One of the things that attracted so many viewers to Mad Men, a series about advertising execs in the 60s and 70s, was just how well they captured that period of American cultural history. Every partner at the firm had a full bar cart in their office, stocked every day with ice, clean glasses, and bottles of whiskey. Smoking cigarettes was a ubiquitous habit in offices, restaurants, airplanes, hospitals, etc.
They got the clothing just right. The men’s suits, the shoes, the women’s fashions, and the hair-dos the props and continuity folks did their homework diligently and well. The automobiles and buses and other vehicles were all properly placed. It was truly a flash from the past.
Whenever I talk to folks who were in the ad business then – or any other white-collar business – they mention how realistic Mad Men was, capturing so many of the unique cultural practices of that bygone era. They talk about the three-martini lunches, the extravagant office parties, the number of hours men were expected to be in the office, and the general attitude of the triumphalism of post-war capitalist America.
There are some other aspects of the early to mid-60s and forward that Mad Men also captures. There is, of course, institutional racism that African Americans had no place in corporate America unless they were cleaning up or running elevators. There was also institutional antisemitism, a clear line of demarcation for where Jews could work, where Jewish doctors could practice medicine, what country clubs we could belong to, and so forth.
Then, of course, there was the misogyny. The idea that rampantly pulsed through corporate America was that women were meant to remain at home to take care of the kids to fulfill their lives. If they had a job, it was only to save enough money to live in a decent apartment until they met a man who would save them. Women were not seen as intellectually competent, though smart enough to file and take dictation. Career women were to be mistrusted; there was something ‘wrong’ with them not wanting to be at home.
Along with this paternalistic attitude towards women was another dimension: that women were sex objects to be ogled, fondled, cat-called, and harassed – but all in “good fun.” Women were not to complain about this treatment; in fact, they were to feel ‘lucky’ and grateful when powerful men deigned to pay attention to them. Women were to be submissive, lest they lose their jobs for having a bad attitude.
I didn’t grow up in a house where women or girls were treated, spoken to or about as objects. Sure, as a teenager, amongst my male friends, we could be rude and crude, mostly about things we didn’t know or hadn’t experienced. This kind of banter is called locker room talk, even though I spent little time in a locker room.
But we never demeaned or degraded women. We were very attracted to them and loved to look at them. But we knew the difference between looking and leering, between saying hello as a way of being friendly as opposed to being obnoxious.
Obviously, there are men who were not raised as I was. There are men who were not introduced to Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan by earnest girlfriends or sisters. There are men who were not told by their moms or teachers or dads that, “We don’t know talk about women that way.” There are men who were taught that as white Christians with means they were entitled to rule the world.
But that entitled, triumphalist attitude about women and minorities no longer sits well with people and corporations that, until recently, subscribed to that same ethos of success. Companies like Mercedes Benz and Aleve and other Fortune 500 companies dropped their sponsorship of Bill O’Reilly’s show after multiple complaints emerged regarding his sexually harassing women at Fox. The NBA left North Carolina when they denied the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom they preferred to use.
At some point down the line, the notion that we are all created in God’s image has to mean something. Otherwise, everything that follows in the Torah is nonsense. Either we together acknowledge the power and protection of American democracy, or we circle the wagons and wait. When American corporations intimate that they care about what is being said on their dime, I perk up. When the NBA draws a line for human decency, I am thrilled.
There are so many rivers to cross before we arrive at a place of true moral decency and equality. The power of antisemitism and racism and misogyny is still immense and still tolerated in so many places. This is why we speak out. This is why no one is free until all of us are free.