'Mad Men' Exposes Present-Day Sexual Harassment By Looking To The Past

It's more than just Peggy and Joan.

While I watched that great, Joan-bashing "Mad Men" last night (May 3), a reoccurring feeling propped up. No, it wasn't heartache for Joan (Christina Hendricks), who had to deal with the heartbreaking blow of yet another corporate higher-up offering her a "better position" in exchange for sex. And it wasn't even anxiety for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who unknowingly walked into a sea of predators that were already planning to strip her of the title she spent the better part of a decade earning.

Instead, what I felt was a great relief -- because as soon as I shut off my TV, I was able to return to a better world, in which women like Peggy and Joan don't have to deal with life-ruining sexism in the workplace. In which women like me can hustle for years and years and get a raise and a promotion, instead of a crappy ultimatum that renders them completely powerless, for no other reason than "men don't want women to be their boss."



It was a great feeling to go to bed with, but unfortunately, my instincts were completely wrong -- because great "Mad Men" episodes like the ones we saw last night wouldn't be nearly as powerful if the themes presented were completely alien to us in 2015. In fact, "Lost Horizon" wasn't a gut-punch of an episode because we were mourning the life of a woman in the past, it was a gut-punch of an episode because everything that happened to her was heartbreakingly familiar.

Take Joan's first day at McCann Erickson, for instance. It's easy to assume that women aren't put into positions where their bosses literally give them sexual ultimatums these days, and that assumption might be at least partially based in fact -- due to a whole host of things like the second-wave feminist movement and how easy it is to bring someone down with a Tweet, even the most vile human would probably know better than to be quite as forward as Ferguson Donnelly was on the show. You would think. You would hope.

But whether it's as outwardly hideous as Joan's Atlanta trip ultimatum or something slightly more insidious, there's no denying that harassment and discrimination still exist, and doing something about it has often proven to be as futile as Joan's New York Times interview that never was.

In 2008, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) conducted a study on sexual harassment in the workplace, and found -- predictably, but depressingly -- that 54 percent of respondents had been on the receiving end; 17 percent by a superior. And reporting what many perceive to be a "he said, she said" situation accusing your boss to your boss' boss is not an ideal predicament by any extent of the imagination.

Take Ellen Pao -- earlier this year, Pao did exactly what Joan threatened and filed a sexual discrimination suit against her employer Kleiner Perkins, alleging that the firm passed her over for promotions and even intentionally excluded her from meetings after she accused a senior employer of sexual harassment. Even though this was a landmark case in the famously sexist tech world with solid evidence and a ton of public support for the plaintiff, Pao still lost. And if Reddit hadn't seen her talent and offered her a position of interim CEO, she could have lost everything, given the ridiculously expensive costs of taking a major corporation to court.

Justina Mintz/AMC


Even outside of the more literally sexual aspects of sexual harassment, women like Joan and Peggy -- who did not deal with outright sexual violence, but McCann Erickson subtly reducing her role to make her male peers more comfortable -- still face a world of sh-t when it comes to obtaining promotions and rising to the upper echelon of their careers. (“He has a wife and three children, what’s he gonna say... she’s my boss?”)

As of January 2015, women made up only 5 percent of CEOs in American Fortune 500 companies, and 17 percent of corporate board members among Fortune 500 companies. Women of color like Pao, on the other hand, despite making up a third of all working humans, represent less than 10 percent of managers of S&P 500 companies, 3.9 percent of executives, and just 0.4 percent of CEOs.

Add that to the stats that women make up half of the freaking population -- and an overwhelming majority of college graduates -- and it gets harder and harder to deny that everything you felt last night was because you loved Peggy and Joan as characters. It's because this is the world that we're all still living in, and it will take more than an empowered Peggy Olson GIF to fix it.