Artwork by Sarah K
She’s All That is a segment dedicated to the loving worship of our favourite female characters
Mad Men is a show about change. From 1960 to 1969, the assassination of JFK to the moon landing, Mad Men chronicles the changes from poodle skirts housewives to groovy miniskirts and hippies, changes that created a huge upheaval in society. Just as we watch the society transform before our eyes over the last seven seasons, (the finale will culminate in 2015) there is one character who has also had a drastic transformation, Peggy Olson.
At first, I didn’t like Peggy Olson; I just didn’t get her or know what she wanted. I thought she was annoying and grating in her earnestness. But that was before I discovered feminism for myself. Once I became knowledgeable about the history and meaning of feminism, I began to identify as one and it opened up a whole new outlook on Peggy for me.
We first meet Peggy on her first day at the job at Sterling Cooper. She is mousy, has really bad bangs, afraid to speak up but sincerely wanting to do a good job. It isn’t until doing testing for a lipstick campaign where she catches copywriter Freddy Rumsen’s eye, where she gets hired to write copy for the new “Basket of Kisses” campaign. She gleefully tells Joan, “I’m the first female writer at the firm since World War II” And thus the seed for Peggy Olson’s love for her creativity and career.
Gradually throughout the seasons we see Peggy get better hair, become more assertive, adventurous, She demands Don for a raise in earlier seasons, even stands up for herself when Don doesn’t ask her to join the new firm. Peggy and Don’s relationship changes drastically- she goes from his secretary, to protégé, to his equal. Peggy climbs the corporate ladder and becomes copy chief all before she’s thirty. Even Ted, her boss, tells Peggy he’s jealous of her early success!
Peggy is a feminist character who doesn’t even realize she’s feminist. She remarks how she too, like those fighting for Civil Rights at the time (of course while also recognizing that their struggle is very different) she is fighting for equal rights.
She sees the unbalance in the office every day, since day one on the job. From Pete Campbell demanding that she wear shorter skirts to show her ankles, being left out of campaigns that aren’t ‘female-oriented’, being left out of office meetings or parties since it is all men, afraid to be assertive for fear of being called a ‘bitch’, the list goes on and on.
Peggy wants to be treated better in the workplace, the one place she thrives in and loves. Although Peggy rises higher and higher in her career, there will always be a glass ceiling.
From Peggy’s very first copy idea, she has questioned and commented on the female experience.
While the boys are out discussing whether a girl is a Jackie or a Marilyn, if she’s this shade of lipstick or that, Peggy is revealing all of women’s innermost desires, we just want to be taken seriously. We don’t want to be compartmentalized. We don’t want to fit in one singular role. Madonna. Whore. Wife + Mother. Career Woman + Single.
This is something Peggy faces throughout the entire series, as well as the other female characters, and women of the 1960s. As more women began to have careers, thus came the question if a woman could “have it all”? Does having a career ultimately mean sacrificing ever having a family? As Don Draper even says, an ad with a working woman instead of a mother is just “sad.”
Peggy has had relationships throughout the show (Abe was a good one…but then she has the habit of getting with married men…) but none have lasted. And while we have yet to see Peggy Olson’s ending, one wonders where the show will go with that.
In one episode Peggy has to interview mothers for research, and later, after revealing that she has just turned thirty, she tells Don through tears “I looked in the windows of so many station wagons. What did I do wrong?” Peggy questions whether her career ambitions. All the more to complicate her situation, Peggy had given up her child for adoption. Something she, deep down, still questions if she made the right choice. And should she choose career over family again? Will she ever have a family?
I think that’s why I a lot women today, including myself, can identify with her. Even though things are a bit different today than in the 60s (well..not all that different. Some states still don’t even have equal pay…) women still face that choice or dilemma of balancing career and family, or the scrutiny of choosing one over the other.
Peggy Olson shows that you can accomplish so much by following your dreams and working hard. If you’re unhappy with yourself, you can change. Peggy is a complex character, and one of the great female characters on television today. I can’t wait to see where her journey ends with the upcoming season finale. Fighting for feminism in the working world, Peggy fights to be heard despite society around her working against her.