Is Mad Men's Peggy Olson Too Macho for Her Own Good?
Women who speak up are strident; men who do so are assertive.
Posted Apr 26, 2012
Adopting “masculine” behaviors and attitudes comes naturally to Peggy. She endures long hours and harsh criticism, writes solid copy, smokes, drinks, and engages in unemotional sex—just like one of the guys. And this works, until the lines between true self and workplace persona blur. Then she loses herself in her adopted masculine identity.
This is what happens in episode 506, “Far Away Places;” Peggy’s gender role confusion rises to the fore, especially after she has spent the night with her boyfriend, Abe, but jumps out of bed, thinking and talking only about what is going on at the office. She is more interested in finding her lucky pack of scented gum than in cuddling or engaging in pillow talk. Abe storms out and accuses Peggy of being too tired and job-focused for spontaneous sex or romance.
Peggy’s workaholic tendencies are certainly a factor in many of her ill- fated couplings. But, it is her conflicting ambitions—a desire to succeed at work and also to be a woman who has romantic and sexual relationships—that collide when she is left to run an all-male meeting of Heinz executives (Don has raced off with Megan to chase a potential client; he hopes their junket will be “just like California all over again.”).
Left in charge, Peggy certainly steps up. She presents the team’s work and hopes the client is pleased. And though the sketches resonate with Raymond, the grey haired White Anglo Saxon Protestant male at the head of the table, he is not the target audience. The campaign falls flat. Raymond inquires as to whether Don has signed off on the sketches, and Peggy—who is nervous about being in charge of such a difficult account—feels like the question challenges her authority, and competence.
Peggy is vulnerable because being person-in-charge is new to her; she is engaged in a slow moving process of consolidating her professional identity. When she is thrust into a starring role with Heinz, Peggy has to appear to be in command--even if she doesn’t feel like she has a handle on the client’s wishes, and even if she knows she has not yet garnered his respect. With no female role models to channel, Peggy has to act fast, and craft a team leader persona out of spit and gum (maybe that’s why she so desperately needs that pack of violet chewables after all!). She attempts to channel the most successful ad exec she knows: Don Draper, and in so doing, manages to act exactly as she imagines Don would, were he under the gun: she lashes out at Raymond, the Heinz executive who has criticized the sketches.
When Peggy engages in a direct confrontation, she goes too far in her identification with Don’s Alpha Male qualities. Instead of sorting through and adopting the parts of Don she admires—his charisma, wit, persuasiveness—she turns into him, swallowing him and his machismo whole. In the instant she challenges Heinz, she becomes her boss in the entirety, and plays out a fantasy of what she imagines he would do, were he standing in her shoes being criticized by someone important from the bean company. So, she gets in Raymond’s face: “Your words are always, ‘I don’t like it...’ You’re right. We don’t understand you. Because you do like it. You just like fighting.”
Raymond, the Heinz exec, responds to Peggy as if she were an immature, rebellious, and unworldly teenager (perhaps he sees Peggy as callow and emotional, like his his daughter). It is also possible he feels threatened by a woman who takes an assertive stance. Females who spoke up were viewed as strident and aggressive. Men who did so were perceived to be assertive (and things are not so different today). Raymond is, after all, a middle aged man, living in the 1960s. He might be hard-pressed to see beyond traditional gender roles and accepted standards of female behavior. And indeed, Peggy’s direct challenge puts him off. Shortly after the meeting she is notified by Pete—who is, by the way, looking horribly worse for the wear—that she has been pulled from the account.
Peggy’s encounter with Heinz illustrates just how difficult it is for her to navigate the male workplace. With no blueprint to guide her, she finds herself in--pardon the expression--virgin territory. So she does the only thing she can think of: act like a man. Peggy’s biggest mistake lies not in her ambition, but in her belief that pulling a Don is the right way to handle the all- male room. She is too confused to rely on her own talents and skills, or to form her own style of running the meeting. In the face of stress and adversity, she is unable to differentiate herself from her sometimes prickly and arrogant male boss.
Gender confusion did not always cloud Peggy’s vision. During her early “basket of kisses” days, for example, she successfully used her knowledge of women and her feminine identifications to think of a creative approach to selling lipstick, and won over the male copywriters with her smarts and charm. Back then she did not try to out-man or directly challenge the males who stood in her way or mistreated her.
Peggy’s smart woman approach is nowhere apparent when she confronts Heinz. And while beans are not lipstick, it is clear that Peggy has changed. In her wish to do well and her frustration at not being able to deliver, she pulls a Don—and in so doing comes across as angry, even harsh, especially by 1965 standards of decorum.
After the Heinz debacle Peggy barrels into action. She chugs something brown, and heads off to the movies. She acts on feelings by putting her hands down the pants of a strange man at the theatre and smoking pot with him. She also invites Abe over for a late night booty call. Peggy seeks comfort in traditionally male ways. She drinks and has anonymous sex; she doesn’t cry, talk to friends about her feelings, or engage in behaviors typically viewed as female.
The difficult meeting with Heinz is not all Peggy’s fault, of course. Don’s abrupt departure leaves her twisting in the wind. When Burt rebukes him for being on “love leave,” it forces Don to think about how to achieve a work/life balance—though surely no one at SCDP would have used that phrase. At this moment we know Peggy and Don to be kindred spirits. Each struggles to navigate tensions between their work and personal lives—and in this way they are 50 years ahead of the times.