Tube Tied: Let Peggy Be Peggy

Michelle Dean
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I haven't been writing about Mad Men too much because I am trying to let it simmer for a while before I make any pronouncements of quality.  I will say that I'm still waiting for the good stuff, and that while I'm moderately optimistic that it's coming, this has, thus far, been a strange season for Mad Men's women.

 Take Peggy, for example.  You already know that I have a fondness for awkward young women on television.  It comes from a sense of solidarity with the future name-taker who hasn't yet seen just how many asses she'll be able to kick someday.  So it will come as no surprise, I think, when I tell you that I'm on Team Peggy in the Mad Men universe, hoping that she will ultimately triumph over the men who decided what she was before she had the chance to discover it herself.  I have always preferred her awkward ambitiousness to Joan's swagger and tart remarks - there was a sense of the outsider to the former, and a refreshing sort of self-awareness.

This season, a change has come over Peggy that I don't quite understand.  To be fair, there is often very little about Peggy that is easy to understand.  Elisabeth Moss kind of keeps her that way, which I admire, since in the hands of another actress she would be less of an ambiguity, more straightforward, and I probably would have tired of her already.  I don't seem to be the only one who thinks that she is regressing, somewhat.  It's like she took Bobbie's "being a woman is a powerful business, if done correctly" advice too much to heart.  Suddenly she's trying out Ann-Margret coquettishness.  She seems to know, perfectly well (given Sunday night's look at Don when the Patio commercial fizzled at the pitch), that she is attractive to men in a different way than other women are - hence the desexualization in the first season, even though she hardly started out looking or acting like a clichéd seductress.  I would much rather see her own that brand of unconventional attractiveness than see her morph into a more professionally ambitious version of Jane, Roger's new wife.

Similarly, the marijuana incident, though it contained the glorious line, "I'm Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana," seemed like the moment in a high school movie where the geek character suddenly gets admitted to the inner circle.  Granted that Peggy was still far more productive, as a stoner, than any of her coworkers are when they are sober, it still felt, a little bit, like an attempt to prove something about Peggy we hadn't seen before: that she was willing to take risks.  Considering that this is the character who slept with a soon-to-be-married man right out of the gate at the beginning of the series, I never felt in doubt of this quality of Peggy's.  In short, I sometimes wonder if the writers on Mad Men occasionally share her male coworkers' opinions of her: that she is dull, and ultimately in need of a jazzing up.

Maybe I'm too protective of her.  After all, identification with Peggy is more than an abstract thing for any woman who's ever worked in a predominantly male corporate environment.  You become an artist of the suppressed eyeroll, a master of the poker face.  The one thing that hasn't much changed since Mad Men, you see, is the idiotically competitive atmosphere of the average board meeting: they might as well, as they say, just take them out and measure them.  Sure no one drinks or smokes in the office anymore, but the sense that every conversation is a competition that one must win, or else surrender one's testicles, continues apace.  These are men's worlds to which we may have been reluctantly admitted, but we are still to take the terms offered, and never question them.

What I want from Peggy, simply, is to see her live her life as a person - and as a woman - who is different.  It's not so often we get a Peggy on television.   The tragedies of Joans and Bettys, while equally important illustrations of women's experience, are much less threatening to the social order of things, the way things are: they are unhappy because they married bad or just simply the wrong men - but they could have married better.  But the success of a Peggy, the success of making headway in a man's world without capitulating to its terms - so here I mean Peggy as Peggy, not Peggy as ersatz Bobbie - well, that was always the thing about Mad Men that struck me as not just well-executed, but original and inspiring.  I guess I just hope they stick to that.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted


"After all, identification with Peggy is more than an abstract thing for any woman who's ever worked in a predominantly male corporate environment. You become an artist of the suppressed eyeroll, a master of the poker face. The one thing that hasn't much changed since Mad Men, you see, is the idiotically competitive atmosphere of the average board meeting: they might as well, as they say, just take them out and measure them. Sure no one drinks or smokes in the office anymore, but the sense that every conversation is a competition that one must win, or else surrender one's testicles, continues apace. These are men's worlds to which we may have been reluctantly admitted, but we are still to take the terms offered, and never question them."

