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Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men’

A Real-Life Conflict Between Religion and Marriage Equality

November 9th, 2009 No comments

This story from FOX News illustrates the conflict that can arise in the workplace where anti-discrimination norms bump up  against strongly held religious views. In sum, one Brookstone employee, Peter Vidala, didn’t appreciate another’s telling him that she had gotten married to her same-sex spouse. (All relevant events in this story took place in Massachusetts.) After a few moments of prayerful reflection, he came back with this statement to her:

“Regarding your homosexuality, I think that’s bad stuff.”

She complained, left, apparently reported the incident to Human Resources, and Vidala was fired. He continues to defend his position, saying that calling same-sex unions “marriages” is “lunacy.” Brookstone has a different view, as set forth in this termination letter:

“In the state of Massachusetts, same-sex marriage is legal and there will be people with whom you work with who have fiancées or spouses who are the same gender…While you are entitled to your own beliefs, imposing them upon others in the workplace is not acceptable and in this case, by telling a colleague that she is deviant and immoral, constitutes discrimination and harassment.”

He’s considering filing a complaint with the EEOC.

This is a case that could have been avoided, of course: Vidala could simply have asked that the woman focus on work, or might have thought of something to say that was less offensive, and therefore less likely to trigger her outraged response. Memo: No one likes to be told that their identity, and the exercise of their legal rights, is “bad stuff.” That’s especially true where the person on the receiving end is part of a historically disfavored group. Once same-sex unions are legal, the comment is no different than if he’d said: “Your marrying someone of a different race is “bad stuff.”

I should also say that the woman impugned (who hasn’t been identified, to my knowledge) could have given the guy another chance, a warning, suggested he consider some diversity training, etc. But not everyone is so magnanimous, nor should one expect them to be.

I don’t think he has a claim; free speech and the free exercise of religion (which isn’t as directly implicated anyway) aren’t absolute, and anti-discrimination laws declare some speech and conduct off-limits. For example, a male employee can’t use the First Amendment as a shield for telling a female subordinate that her body is [fill in the suggestive remark], and that he’d like to take her out for dinner. This isn’t the era of Mad Men.

What would be the result under the religious exemption laws that some scholars flog so relentlessly, calling such protections needed where marriage equality becomes law? Not so clear, I would say. If religious objectors involved in commerce can “step aside” and refuse to facilitate same-sex marriages (as by declining to cater a gay wedding), can they also be shielded against anti-discrimination laws for expressing a view against gay marriages? Doesn’t such expression have less impact than a refusal to deal? And if the laws could potentially apply to that situation, then let’s pick apart Vidala’s comments to see whether they were based only on the marriage (protected, potentially, under this view), or on a broader discomfort with homosexuality (not protected).

It also seems as thought this case underscores the need for educating people about the diverse society in which they live. If kids aren’t told about, and counseled to respect, others with whom they (their parents, really) disagree, they might become Peter Vidalas: unable to hold their tongue even when their comments end up harming both themselves and their fellow employees.

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part II: Joan or Peggy?

August 16th, 2009 No comments

There’s a great scene in the final episode of Season 2 of Mad Men. Joan Holloway, the office manager who’s hit the glass ceiling within the secretarial ranks, sees Peggy Olson, who has, remarkably, become a copywriter, as Peggy is about to enter her new office. Joan, crushed when her foray into script reading was snatched away, nonetheless exchanges a warm moment with Peggy, noting her name on the door and congratulating her. Sisterhood trumps envy.

As I said in my previous post about this show, the women on the show are more interesting than the men: They bob and weave for advantage in a male-dominated domestic and business world. Peggy and Joan advance in quite different ways, though. Joan is almost a caricature of the voluptuous sex object, while Peggy tacks back and forth, uncertainly, between being “one of the boys” and creating a female identity for herself. Joan advises her to take the latter course.

Joan’s the more self-assured and confident of the two, but the writers provide constant reminders of the compromises, large and small, that she must make. In one poignant glimpse, we see her taking down the bra strap that holds so much weight, and wincing at the painful mark left on her skin. In another, much more troubling scene, she is raped —  there’s no other word to describe it — by her fiance in one of offices. She protests, but has neither physical nor, as a practical matter, legal, recourse. Worse, she stays with the guy — a successful MD who’s lauded by another cast member for his charity work with “Negro children.”

In the early 1960’s, marital rape was not a crime. It took the feminist movement to change that archaic rule, and even today, rape is treated less harshly by the criminal law when it occurs within a marriage. This law was a holdover from the much earlier rule, abolished in nineteenth century, that permitted men to “chastise” — beat — their wives for insubordination. That marital rape was protected for an additional century speaks to the lingering idea that rape within marriage was an oxymoron — marriage bestowed consent to sex, all the time.

