Is Mad Men Making It Acceptable to Throw Sexism Back in Movies and Television?
Last night I watched X-Men: First Class, this summer’s action packed superhero movie that’s head and shoulders above the rest. But not everyone was so pleased. @ladyelectric said on Twitter:
I found all that blatant sexism really irksome too. From casual sexist comments to the fact that every major female character somehow ended up in her underwear at some point in the movie, the show definitely inserts some sexist cues. I found these instances of sexism to be really distracting from what is otherwise a really decent rendition of a popular comic series. When I mentioned it to my significant other, he pointed out that, like Mad Men, the film was set in the 1960s, and wasn’t everything just a bit more sexist back then? [I should take a minute to note that I’m only going to be talking about the gender stuff in this post. For more on how XMFC handles race, I recommend Post Bourgie’s writeup.]
The critically acclaimed Mad Men series certainly includes moments of sexism. But what’s different about how the AMC series portrays this perspective is that the very point of inserting such comments is intended to make a point about how far we’ve come (or haven’t come) with women in the workplace. Mad Men, like earlier films 9 to 5 and Working Girl included sexist joke to make a point about sexism, mainly how awful it is for women to be on the receiving end of it. But in XMFC, this point somehow gets lost. Instead, the sexism seems sprinkled in—perhaps as a reference the popular series Mad Men or perhaps to make it more “authentically” ’60s. If XMFC writers were shooting for the former, it lost all potency without the underlying message. If they were shooting for the latter, then it’s just downright insulting.
After all, it’s not as if people in the ’60s were oblivious to sexism. Women’s libbers were definitely a part of ’60s culture, even if they were a bit on the fringe. Betty Friedan’s A Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, and it spent six weeks on the bestseller list. And as Stephanie Coontz pointed out when she wrote about Friedan’s work, Friedan book certainly captured a common feeling among women—especially women in the middle and upper-middle class. Even if you are writing about a hypothetical workplace in which the men make terrible, sexist comments constantly, it seems at best out of place in a movie that is mainly about superheroes.
Perhaps the reason it’s hard to laugh at sexist jokes in SMFC, even if they’re intended to be ridiculous and throwback, is that sexism in the work place just isn’t that funny because sexual harassment isn’t really safely in the past. An interview Laurie Wheeler conducted with Mad Men writer Erin Levy revealed that “much of the content from the show comes from the real life experiences of the writers.” Wheener writes, “The fact that the staff’s personal experiences translate easily to a show about the 60’s paints a less than rosy picture of how far we’ve come.”
Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it received 11,717 sexual harassment charges in fiscal year 2010. Of these, only 16.4 percent were filed my men. Thousands of women are still receiving enough sexual harassment to actually file charges, and that doesn’t even capture the instances of sexual harassment that go unreported. A 2006 American Association of University Women study, which looked just at college campuses, shows that the vast majority of sexual harassment goes unreported. For many women, sexual harassment is a very real part of life.
If writers for film and television are taking the cue from Mad Men to sprinkle a little sexism into the writing, then there’s a serious problem in popular culture. If anything, the cue should be how painful it is to be so lighthearted about sexism today. If women are laughing, it’s because they’re either very lucky or working very hard to pretend sexism still isn’t a part of everyday working life.