Sometimes a rolling stone that gathers no moss picks up a lot of dirt, sticks and debris. That happened when one particular Rolling Stone published a slanderous and sloppy attempt to tell a story about a fictitious gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine "officially" retracted the story only after the Columbia Journalism Review demonstrated how it failed at every level of responsible reporting and editing.
The retraction arrived on the same Sunday that "Mad Men" returned to the small screen with the first episode of its final season. Men are still behaving badly. The reaction to these media events further demonstrates how attitudes and perceptions are changing in a rampant sexual culture, told from two different perspectives.
The "Mad Men" story now moves into the decade of the 1970s, awash in male chauvinist put-downs of women common to that era, accompanied by accounts of revealing and dramatic fulfillment of the male fantasies that passed for conventional behavior more than a half-century ago. The script flatters the contemporary audience by making it feel superior to those benighted times. But the Rolling Stone debacle makes it clear that our own culture, dominated by feminist attitudes, is not so hot, either. Women fighting back in ways devoid of good judgment often make the man, not the woman, the victim in "the rape culture."
Creepy men, drunken college boys, self-indulgent celebrities and movie stars (to use a term now quaint) who abuse their sexual power against young women who may be drunk, too, are sadly still with us. Rape is a horrible crime. But it's a sign of the changed culture that reasonable, educated writers and editors like those at Rolling Stone blame the source and not themselves for printing a fictitious rape story. Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, calls the author of the fakery "a really expert fabulist storyteller." He holds no one responsible for writing, editing and checking the story. In a more responsible era, The Washington Post sacked the reporter and returned a Pulitzer Prize when an account of a 6-year-old drug addict was revealed to be a fraud.
We've moved from "Mad Men," where culture abetted aggressive male sexuality, to a time of blaming the man without evidence. Dominating the reaction to pernicious fakery are concerns that the collapse of the Rolling Stone story might make women reluctant to make accusations. An honest examination of a "culture of rape" on campus might have looked at the approving coverage of the young woman at Columbia University who carried a mattress on her back to remind everyone that she was raped, though it turned out that she wasn't, and the university exonerated the man she identified as her rapist.
"Mad Men" offers melodramatic insights into the behavior of men whom modern feminists sensibly revolted against. The most glamorous, wealthy and attractive men in "Mad Men" treat women badly, and the women accepted it without fighting back. Sometimes they even blame each other, as in a scene when dowdy Peggy, a copywriter, tells the voluptuous Joan, a partner, that the way she dresses encourages the sexist remarks directed at her. Today that's called "blaming the victim," and is unacceptable in nice places.
The bad male behavior on "Mad Men" goes unpunished, socially and culturally, and the show's popularity comes from how that behavior offends contemporary mores, as well as from its characters, storylines sets and dress. It's been called a "costume drama," and historical narratives are by definition set in an antique time, and the accurate depiction of attitudes that are not always "antique," nevertheless illustrates how radically long-standing sexual attitudes have changed, and in less than six decades.
The sexual morals in "Mad Men" include abortions, adulteries, one-night stands and births to single women, but in that era these were usually hidden rather than displayed for popular approval. This is meant to outrage the modern for the hypocrisy, and we are meant to congratulate ourselves on our progressive attitudes. But there's more than a little hypocrisy in an audience that takes pleasure in watching the passing parade and judging the participants harshly, and often giving favorite public men a pass.
How the audience responds to Don Draper's scene with the waitress in a diner shows how 1970 meets 2015. The leading man enjoys a sexual "quickie" in an alley, thinking she has taken a fancy to him, but it turns out that she credits him (by mistake) for having left a $100 tip. If that happened today, would the waitress cry rape and win public sympathy? She might be tempted to try.