Ever since my Girls reaction blogpost, and ever since Mad Men Season 6 started gearing up, I have been, with increasing frequency, referring to my most recent exes as “that guy I tried to show pushups to” and “that guy who hates Peggy.” Of course, these identifiers are gross oversimplications of my relationships with these people. You cannot build a year-and-a-half-long foundation on triceps and Mad Men. But for almost the last year now, I have mentioned several times in passing that my ex had a severe distaste for Peggy Olson, and the response has always been the same. As my roommate said most passionately, “That’s why he’s your ex!” Actually, he’s my ex because he broke up with me, but suffice it to say, I have heard this response from friend, acquaintance, and internet stranger alike.
Peggy Olson does not need defending. Her arc is interesting and relatable. She starts off a poster child for nearly every working girl’s fear: mousey (Paul Kinsey literally nicknames her “mouse ears”), timid, and dowdy, with bangs that curl so much it looks painful. Fresh out of Mrs. Deaver’s secretarial school, Peggy is new to this world, and new to being a working adult. It’s obvious she’s a little bit awkward, and doesn’t quite know the rules. Joan tells her she ought to find a way to make her ankles “sing,” and Peggy gets that look on her face that shows she has no idea what that means. She embarrasses herself in front of her boss, she sleeps with possibly the biggest douche-canoe (arguable) in all of Sterling Cooper, and she puts upscale city life on a pedestal when she ends a date by stubbing out her barely-smoked cigarette and saying, “Those people—in Manhattan—they are better than us. Because they want things they haven’t seen.”
But there’s a whole lot more to Peggy than a shy, naive secretary. There are many admirable qualities in her, and a lot of instances signaling that she is an underdog in this narrative. She’s good at her job and she likes it. In fact, she creates an identity out of working hard and succeeding. She likes working above all things. She worries about loneliness. She worries about her independence. She is made fun of for things she cannot help. But she thrives when others underestimate her.
Peggy Olson: [Presenting an idea to Don] We thought that Samsonite is this very rare element, this mythical substance, the hardest on earth, and we see an adventurer leaping through a cave.
Don Draper: Is this a substance much like bullshit?
When Don promotes her to copywriter, it at first seems like Peggy’s arc is about her moving up in the corporate world. And while it is about that, it also marks the start of her transformation in becoming a bona fide badass. As a copywriter, she starts out as unnaturally assertive. She plucks up the courage to ask for her own office, and when it’s granted to her, the idea is unbelievable. “Really?” she says, because it’s obvious she was prepared for a no. She asks for a raise. She gets it. She learns quickly that she won’t get anything she doesn’t ask for. She builds a career for herself, a portfolio. She gives presentations and becomes a mentor to Megan, Don’s secretary, turned wife, turned copywriter. She crashes meetings she’s excluded from. She smokes a spliff with Paul Kinsey. She doesn’t get bitter. She only gets wise.
Her most notable accomplishment is ending her work relationship with Don. On the one hand, he views her with respect, nurturing her potential as a copywriter with tough love and high standards. She is his protégé. He feels responsible for her, and and has looked out for her in emotionally trying experiences, both in and out of the office. On the other hand, he is cold, and unreasonable, and demanding. He bullies, verbally abuses her, and humiliates her on a regular basis.
Peggy Olson: You never say “Thank you!”
Don Draper: THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!
The last thing Peggy asks of Don is the least practical, but it is something she has always wanted in the first place. Before Peggy leaves SCDP, she asks him for simple recognition. She wants him to acknowledge that her work is good, to appreciate it, and to appreciate her efforts. Again, this is a young woman who has built an identity around being good at her job. So when his reaction is to angrily throw money in her face (ahh, the ol’ money-in-the-face maneuver), and disrespect her in front of her colleagues, Peggy knows there is no future for her as his employee. Don is a classic abuser, making each of his partners feel magically in love, until they don’t do what he wants them to do. Then he tears them down, and makes them feel helpless. The same goes with his working relationships. He admits to seeing her as an extension of himself. But when the extension has her own thoughts, ambitions, and motivations, he can’t take the loss of control. Peggy has a lot to lose. It seems at first as though Don has built her up, and the threat of leaving could mean a possible end to her career as a copywriter. What agencies will see her the way he does? How often is it that a woman is hired as a writer out of the secretary pool? As it turns out, she also has the most to gain.
When she resigns, she acknowledges that over the years, Don has been her “mentor” and her “champion.” But she is also aware that she has become, in his eyes, just like any of the women he encounters. Whores. Every one of them. He says to Betty in Season 2: “You’re a whore, you know that?” And then in Season 6, he says it to Megan: “You kiss people for money! You know who does that?” In a Season 5 episode titled “The Other Woman,” he crosses the line with Peggy. When he is in a rage, not even she can escape the connotation. Betty and Megan do not see the inevitable end when Don realizes they will no longer cooperate with his bullshit. They can’t tell that the honeymoon period is long over. But Peggy sees. And Peggy leaves.
Roger Sterling: Get me some coffee, will you?
Peggy Olson: No.
Over a year ago, after my then boyfriend exclaimed that he hated Peggy so much he wanted to “punch her in the face,” I stayed up late writing about how much his comment perturbed me. I don’t actually remember him using those words, but he must have, because I quoted him in an old notebook his mom gave me for Christmas. At the end of the page, I had written this:
Peggy is easily the character with whom I identify the most, and possibly the easiest to root for. I often feel like a Peggy, especially at work. I would like to be like Megan the way Peggy describes her: “One of those girls who’s good at everything.” But really, I’m just a Peggy. Working hard, working late, persistent because I have to be, uncomfortable asking for things, and not entirely sure of my worth. I can think of no reasons to hate her. Only to feel terrible for her failures and enthusiastic for her successes.
I showed this excerpt to a friend who told me, “You seem to know your worth now.” Do I? I wondered. “Really?” I heard Peggy say, about her new office. At the time I wrote that excerpt, I did not want to be seen as a sort of Peggy, even though I admired her. Now, it’s hard to think of a better role model. Do I know my worth? I think I do know it. I see Season 6 Peggy Olson: Copy Chief. Upgraded salary. Her own secretary and working underlings. Accounts she has brought in through her own talents and her own ambitions. A boss that doesn’t yell at her. She thrives at work the same way she used to, while Don is beginning to lose his touch. She works her own hours (which are, incidentally, late), and enjoys it. These are all new adjustments, and maybe it’s not quite the same as working under Don Draper. There are still challenges she has yet to navigate that are unique to her gender. But she’s come a long way, baby, and I think she knows it too.