Mad Men has some distinct statements to be made about sexual harassment in the modern setting. While it does seek to recreate the time period of the 1960s, part of its allure is that it speaks to a condition that is not so far off from today's setting:
"It is difficult and painful to see the ways in which women and men dealt with each other and with power. It's painful because this behavior is not as far back in our past as we would like to think. Our daughters continually get the messages that power still comes through powerful men. And unfortunately being pretty is still a quality that can get you on the ladder – though it still won't take you to the top."
With this in mind, the depiction of sexual harassment on Mad Men operates as a looking glass of sorts. It enables us to see what life was like back then and how these constructions still exist today.
Sexual harassment was a reality for the woman of the Mad Men time period. The workplace was nothing more than a playground for men, and women really had little say in changing this culture. Constantly demeaning references to women in the form of "Sweetie" or "Honey" was a part of this culture. The show depicts this through the eyes of characters like Peggy, who has to endure Pete Campbell's repugnant comments about her face and her legs on the first day. Joan Holloway is shown to experience this with how copywriters like Joey Baird, who calls her a "madame" and a "Shanghai whore," tells her she walks around the office like she "want[s] to get raped." Don Draper's affairs with women have largely existed outside of the office setting. Yet, he does have an affair with Allison, his secretary, and his current wife, Megan, was his secretary. Lane Price has made advances at Joan Holloway, and Roger Sterling's affair with Joan produced a son. Harry Crane has a one night stand with a secretary after a late night of watching election returns, and Roger Sterling makes advances on Jane Siegel, Don's secretary. She ends up becoming his second wife. The men on Madison Avenue believed that their power extended to being able to control women, something that Peggy observes in Season One when every man passing by her desk objectifies her as they look and study her.
Sexual harassment is shown to be a part of the landscape of the office setting in the 1960s. Mad Men does not glamorize it. Rather, it shows that sexual harassment was an indelible part of the landscape that women had to face in the corporate culture of the 1960s. In doing so, it shows that there has been advancement. We now are able to criticize the behavior of the men on the show as something that is inappropriate and not conducive to a healthy workplace setting. However, at the same time, the viewer is reminded that full liberation has not presented itself. Sexual harassment is still an issue and Mad Men provides the dialogue in which we are able to fully ascertain how far we have come and how much further is needed in progress.
In the next answer, discussion will focus on how the women in the show have addressed the issue of sexual harassment. Some of their responses have defined the ways in which women have navigated these land mines in the workplace setting and how they must still do so.
Part of what makes Mad Men so thought provoking when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace is that it does not show it in a simplistic manner. Just as "being a man" might be seen as difficult in the 1960s, being a woman is no walk in the park, either. The show depicts the cases of Joan Holloway and Peggy Olsen as two distinct approaches in dealing with the issue of sexual harassment.
Joan Holloway is shown as the embodiment of what it means to be a woman. She is sexually devastating, able to use her sexuality as both a force of charm and effectiveness. This is seen in Season Five, when she agrees to sleep with a client in order secure a share of the advertising firm's partnership. She recognizes clearly that the financial conditions that she would have to experience as a secretary with a child would be devastatingly difficult. Her decision to sleep with the repugnant Herb Rennett might be criticized as not feminist. Yet, the show is adroit in depicting how Joan used sexuality to her advantage. In doing so, sexual harassment is something that Joan is able to use as leverage, to obtain financial security when it is wavering and far from certain. She does find limitations in this approach, as she never fully recovers from such a staggeringly intense course of action. However, it is unlikely that she would have been made partner in the firm without being able to fully use the game of sexual harassment to her advantage.
Peggy Olsen has developed another path. As opposed to using the man's idea of a woman to her advantage, she has sought to gear her professional goals in emulating the male pattern of power. Peggy has been shown as a character that is not interested in transforming power dynamics. She wants to aspire to the height of her career. As a woman in a man's world, she is not afraid to compete on their level and be the best at her craft. This is also seen in Season Five, when she leaves Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in order to be copy chief at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. When the two firms combine in Season Six, she ends up becoming Creative Director. Peggy has dealt with sexual harassment by moving past it in order to be in the position that she covets.
Certainly, both women's reactions are reflective of the conditions that women face during the time period. The argument that the show posits is that individuals are confronted with real and vibrant decisions when it comes to the issues of sexual harassment in the work place. While there is a natural desire to believe that these issues do not exist, the fact of the matter is that they do. Peggy and Joan show that individuals do have choice in trying to navigate the terrain, or as Joan would put it, "Speaking the language." As with so much in the show, sexual harassment is shown as a construct of power where voice is silenced. Yet, the individual ends up making a conscious choice in how to affirm their voice despite a structure that does not necessarily validate it. Like Don Draper whose relationships are muddled at best, the show makes the argument that sexual harassment is a challenging reality. As Don has realized at the end of Season Six, there must be an acknowledgement of this challenge and desire to make it right. This defines not only our response to sexual harassment, but our humanity.