I’ve been enjoying the later seasons of Mad Men as the characters really come into their own and the various sub-plots develop. A lot of the time I’m startled by how 1960s New York sounds like Mumbai in 2013.
In Season 4, an episode titled ‘The Summer Man’ shows Joey, a young
freelancer being blatantly rude to and harassing Joan Holloway, the senior office manager. His attitude is dismissive to the point of describing her to her face as ‘dressing like you want to be raped’. He also draws a pornographic cartoon of her and tacks it to her office window.
When one reads about, hears about or even sees something like this in a fictitious setting, the natural reaction is shock and horror. If it’s in a show like Mad Men, it usually gets put down to the timeframe and/or the western culture. And finally, by calling the particular propagator a few names, it gets pegged as abnormal behaviour.
The trouble is, this is not abnormal behaviour, it’s not specific to that time frame or that geography. This is the reality, here and now. Rather memorably, on my first day at b-school, the professor (an M.Tech. from I.I.T.) strode up to me seated in the first row and said,
“Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home learning to make chappatis?”
The predominantly male class laughed and the professor made some loyal fans that day. For the rest of the term, my questions were sidelined at best and turned into jokes, by the professor. I got my back at the end of the semester when I fought to take on a project that according to the professor, ‘involved a lot of maths so only engineers would be able to handle it’. I was the only non-engineer and the only woman in the group. After two weeks of being pushed around by the rest of the team, on the day before the presentation, I threw up my hands and declared that I was resigning from the team. Since I had done the bulk of the work, including the mathematical analysis, charting and the Powerpoint, the team came down on its knees. I delivered the entire presentation the next day and got a good grade (for the entire group, of course).
This sadly, has not been a stray incident but the first of several episodes where I’ve had to fight or tolerate extremely bad behaviour, as a woman professional. And as with the incident above, my approach has been to take it on like a war, fortify my defenses and attack.
What interested me about the Mad Men episode was what Peggy Olsen, a character I relate to greatly as I see my own professional journey charted out in hers, does. She is torn between the acceptance and camaraderie she enjoys from Joey & his cronies, as part of the creative team. But she also resents Joey’s harassment of Joan and the misogynistic attitude that she knows underlies it. She tries warning him and when he doesn’t listen, she takes it up to Don Draper. Don’s advice to her to is to not get him involved as it will make her look like a tattle-tale, but fire Joey, if she wants. She does just that and reports this to Joan, feeling proud and vindicated. Joan’s reply, as always, is surprising (if not cutting) but insightful.
And I learn a lesson that perhaps Peggy learns at the end of this episode too. In the bloody, dirty war between the sexes, should you accept the advice of the enemy, even if that particular one is an ally? Or does it make more sense to follow the counsel of one of your own, who leads and proves their mettle? To put it a little less dramatically, in a problem created by a man for a woman, does it make more sense to solve it by thinking like a man or a woman? Joan like a few wise women, has perfected the art of being a woman, always a woman and still keeping her independence and her dignity in a man’s world.
Unfortunately, in a society governed by rules created to pander to men, our behaviour as leaders, as power wielders are learnt from those who wielded them before us – men. I would love to have a Joan Holloway in my life, someone a little older, wiser and who has fought the battles I fight, before and with far more dignity and grace than I do. Sadly, I don’t have any real female role models. And it’s a doubly nerve-wracking realization that I may be just such a role model to younger women.
Ultimately it boils down to a simple truth. To be a powerful woman, you have to be a woman, not a man. And you can only learn to be a powerful woman, from a powerful woman, not a powerful man. And in a place devoid of such teachers, learning must happen with all its mistakes and far slower than I’d like.