Revisiting Mad Men Post #MeToo

The first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is jam-packed with 60’s nostalgia and critique — from the mildly amusing to the truly cringeworthy.

The art director swills a couple Alka-Seltzers into a stiff drink. Richard Nixon, not John F. Kennedy, is the handsome presidential candidate of choice. Peggy Olson’s gynecologist lights up a cigarette in the examination room before requesting that she, “Slide your fanny towards me. I’m not gonna bite.”

When I started watching the series at 16, this dissonance, this gulf between Sterling Cooper and the stale halls of my high school, kept me hooked — but not always happily.

I never finished an episode without a pang of sympathy for at least one female character. The credits didn’t roll until one of them experienced some sort of a professional or personal humiliation. 

I was grateful the days of brazen, unchecked misogyny were over.

But, as I got older, and especially after the Weinstein story and the #MeToo movement exposed the appalling behavior enabled by corrupt institutions across industries, the world of Mad Men no longer seemed so far away.

While the series was on air, it was praised for foregrounding harassment, casual sexism and domestic boredom. The female characters are complex, and sometimes unlikable, but they feel true — an authenticity conferred by the real female voices behind them. Five out of the 11 staff writers were female, a statistically high ratio.

In interviews during production, the writers explained how Matthew Weiner, the series creator and executive producer, encouraged them to draw from their experiences of workplace harassment. Yet, progressive and sympathetic as he may sound, Weiner may not have been as committed to the cause as he claimed.

In November 2017, he was accused of sexual harassment by Emmy-winning Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who stated that Weiner said she owed it to him to let him see her naked. Weiner denied the claims, but Marti Noxon, a consulting producer, spoke up for Gordon stating that Weiner was an “emotional terrorist” who created an atmosphere of fear and manipulation on set.

Since Gordon came forward, production of Weiner’s new show, The Romanoffs has continued as scheduled. He’s stayed out of the spotlight, and it’s unclear if Weiner will face consequences at all. What is clear, however, is the difference the allegation makes in how we watch the series — and how we interpret the consistent and occasionally gratuitous mistreatment of women.

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A definitive analysis of the particular brand of sexism and harassment in Mad Men would require a dissertation (and it seems a few people are already on it), but two instances in particular bear an eerie resemblance to several of the #MeToo revelations.

The first situation, which sparked heated debate when it aired, occurs not at Sterling Cooper but at a less traditional workplace: the apartment of an au pair and her host family.

In “Souvenir,” Pete Campbell attempts to extort sex from Gudrun, a German nanny, in exchange for an unsolicited favor he did for her. He claims she “owes him” and she refuses. He continues despite her pleas, until he corners her in her room, kissing her aggressively. The camera cuts away, but Gudrun’s protestation and Pete’s callous persistence have already been established. It’s not hard to guess what happens next.

The circumstances of Gudrun’s situation aren’t so far different from some of the recent allegations. It has notes of the coerciveness in the Aziz Ansari story and the transactional justification that Weiner allegedly used. It also alludes to the particular vulnerability of women in low-wage jobs and the tragic probability that their abusers will go unpunished, as evidenced in the half-hearted confrontation between Pete and Gudrun’s employer — a man who seemed much more concerned with his vacation time than for her safety.

The second storyline, “The Other Woman,” further explores sexual coercion and agency, but also the culpability of business institutions.

Herb Rennet is a member of the selection committee for Jaguar, a highly coveted account. At a business dinner, he leverages his influence and gives the team an ultimatum: either he gets to sleep with Joan Holloway, or he’ll make sure the Jaguar account goes to a different agency. Despite her initial disgust, Joan ultimately agrees to the arrangement on the condition that she becomes a voting partner in the firm.

The critical response to the episode was generally positive and commended the writers willingness to take on such challenging subject matter. Others questioned if this twist was out of character for Joan and the male colleagues who failed to stand-up against such a repulsive request and give Joan the partnership she deserved.

Either way, Rennet’s manipulation is unsettlingly Weinstein-esque. He is a high-powered executive, accustomed to deference and his own way. He holds all the cards, and by his own admission, likes to see how high he can set the price: “I always feel like someone should go the extra mile,” he says.

By giving in to Rennet’s demand, the agency places higher professional stature above integrity and courage, a sacrifice Don Draper ends up alluding to in his pitch to Jaguar.

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These episodes (and examples) show that as long as institutions continue to perpetuate corrupt systems with their complacency, so will workplace predators — from the Rennet’s to the Weinstein’s — continue on their abusive, corrosive paths.

Revisiting Mad Men doesn’t provide clear-cut answers or whole-hearted encouragement as we stare down the long road ahead after #MeToo. It’s neither a celebration of the “good old days” nor is it a feminist manifesto. Amongst other things, the series is a limited survey of men and women at work and the ways they support and betray each other (and often their own best interests). Mad Men presents the pervasiveness of a toxic culture, which even made its way to the Mad Men writers’ room — where this poisonous vein ran deeper than we knew.

*Artwork by: Hanna Sender.

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