I used to watch Mad Men with a friend in high school that just could not stand Peggy. He found her abrasive and difficult and annoying— all of which (especially early Peggy), she was. She had those terrible bangs and did everything wrong (that first come on to Don… eugh) and was always messing something up. But the characters we really connect with aren’t just shining visions of perfection. We look for people that share our flaws, quirks, and struggles, and hope that they succeed. We live out our most difficult issues in hour-long bouts of television therapy. There’s no catharsis in perfection.
The clip above was the exact moment I knew I adored Peggy. The episode, if memory serves, focused around the Patio soda campaign. They had a reel of Ann Margaret singing the opening Bye Bye Birdie song, flouncing and flirting with the camera. The men of the office gather and generally leer and applaud the whole display. Ann Margaret is young and bouncing and beautiful— and so eager to make the camera fall in love with her. Peggy watches with a mixture of confusion and disgust. Then later, we get this; a private moment where Peggy gives it a go. Is it just posturing? Can she flirt and smile and sing some hack song and have every man in the office on bended knee? Is she pretty? Could she be pretty? It’s ridiculous— a young woman in a dowdy nightgown singing in front of a mirror like a little girl might. We get the sense that’s exactly how Peggy feels when she tries to have the charm and appeal of a Joan-type secretary.
Peggy can’t help but be torn between two worlds. She has to constantly choose femininity or commanding respect (neither of which she’s all that comfortable with). Peggy is smart and driven and good looking and caring, but she can’t figure out what to do about it. She wants everything (depending on the day) in a world that is determined to make her choose. At the end of last season, when she settles into Don’s iconic chair, we’re seeing a sort of affirmation of six seasons of development and struggle. She found balance. She chose. She had suitors and stumbles and crises of confidence, but they were all secondary to her ambition in the end. She doesn’t get the guy, but she gets the corner office.
I’m lucky. I don’t live in a time where the choices are quite so stark for women. Yet that central struggle— the question of how to do womanhood “correctly”— is still one I can’t help but identify with. I’ve got a deep voice and commanding presence. I’ve always been outspoken, and drawn to leadership roles. I chopped all my hair off, worked my ass off to become one of the best debate teams in the country. I’ve seen more than my fair share of boys clubs and most of the time, I don’t even consider I might be out of place. Then every once in a while, I’ll see some Ann Margaret type in a commercial, or watch a group of male peers ogle some classic, pretty, flirty girl I know, and I wonder… should I have kept the hair long? Should I shut up and smile and laugh at the right jokes? Aren’t I, all too often, abrasive and difficult and annoying? I’m not always sure— but Peggy helps me figure it out.