Bad Mad Men: Women Are Calling Them Out. Rules & Regs Now Needed

Cat and dogs lawsuit cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Back in the 1930s, the celebrated cartoonist James Thurber did a series of drawings that ran in The New Yorker titled, as I recall, “The Battle of Men Versus Women.”

My favorite was a series of two drawings. One was called “Men’s Headquarters.” And the other was “Women’s Headquarters.”

Men’s Headquarters was a messy room with empty beer bottles on the tables, crumpled-up papers on the floor and cigarette butts in ashtrays. About a dozen men were in the room, and they all looked rumpled, too. Some were standing, leaning on desks, others were collapsed in chairs, asleep, still others paced around. They’d been up all night, drinking and smoking. They were still going but now very distracted and tired. Apparently, nothing was going well. On the wall behind them was a large framed photograph of a woman glaring out at the scene. Under it was the single word WANTED.

Women’s Headquarters, on the other hand, was organized and neat. Five handsomely dressed women sat at a dais, facing the reader, their hands folded, knowing smiles on their faces. Flowers in vases were on the tables. Behind them on the wall, the name of the organization was written in bold type. It said something like “Committee for the Advancement of Women.” And there was a photograph of a woman in a frame underneath it, about the same size as the one in the Men’s Headquarters. A caption under it read OUR LEADER.

I don’t know if anybody today would think Thurber’s cartoons were funny. Probably not. We live in a different era. And women, who got the short end of things for many, many years, are now telling it like it is.

Not long ago, a TV show called Mad Men had a long and successful run on AMC. It appeared from 2007 until 2015, and it won many Emmy awards. It was about a typical 1960s advertising agency on Madison Avenue. White men ran the agencies. They had dark suits and narrow ties. They chased the secretaries around their desks. The secretaries sometimes worked in the “typing pool.” The men called them into their offices and, martinis and cigarettes in hand, berated these women, told them what jobs they wanted done and made comments about how they looked. Back at the typing pool, the women gossiped about the men, then, if one walked by, stopped talking and started typing. This was the way we were then. And many viewers enjoyed looking back at it and noting how different everything was then.

I spent nine months working at one of those agencies. In the early 1960s, Dan’s Papers was only published in the summertime. In the winter I went to college, but then, after graduation, I worked in New York City. One winter I worked briefly in the city room of The New York Times as a “runner” delivering messages from outboxes to inboxes. Another winter I worked at Foote, Cone & Belding, the famous ad agency that occupied three floors way high up in what today is the Met Life Building in midtown Manhattan. This could have been the prototype for Mad Men. I was 23, had the title of Copywriter Trainee, worked on the top floor of the three, the “creative” floor (as opposed to the plush executive floor down a flight, and the mailroom, accounting and art and printing services on the bottom floor). I was paid $110 a week and I was on a “team.” One account our team worked on was a breakfast cereal. Another account was SOS soap pads. A third account was Contac cold capsules.

One day, the whole creative department, including secretaries and typists, held a meeting in the typing pool, where Judd Irish, the creative director, told us we were going
to be competing in a contest. He wanted each of us to submit an idea that could be a TV campaign for Contac cold capsules. We’d meet again in a week, same time, same place. I might note that all the big shots in creative were men. Although there was one exception, which I will write about further on.

A week later, we met again. The winner was one of the secretaries. She thought up “Give Your Cold to Contac.” This afterwards became the wildly successful campaign that for a time brought Contac cold capsules to the top of the heap. She was asked to explain how she thought of this. She stood.

“I am getting married next week,” she said. (Everybody cheered.) “And I thought a woman might say to the viewers ‘My dad is giving the bride away, but I’m giving my cold to Contac.’”

Judd Irish waved around the check for $25 she had won. (More cheers.) She never got a raise, never got a penny more as far as I knew.

I mentioned that one of the big shots was a woman. Her group of offices was on the far side of our floor, and I never went over there. I did meet her in the elevator once. Her name was Shirley Polykoff, and she had been wildly successful with “Does She or Doesn’t She?” the campaign for Clairol, where the question was Does She or Doesn’t She Color Her Hair. She had become a major stakeholder at Foote, Cone & Belding.

Everyone in the elevator moved out of her way as she and her entourage came on. Nobody said anything all the way down.

I learned yesterday that the creator of Mad Men has been accused of sexual harassment by one of the writers of Mad Men. The creator is, or was, Matthew Weiner, and the writer was an award-winning screenwriter named Kater Gordon. The accusation was that in 2009, after the Emmys were handed out for this show, Weiner said to Gordon that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. She declined. But she never forgot it, she says. He has denied the allegations, but he is probably ruined.

Regardless of whether Weiner did this or not, I think it’s wonderful that, in more and more instances, sexual predators are being called out by their victims. Punishment happens overnight. No courtroom, no muss, no fuss. It’s out there. I am referring to men with power who harass, assault, rape, drug, beat-up and otherwise terrify women who work for them, and then it gets covered up.

It does not mean that an unwanted wink or smile necessarily falls into a criminal category because it made a person feel uncomfortable. There are limits to this. Sexual harassment, assault, beatings and rape, yes. Winks, whistles and comments that were accepted (albeit wrongly) 20 years ago but not now, well, in some cases it’s iffy. There need to be clear rules.

As a man told me the other day, “If the bar gets low enough, every man over the age of 50 is going to jail.”

The night after I learned about the Mad Men creator accusations, my wife and I went to a fancy restaurant. Standing next to the maître-de by the front entrance was a young woman holding menus, waiting to be told where to seat us. She was about 20, dressed for a prom and stunningly beautiful. My wife smiled at her.

“You are an absolutely beautiful young woman,” she said.

“Thank you,” said the young woman, smiling.

I looked at her. And I said, “I’m not allowed to say that, but what my wife said is absolutely true.”

Tell you what, though. There’s a man I know who insults women, is caught telling another guy, “Grab their pu–y. You can do anything,” who’s walked through a room full of beauty contest contestants changing their clothes, and who’s supposedly done nasty things in bedrooms in Moscow hotels—and he’s away in the Far East right now, and maybe it’s time for a whole bunch of women to step forward.

Overnight. Boom.

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