The Real Mad Men

Written by Ellie Leddra

Susan Cheng is editorial assistant for Buzzfeed and has written a variety of articles ranging from pieces about movies to the 7 top stories you should be reading weekly. She recently interviewed actor Paul Johansson to take part in a regular Buzzfeed tradition of ‘GIF reaction series’. In this instance, Cheng was interviewing Johansson on the series entitled ‘13 Ways to React to Dicks at Work, As Told by Paul Johansson.’ Johansson at the time was staring in hit show, Mad Men. Playing an executive who was lewd with his comments and made every single woman uncomfortable, the series seemed appropriate for the actor too voice his opinions. 

Later that day after the GIF series went live, Cheng posted another article. This time it was about how Johansson had acted towards Cheng during their GIF series, and unfortunately it wasn’t good. Cheng wrote about how the actor had made inappropriate comments towards her and had made her feel awkward by his actions. She spoke of her discomfort as he made suggestive remarks towards her and how he placed his hand on the small of her back as they walked together. Feeling harassed, she decided to write an article to expose how he had acted and how uncomfortable he had made her feel, showing that she would not be silenced by his inappropriate comments and actions.

Johansson’s comments

The issue all took place, conveniently, before the cameras began rolling. Cheng and Johansson were making small talk before the series commenced, in which they spoke about playing tennis. When Cheng made a remark that she could beat Johansson in a match, he replied, ‘My serve is pretty strong. I’ll serve the ball right down your throat’. Alongside a colleague, Cheng was taken aback and had to double check with her colleague that she had heard right. Johnasson quickly covered up his remark by saying that where he was from (Canada) ,that constitutes as flirting. They continued talking, where he moved onto Cheng’s colleague, he told her he would take her into ‘his cave (apparently a reference to Canada, where he’s from), where he’d put her on her back.

This wasn’t the last time Johansson made a lewd comment during the interview. When asked to act a situation in the GIF series, Johansson mocked that he was ‘sweating like a rapist’. Although the cameras were now rolling, he was not paying attention to it. Cheng noted that although she was appalled by his comments, she felt like she had to laugh before proceeding with the interview. When they had finished taping the GIF series, Cheng showed Johansson out. As they left the Buzzfeed office, passing through hallways, Johansson asked if ‘people made out’ in the conference rooms, all whilst putting his hand on the small of her back.

What happened next?

Cheng also took the first step of contacting Johansson’s publicist, in which she questioned why he had acted so inappropriately towards her. She received an answer hours later, but not the desired one. She was sent a letter via Johansson’s publicist, claiming that the actor ‘never acted inappropriate towards [me], or any of [my] colleagues at the BuzzFeed offices. His lawyer came up with reasons why the comments that Cheng put forward were not suggestive and that there was nothing sexual about the way Johansson spoke. He also said Johansson had not touched Cheng at all, and made it very clear that Cheng must have been fabricating the story to defame the actor.

Feeling violated and disappointed, Cheng was encouraged to write about the piece from another colleague but hesitated and pondered the thought that ‘every journalist has had a negative experience with an interviewee at some point in her career, and this was mine, right?’. After much deliberation she decided she had to speak out about the situation. She explained that she wrote the piece because ‘his conduct is common in a Hollywood culture that puts young women in positions where they can be easily manipulated or harassed by older men. What’s worse, that culture also discourages those women from speaking out and continues to reward the men accused of committing such offenses’. She also spoke about her naivety to the situation, she commented ‘It worries me that I felt this way. It worries me that it took a conversation with my editor to make me realize that I should have been pissed. If I were a man, Johansson would not have said those things in front of me, let alone to me’.

Johansson is best known for playing bad guy/villain roles in TV Shows. He famously played ‘father-from-hell’ Dan Scott in One Tree Hill and later on took on the role of Mad Men’s Ferg Donnelly. His character had sexually harassed Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) in which she quit the advertising firm due to his treatment of her. It had seemed his characters actions had very much mirrored his own in real life. It seemed all too realistic due to the fact that one of Mad Men’s re-occurring themes is the treatment of women and sexism in the workplace. The interview was extremely familiar to Mad Men as comments made by Johansson would’ve been inappropriate in an ad agency in the early 1970s.

Although Cheng has been extremely brave regarding her situation, the disappointing realisation is that neither Johansson nor his lawyer can see the error of his comments. They fail to see the sexism staring straight at them and pass his remarks off as ‘just kidding’ around. It seems that when men are exposed to their remarks, they are very quick to dismiss the women for ‘over acting’ or they disguise their comments as jokes. This can apply to cat-calling as well, this is harassment.

The problem with sexual harassment

There are online manuals if you search the web with guides about how to avoid be sexually harassed. The tips include:

  • Act confidently
  • Monitor the workplace
  • Keep appropriate company
  • Dress and act modestly

The fact of the matter is, these manuals should not exist. Harassment, sexual or not, should not exist.

The thing about this situation is that it’s not just about gender. This is really about human decency. Man or woman, mistakes should be realised and listened too and apologies should be made. No person, of any gender, should feel offended, uncomfortable, or harassed by anyone.

It is 2015, we should all be more aware to the comments being made. We are not in 1970, we do not have to expect it nor do we have to take it.