A-freakin'-men. I feel like every episode this season I've been waiting for Peggy to snap out of this role she's slipped into. She's such a powerful character in the same way that Don is, in many ways. Intensely complex and private, though she takes it to a different place I think. She could be read as a one-note oddball, but there is so clearly more to her than that because of the way Elizabeth Moss plays her. I love Peggy and the ups and downs she's been through in the last two seasons. I guess I just keep waiting for them to crack her open in the same way that they do Don - little by little, but those small tastes of insight are just satisfying enough to keep my wanting more.

Also, I love the Mad Men commentary. Keep it coming!

writing the script

My sense is that Peggy is in a really unique space. She is a woman who doesn't have a model to follow for what she's doing. Essentially, she's figuring out who she is and who she wants to be (one of the guys or femme fatale or bohemian or...?) on a daily basis with no script to follow. For a show like Mad Men, that's a really attractive plot-line because there are so many directions Peggy can go in that we, the viewer is aware of having come up with the images of 1960s working girls, and it isn't clear to the viewer which path she will carve out for herself. I'm hoping for a Bella Abzug meets Helen Gurley Brown amalgamation.

I agree with this totally.

I agree with this totally. And I don't feel that Peggy is "slipping into a role" at all; there simply isn't one for her to slip into. She has to navigate this new space and create the role, something that isn't easily done. After all, as Bobbi said, she can't become a man, and the only acceptable power role for women is sexual, a la Joan or Bobbi herself, but not Peggy. I think she's just trying on all the hats, testing the fit and the reaction. She is such a dynamic character, and what she's doing now is, I find, pretty realistic. After all, have any of us just up and realized our potential for kicking ass? It takes time and confidence, and the obstacles that Peggy faces are even more imposing than those many of us face today. But she's getting there. It's just part of the process.

What I love about Peggy is

What I love about Peggy is that she is learning and absorbing from /everyone/. Yes she's using some more femininity this season, but for the most part it is a grown woman's femininity - not the little girl attitude she had first season. She is also very much growing up in Don's image - the casual sex, being hard on her secretaries, needing to avoid thinking about a project until inspiration strikes...she's learning from him in positive and negative ways. And she learns from Joan because Joan is never discomfited and always knows what to do.

I never equated Peggy with Bobbie because she as yet hasn't used her sexuality to get at what she wants, or control anyone. She tried in one of the first episodes - when she put her hand on Don's, but it quickly became apparent that her talent is what moves her up, not her sexuality. It's her talent that earned her an office and a title - now that she's setting her sights on being a Manhattanite, sexuality is following along as she continues to grow up.

Peggy the Experimenter

I have to write in agreement with the posters who are defending the changes in Peggy. Personally, I've always liked Peggy, but not as much as the other female characters, until this season. The reason is because it seemed so obvious that Peggy was the new, "modern" woman, the one who was going to live out the fantasy of breaking into a man's world. While I don't mean at all to downplay the achievements of the character or the real life women who inspired such a creation -- obviously I am tremendously indebted to them and am greatly inspired by them -- from the perspective of art, it seemed so easy to be on her side. Of course we want her to break into this world and succeed! But you never really worry that she won't, because she represents the future. For me as a viewer, characters like Joan and Betty were more interesting because you can really see them struggling with the changes that are going on in the world -- they are unhappy and want something better but don't know how to go about getting it. (And I strongly disagree that they would be happier if they had just married different men -- their problems are much bigger than that.) There were two main things that made Peggy especially interesting for me in Seasons 1 and 2: the fact that she gave the baby away -- a wonderfully bold choice for the show and for the character -- and the strange unreadability of the way Elisabeth Moss plays her (combined with the unfathomable attraction to Pete).

