Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Serious Question: Why Won't Mad Men Let Peggy Olson Have Friends?

Warning:  The following post contains major spoilers for Mad Men's sixth season.  If you aren't caught up yet...I have no use for you.
So anyone who's had a conversation with me knows that Peggy Olson is my homegirl.  Watching the evolution of Mad Men's secretary-turned-copywriter-turned-advertising superstar over six seasons has been an exhilarating ride.  What I love about Peggy is from day one she has never fit into the mold of a traditional television character, from her intelligence to social awkwardness to her sexual appetite to her unconventional looks.
 Yes, I even appreciate the terrible bangs from season 1.

Peggy's sense of style has evolved to become less mousey over the years as she has grown more confidant, and yet the show has stayed committed to not turning her into a Covergirl.  I've always had this pet peeve on television on supposedly "awkward" female characters on television--I'm looking at you, Zoey Deschanel--sporting wavy, windblown girls out of a L'Oreal commercial.  It's part of the reason why, despite my qualms with many aspects of Girls, I appreciate that Hannah Horvath looks like an actual person.   Were they actual people who lived in the same decade, I imagine these odd, brainy women could be awesome friends.

You know what I also loved about season 1 of "Mad Men"?  Marge.  Anyone else remember the ascerbic, cat-glasses wearing telephone operator?  Some of you may know the actress Stephanie Courtney better as Flo from the Progressive ads.

And while her presence in season 1 was hardly strong, she was always memorable.  Most importantly, in contrast to alpha secretary Joan, Marge never seemed remotely threatened by Peggy's success.  Here's Marge's warm, jubilant reaction to Peggy's first copywriting success in episode 1x8, "The Hobo Code":

And during the bacchanalian election party in episode 1x12, we see Peggy isn't the only one casting an askance glance at the rampant sexual politics of the office.

Even when Marge isn't on screen, she is a champion for Peggy's progress in episode 1x9:

And though she isn't exactly a rockette, season 1 Peggy is above getting her twist on PJ Clarke's after work:

Yet by the beginning of season 2, Marge and the rest of Peggy's office support system are nowhere to be found.  This isn't necessarily surprising. Casting changes happen all the time, and perhaps the Progressive gig was monopolizing Courtney's schedule.  Whatever the reason for Marge's departure, Peggy was now completely isolated in the office politics and social scene.  This struggle is epitomized in episode 2x2, "Maidenform," in which Peggy find herself excluded from a bra account because the boys don't see her in a sexual way.  In this analysis of "Maidenform", we see the men of the office categorizing the women as either a "Jackie" or a "Marilyn," and the point is made that Peggy doesn't fit into any of these categories and is thus ignored.    By episode 2x12, she does acquire a gay best friend in the form of artist Kurt, who helps update her style en route to a Bob Dylan concert.

By the end of season 3, Peggy has begun to loosen up.  In 3x3 she reveals her wild side during a weekend work session with Paul Kinsey and Kurt's copywriting partner Smitty (seen seated at the table  at the beginning of the clip).

In  episode 3x12, "The Grown Ups," we learn her relationship with Kurt and Smitty has progressed to regular power lunches.  

Still, as a whole Peggy's path is a lonely one, as we can see when the ad boys along with telephone operator-turned-secretary turned one woman wrecking ball Lois Sadler prank calling Peggy when she puts an ad up for a roommate in episode 3x4:

This isolation for the time period is understandable.  Peggy's arc has been largely characterized by her struggle to distinguish herself in the male-dominated world of 1960's advertising, where women who did not conform to traditional gender norms were routinely ostracized and ridiculed for daring to chart a new path.  Indeed, it was my own experiences feeling out of place in a male-dominated playwriting workshop that made Peggy's struggles against the old boys' club in seasons two and three so cathartic to watch.    The idea behind the scene--and much of Peggy's career--is to indicate that the road to success for a woman is a lonely one: not only do women face discrimination from men but also from other women, who feel threatened by anyone who challenges their choices.  

It's a powerful, relevant storyline and yet--I'm not sure this state was inevitable for Peggy.  You could chalk up Peggy's wet blanket-ness to the result of the trauma from her surprise pregnancy at the end of season one.  She even indicates to Pete the feeling that after that experience there was suddenly "less" of her.  I can't help believing that if Peggy still had Marge at the office, she would not have been experiencing quite as much loneliness.   It seems as though there was a conscious decision on the part of the writers to set up a contrast between two different female types: the pretty girl (Joan) and the smart girl (Peggy).  Having another woman on Peggy's team would perhaps make her struggle seem less daunting.  

