A Look Back At Sexual Harassment Courtesy of Mad Men

Christina Hendricks is arguably one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood since her first appearance on AMC’s Mad Men when it began in 2007.  The show is a prime example of the progress that has been made regarding sexual harassment in the workplace over the last few decades.  Though we still have a long way to go, let’s look at how far we’ve come.

Mad Men is an American period drama set in a 1960’s New York advertising firm, initially at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, and later at the newly created firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (later Sterling Cooper & Partners), located nearby in the Time-Life Building, at 1271 Sixth Avenue. According to the show’s pilot, the phrase “Mad Men” was a slang term coined in the 1950s by advertisers working on Madison Avenue to refer to themselves, a claim that has since been refuted. The focal point of the series is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the talented creative director at Sterling Cooper and a founding partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the people in his life, both in and out of the office. The plot focuses on the business of the agencies as well as the personal lives of the characters, regularly depicting the changing moods and social mores of the United States across the 1960s, starting Season 1 in March 1960 and moving through 1969 by Season 7.

One of the most startling aspects of the show for present day employment law attorneys and anyone with a job, really, is the blatant sexual harassment that was a normal part of work life for women in the ’60s.

Christina Hendricks plays Joan Harris, who begins her career at the agency as the office manager. Her primary responsibilities are to manage the secretarial, steno, and telephone operator’s pools; attend to the needs of the executives; and organize agency events. She is also seen during meetings with the heads of departments, taking notes, and reminding the male staff of their duties to their clients, and assisting the CFO, Lane Pryce, with SC financial duties.

She, along with the other female members of the firm, is also the subject (or object) of a considerable number of behaviors that would be thought of as sexual harassment in today’s work environment. In fact, I don’t know that any of the male employees or executives would be left if they were taken to task for their behavior as they would be today. Let’s look at some of the main characters and their behaviors and see whether they’re actionable:

Peter “Pete” Campbell – played by Vincent Kartheiser starts out as an ambitious young account executive whose father-in-law controls the advertising for one of the firms biggest accounts, Clearasil. He comes from a wealthy family and though he seems racially sensitive (more than most of the others), he clearly has issues with women.

When he appears on the show, he makes remarks to Peggy Olson, a secretary, that she has a ‘dowdy appearance,’ but later, after becoming drunk at his bachelor party, he ends up knocking on Peggy’s door in the middle of the night, subsequently engaging in sexual relations with her, and fathering a child with her. In addition is he guilty of creepily standing too close to female employees, brushing up against them and insisting on socializing with them during off duty hours, after they’ve initially said they aren’t interested.

Here is one of his exchanges with Peggy:

“Mad Men: Red in the Face (#1.7)” (2007)

Pete Campbell: You ever been hunting, Peggy?

Peggy Olson: No, I don’t think so.

Pete Campbell: You either have or you haven’t. I went a couple of times with my uncle. New Hampshire.

Peggy Olson: I saw my cousin shoot a rabbit by Coney Island.

Pete Campbell: It’s an incredible sensation. You have to be very quiet. Take it down with the first shot or you scare it away. And sometimes you have to go up and finish it off. Then you tie it to the bumper, and you go home. But you know what I’ve always wanted to do? I would pick it up throw its back legs over my shoulder and I would drag it through the snow to this little cabin. And there I’d hang it up between a couple of trees, cut it open, drain it, dress it and then I’d take my big hunting knife and I’d cut this loin right out of the side. And I’d go into the cabin and there’d be this woman waiting for me, standing by one of those old stoves with a big black pipe and I’d hand it to her and she’d put it in a cast-iron skillet and then I’d sit at the table and she’d bring it to me. And I’d wipe my knife on my knee and then I would eat it while she watches.

Peggy Olson: That would be wonderful.”

While she says that would be wonderful, we can’t help but think it’s more than a little creepy.

Actionable? If Peggy felt pressured to let Pete into her apartment, and is as creeped out by him as we are, then yes…she has a claim. (One down).

Don Draper – Until the Season 3 finale, Draper was Creative Director of Manhattan advertising firm Sterling Cooper. He then became a founding partner at a new firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, after he and his superiors abandoned their old agency in advance of an unwanted acquisition.

Draper’s character is partially based on Draper Daniels, a creative director at Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago in the 1950s, who worked on the Marlboro Man campaign.

Though Don is married throughout parts of the show, that doesn’t stop him from repeated affairs, many of which he is often the ‘victim’ of. He is guilty of verbal sexual abuse and touching and grabbing of a sexual nature, which would land him in court for sure, if nothing else.

Actionable? Since most of his affairs are with women outside of the firm, he may be safe on that ground, but his advances, comments and physical abuses would surely lead to a lawsuit for the firm that may result in considerable damages.

Roger Sterling – He formerly worked for Sterling Cooper, an advertising agency his father co-founded in 1923, before he became a founding partner at the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in late 1963. He is a notorious womanizer, guilty of sexual verbal harassment, giving gifts of a sexual nature, and sexual pranks and jokes in the office. Here are some of his notable sexist (and racist) gems:

(On the film The Apartment) “Oh, please. A white elevator operator? And a girl at that? I want to work at that place.”

“When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”

“Look, I want to tell you something because you’re very dear to me, and I hope you understand it comes from the bottom of my damaged, damaged heart: You are the finest piece of ass I ever had, and I don’t care who knows it. I am so glad I got to roam those hillsides.”

Actionable? You betcha…this guy is the king of inappropriate behavior. There isn’t a female in the office who wouldn’t have a claim.

According to most women’s rights historians the portrayal of the workplace in Mad Men is actually quite accurate. Obviously today’s workplace is far more protective of women’s rights than in the past. These types of behaviors would have put Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce out of business a long time ago.

We haven’t entirely left those behaviors behind, warns Ms. Hendricks in a recent interview. She says that gender prejudice is still alive and well, though perhaps more subtle.

“You know it’s difficult in the arts to pinpoint it but there’s sexual harassment at work every single day, all day long.”

“Certainly in the respect and position [of women], you feel like, “Am I allowed to ask these questions or contribute in this way? …Society has conditioned you that way. As women, we feel like we can’t ask for things…more often than not if a woman goes in and asks for a raise, she’ll get it. But she’s thinking, ‘Do I deserve it?’ I’ve got to give a list of why I deserve it.’ Whereas a man will just go in and ask for a raise.”

If you feel you have been the victim of sexual harassment at work, and/or the victim of any other types of unlawful behavior, such as unlawful termination, or discrimination, contact the law offices of Stephen Danz & Associates at (877) 789-9707 or use the Contact Form on our website to schedule a free consultation today.

With over 35 years of experience defending the rights of workers in California and around the world, Stephen is the head of a California ’employee-only’ law firm. He will meet with you, along with one of his senior associates in order to discuss the underlying facts of your case, to determine whether you have a cause of action against your employer.