teen pregnancy prevention at the cost of ostracizing LGBT youth, survivors of sexual assault, or youth who are sexually active.  Thirty years of public health science clearly demonstrates that providing young people with information about the health benefits of both abstinence and contraception and condoms, does not cause young people to initiate sex earlier or have sex more often. Abstinence-only-until marriage programs leave young people unprepared. They are unethical.

Young people have the right to honest, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health information to help them protect their health and lives. The Administration should immediately remove Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education from the HHS-endorsed list of evidence-based programs currently posted on the Office of Adolescent Health’s (OAH) website. America’s youth deserve better.