Of course, Joan was not yet married, so she could have reported a crime. But at that time, even more than today, Joan’s very sexuality, coupled with lingering ideas of male prerogative would have made prosecution unlikely, conviction less so. And Joan, as a wily  maneuverer within the constraints of her era, would perhaps not have seen reporting the crime as in her best interest. (At least not immediately — I have  some hope that the show will return to this issue, and show the psychological damage that must have been inflicted.)

Even today, many women put up with all sorts of crap in defense of the male prerogative that is so slow to die. That’s why I was heartened at the recent comments, and reaction, to Gov. Mark Sanford’s infidelity by his wife, Jenny. This former Wall Street big shot was not going to stand for it, nor stand by his side before the media when he “confessed.”  She told him to stop, and forbade him to see his Argentine lover again. (I can’t believe he even had the [fill-in-the-blank] to ask). And now she’s moved out of the Governor’s Mansion with the couple’s four sons.

Of course, not every woman is Jenny Sanford. Many are still in the powerless position of Joan, or the impossible one of Peggy, who hides her pregnancy and gives her child up for adoption (in a world where abortion was illegal) so that she can continue her career, which is the most important thing to her. Only in the last few episodes does she begin to realize the toll that her decisions have taken.

Season 3 starts tonight. I can’t wait.

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part I: The Betty Chronicles

August 12th, 2009 No comments

During a recent vacation in Maine, the four adults in the house gathered what was left of ourselves after our kids had finally gone to sleep, and plowed through the entire second season of Mad Men. (We’d done the same with the first season during last year’s vacation.) One week, thirteen episodes on DVD: now that’s the way to watch TV. By the end, we were all struck by the same thing:

The title and the show’s dead-on depiction of the dysfunctionally glamorous advertising world of the early 1960’s notwithstanding, most of the best-developed and consequently most interesting characters are the women: Betty Draper, wife of the show’s tortured protagonist, Don Draper; Joan Holloway, office manager for the ad agency; and Peggy Olson, secretary-turned-copywriter. All reflect the legal and social cages that helds women during that not-so-long ago time, as well as the various strategies women used to pick the locks.

From my perspective, the sometimes-unstated legal rules that enforced the social norms are especially interesting. In this first of three separate posts about these women, I’ll focus on Betty Draper. 

Don Draper is a beautiful, irresistible man with money and power. As was more common then than now, he sleeps around — often, and with different women. From season 1, it’s obvious that Betty knows about it, but her options are few. The neighborhood’s scorn for the one divorced women in their midst (before they know anything of the circumstances), reflects the high social cost borne by divorcees. When Betty finally takes a stand during season 2 — only after being publicly humiliated — Don denies everything. Despite excavating the house for clues, she unearths no proof of his infidelities. At the time, this meant that divorce would not have been a legal option for for her, or at least not one likely to succeed. There was still no such thing as “no fault” divorce, and most states required that adultery had to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence” — the legal term for evidence somewhere between the “more likely than not” standard used in civil cases, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal cases. Inasmuch as a adultery was then universally a crime (although seldom punished), this standard made sense. But the effect was to make exit from marriage almost impossible. In New York, where the show is of course set, this was especially true — adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1967!

Yet the show and the law actually reflect legal and social progress over an earlier era: For most of the season, Betty won’t allow Don into the home, and he accepts her decision (while not admitting anything until the season’s final episode, and then obliquely). And the law by this time had at least equalized the legal treatment of the spouses — for centuries, women could get their exit visas only by showing that their husbands had engaged in a “course” of marital infidelity, while men had but to prove a single instance. Even by the early 1960’s, though, I’d guess that someone has studied and shown that the almost exclusively male judges were more sympathetic to husbands than wives.

Betty’s options were further limited by her discovery that she’d become pregnant before kicking Don out of the house. Because of her wealth and station, it seemed that she did have the option of abortion (a friend tells her of “a doctor in Albany.”) What Mad Men doesn’t say is that abortion remained illegal (except in rare circumstances) in New York until 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade).

The writers, wisely, left unclear whether she’d actually have gone through with the procedure;  before she takes any action, Don returns, hat in hand. In the season’s final scene, the two of them are sitting at a quiet kitchen table as she tells him of her pregnancy. It’s clear that her condition, and her limited options, contributed to her complex decision to take him back.

Like any well-written and thoughtful show, Mad Men isn’t preachy, or comfortably clear. Would a fuller range of legally available options have been better for everyone, including the couple’ s other two kids? Perhaps, but maybe not. It’s impossible to say, of course: We only see one course of possibilities played out. I usually — and here — come out on the side of choice, autonomy and dignity over enforced status.

But let’s not pretend that progress is an unmitigated good in every case. Law makes its decisions in bulk.