Luckily, matters improved socially for Peggy in season 4 with the introduction of Peggy's pants-wearing, lesbian friend Joyce, played by Zosia Mamet in the fourth episode titled, "The Rejected."  For the first time since the party scene in season 1, we actually see Peggy letting herself having fun.  More importantly, it seems she has finally met people who appreciate her intelligence and think she is cool.  

And even Peggy's charms are less immediately apparent to her coworkers, she is ballsy enough to call out art director Stan for daring to underestimate her, proudly winning his grudging respect and earning the title of "smuggest bitch in the world" in episode 4x6.

Not only does Peggy actually make friends, but by the season finale she and Joan even seemed to find common ground and become gal pals.

Though Peggy continues to deal with sexism into season 5, we still get evidence that she is developing socially.  Here at around the 3:20 mark we see Joyce continuing to provide a source of support and entertainment for Peggy, bringing photos of the Richard Speck murder victims in episode 5x4:  

By the end of season 5, Peggy has made the decision to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for good in favor of a better paying gig at rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough.  

Which brings us to season 6.  The premiere episode "The Doorway" saw Peggy blossoming in her new, more powerful role at her new agency, verbally bitch-slapping her underlings and managing a client crisis with grace and aplomb.  We even learn she has been engaging in phone banter with Stan, which is so freaking adorable they already have a tumblr.  In the New York Times recap for episode 2, the only thing missing is Casablanca.

And then came this week's episode "The Collaborators."  In this episode we see Peggy continue to fight for her male employees' respect, ending with the boys leaving Peggy a fake ad for a feminine hygiene product, thereby indicating their sexist view of her as a female boss.  I'm sure it made sense for the time period--no doubt female bosses would have experienced a lot of resentment and ridicule from their male employees.  But in the world of the show and Peggy's journey, it seemed like a step backward that, like Peggy's season 2 isolation seemed less than inevitable.  After all, in the season 4 episode "The Chysthanthemum and the Sword," we saw a brief glimpse of Smitty working for Ted at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough  After Peggy's departure from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce there was some speculation that Elisabeth Moss might be off the show for good, and I consoled myself with the fantasy of a CGC spinoff with Peggy, Joyce and her gal pals Kurt and Smitty. 

Like Marge's season 2 absence, I can understand why Smitty would have been gone by the time Peggy arrived--no doubt Ted fired him after being played by Don in the battle for the Honda account.  At the same time, however, if Peggy is in such a powerful role at the agency, wouldn't she have the power to bring in colleagues that fit her working-style?   Wouldn't she know people after some eight years in the business?  

How interesting would it be to see Peggy working with her former Sterling Cooper colleagues and juggling her newfound role as a boss to her friends?  Smitty could even play the same role that Peggy played in season 4 when she admonished Joey for drawing a sexist cartoon of Joan.  You still get issues about women in power, but in ways that aren't simply repeating stories from previous seasons.  

But that's not the story that Matt Weiner wants to tell.  

Of course, season 6 has barely begun.  We have no idea where this season is going.  Perhaps Peggy, Joyce, and Joan will end the season moving in together "Laverne and Shirley"-style and close the series  singing Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me," First Wives Club style.  

 (In my head, Peggy is Diane Keaton, Joyce is Bette Midler, and Joan, of course, is Goldie Hawn). 

But this, of course, is "Mad Men," where healthy adult relationships are rarely part of the equation.  I might have to start writing fan fiction.  




  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If it wasn't for Peggy's story evolution, I don't think I would be watching this show that religiously. Sure, there is clever writing, 60s fashion, a backstage pass into the world of advertising and Jon Hamm, but without Peggy it just wouldn't have the same appeal.
    I love your observations and the way you have charted her character development in this post.

    Bojana @restandcreate

  3. Hi Bojana! Thanks so much for your kind words. What I love about Peggy is she is so unlike any other character on television--she doesn't conform to any kind of type. I think she also meant a lot to me because during season two I was the only female writer in my grad program, and I could relate to her struggles to be taken seriously.