But Season 3! Now things are cookin'! I see what you're saying about the show maybe wanting to make her seem "cooler" to the guys, but it doesn't really work, does it? I mean, Kinsey smokes marijuana with her and he's still in on the joke about her roommate ad the next week. What's important to me as a viewer is that Peggy is experimenting. She's now moving physically away from her family, and she's also trying out new things. Some will work, some won't. When she did the Ann-Margaret dance in the mirror, my first thought was, "oh, no! they're going to give Peggy a make-over and make her sexy!" But the brilliant aspect of that scene is the way that Elisabeth Moss plays it like she's dissecting the performance and studying it scientifically. She seriously does not get why this is considered sexy. Next thing is, she goes out and gets some action. Now, yes, she does act a little more "feminine" than usual, but she's still our Peggy, taking a bite of her date's burger and blurting out awkward things. Her one night stand has nothing at all to do with her job or getting married or how she's viewed in the world. It's about her OWN pleasure. When the guy doesn't have a condom, she says there are "other things" they can do. When have you ever heard a woman say something like that on tv? She takes total control of her sexuality -- not to "use" it for power, but for her own desires, totally separate from the workplace. She's not some victim who got burned by premarital sex once and won't do it again -- though she certainly learned she doesn't want to get pregnant again. In the past, she waited for Pete to approach her. Now, she decides when she wants to have sex and goes out and gets it. She's taking on a privilege that otherwise only really belongs to men on the show.

And the marijuana scene! Maybe the guys thought she was cooler, but she didn't care at all -- every time one of them made a remark showing attraction or interest, she dismissed it, often with irritation. Instead, it was about her own exploration, of herself, of her inspirations, of her creativity, and of her (nonsexual) pleasures. To me, the best part wasn't the scenes with the men, but rather with her secretary. When her secretary confronts her with worries that she wouldn't be taken seriously if she did such things, she replies by explaining that she's already gotten further ahead in the world than she was "supposed" to as a woman. Then she realizes that the secretary is worried about her. Her reply is priceless: "I'm not afraid of any of this....Don't worry about me. I'm going to get to do everything you want for me." Elisabeth Moss's brilliant delivery of these lines, with an extreme, almost frightening emphasis on *everything*, made my heart soar. I was truly excited to see where else she would be going, and what else she would be trying.

Predicting the Future for Peggy

Peggy is the image of a smart woman whose observant nature has allowed her to see the fallacies of the world. What is frustrating about Mad Men is that Peggy seems to be the only character who realizes there is a problem with the inequality between the sexes. In the episode before the last one Don seems put off by the minstrel show on the stage, and while everyone is giggling and clapping along, Don creeps off to indulge in a cocktail instead of whiteness the spectacle. Don proves to be sympathetic to black people's subordination, yet his brief moments of recognizing the ill treatment of women demonstrate he is not going to give too much consideration tot he problem.
It is only Peggy who seems to notice, and give thought, to the social abuse women endure, and that is why it would not be shocking, and completely cliche, if Peggy becomes a lesbian, or at least dabbles with a lesbian love interest. I am anticipating this massive media faux pas of categorizing female discontent as cured by lesbianism... We'll see.


I really don't know what the writers are doing with Peggy this season (nor have I ever been able to figure it out!), but I have to respectfully disagree. I think her Ann Margaret impression was more about mockery than yearning, and her pretense of being a "fun-loving girl" to get a roommate is just a means to an end (getting a roommate) than trying to actually become something she's not. She did transform physically last season, with the hairstyle and wardrobe change, but those were necessary to be taken seriously in an environment in which appearance matters (even for the men, with their suits and immaculate hair).

Basically, I think Peggy is the best female television character on right now (and has been for years now) because she can't be pinned down, defined or explained. We have no idea why she does the things she does, but SHE knows exactly what she's doing!

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