Understanding Peggy from MAD MEN
In the two seasons of AMC’s original series Mad Men, I’ve developed definite opinions about the players, but in the most recent episode I came to understand the character of Peggy Olson in a fresh and surprising way. Whereas her first season was spent quietly developing ambition in the 1960s advertising game, this second season has revealed her to be a core character for presenting the changing roles of men and women in societal mores. In the most recent episode, Six Month Leave, a single moment of small talk spoke volumes about Peggy’s evolution from junior secretary to up-and-coming copywriter (and the first female to break free from the pool).
The opening scene had Peggy and her former boss, Don Draper, conversing superficially about the sudden death of Marilyn Monroe while riding the elevator to their office floor. Both were cool and matter-of-fact, expressing regret over the loss of a popular figure and a sympathetic tone regarding Marilyn’s apparent loneliness. After this brief exchange, Peggy notes that it was fortunate their ad agency did not win a Playtex bra account as the pitch featured one woman presented in two ways: as Jackie Kennedy and as Marilyn Monroe, meant to imply that every woman wants to be one or the other but actually has a little of both inside of her. Peggy tells Don that had their agency won the account, they would now have to pull all the ads from circulation with the tragic loss of Marilyn. Don seems not to have thought of this, but is impressed nonetheless.
What happens next in this opening scene revealed to me how beautifully the writers of this series have been developing Peggy’s character. As Peggy and Don enter the office, side by side with generic work demeanor on their faces, we begin to see that every secretary (all female) is weeping in small huddles throughout the office. Many have newspapers in their hands, all are speaking in hushed tones about the shocking news of Marilyn’s death. Not a dry eye or composed woman can be seen in the room. As Peggy and Don part ways to their respective offices, Don scans the room of tearful women and then glances back at Peggy with a quizzical look. He again looks toward the other women and with even more surprise, turns back toward Peggy to check her demeanor against the other women. He finally continues to his office with a slight question on his face that reveals a bit of admiration, as well.
I watched this scene only once, at the very beginning of the episode, but it has continued to return to my mind for days. This one moment, so very subtle, captures the entire essence of the series. Mad Men‘s early 60s setting leaves room for so much story, so much history, and none better than the shifting roles of women and the struggle for men to accept those changes. Peggy Olson began as a sweet young newcomer to the corporate world then discovered a talent and a passion for the creative side of advertising. She used every opportunity to share her opinions on various projects, previously unheard of from a lowly secretary, and she had the good fortune of being encouraged by her boss, Don Draper. With one small foot in the door, Peggy became very ambitious and slowly but suredly pursued that drive. Once she gained a bit of ground, she refused to back down and became the first female to break into the male ranks. I have begun to see that the writers of Mad Men are using Peggy as the touchpoint for women in the workplace. The exchange between her and Don in the elevator, juxtaposed to the other women’s reactions, was an overt example of the moment when men began to realize that women are not meant to be placed into a box, predictable and handled with care, and that they could actually be treated in the same manner as male co-workers. It is a welcome statement on that moment in time — subtle but highly effective — and it proves once again how superior the series is in every way, including presenting history without posturing and portraying evolution without bias.
image from American Movie Classics