Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

Sexism on Mad Men? It's Not Just a Guy Thing

Women can be workplaces bullies

Posted Feb 28, 2012

Fans of Mad Men will undoubtedly think of Peggy Olson, the only female copyrighter at the fictional agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as someone who has had to endure many hours and multiple incidences of sexual harassment—at least according to today's standards of workplace decorum.

When Peggy joins the agency as a secretary she is ogled, kissed against her will, and advised to show her legs ("are you Amish, honey?," asks Pete Campbell, one of the men on the Creative Team).  Joan the very sexy and bossy office manager even instructs Peggy to "Go home and look in the mirror. Put a paper bag over your head-really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are."  In other words, it is not just the men who are sexist on Madison Avenue in 1962.

But Peggy thrives despite being routinely objectified and bullied by the ad men (and Joan). Creative Director Don Draper gives her a chance to write, and ultimately promotes her to a copywriter position.  Interestingly enough, Peggy isn't as kind to her female underlings.  On one occasion she dresses down Lois, a secretary, making her cry—even though Peggy herself has been berated constantly by the men at the agency (Season 2, Episode 1 "For Those Who Think Young.").

Why would a woman who has been bullied by men on the job turn around and stick it to a female underling?  One answer: the psychological phenomenon known as identification with the aggressor.  When Peggy puts Lois in her place Peggy is actually identifying with the hostility of the men in positions of power at Sterling Cooper.

Peggy Olson, like all of the Mad Men characters, is psychologically opaque.  The psyches of all the mad men and women are examined in a new book, Mad Men on The Couch, just out from St. Martin's Press.  

Stephanie Newman is the author of Mad Men on the Couch

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