Monday, September 28, 2009

Sex, women's agency and Peggy Olson


I have mentioned before my ambivalence about Mad Men's Betty Draper. I do not know what it is like to be a "house cat," as Betty's late father described the daughter he raised to be a privileged princess. Even as Betty awakens to how lonely and soul-destroying it can be to live on a pedestal, I can empathize but not identify. And while I love Joan Harris (nee Holloway) for both her directness, obvious intelligence, skill and sex appeal, I am not Joan, either. I feel the most kinship with Peggy Olsen--the Catholic girl from a provincial family in the outer boroughs who, rather than accept the narrative offered to young women of her era, is struggling to determine her own path. And, in the process, is pushing her own boundaries related to religion, sex, motherhood, marriage, career--even pot. It's not that Peggy's story is exactly mine or anything. It is just that, still today, any woman, certainly any woman of color, can understand what it is like to be marginalized in a place like Sterling Cooper, where Peggy is alternately praised and respected; silenced and ignored; lauded or shamed for aggressiveness that would be an asset in her male colleagues; and, as we learned last week, paid less. Peggy has made her share of horrific decisions and minor missteps, but she seems to own them and refuses to be crushed by guilt (even when served by the local parish priest). And refreshingly, she seems clear on exactly what she wants and does not want. It is Peggy's willingness, even in the face of uncertainty, to boldly do the thing women like her are not supposed to do--especially if it fulfills a personal need--that has me wondering why so many people view Peggy's tryst with Duck Phillips on last night's episode of Mad Men as an example of an older man seducing and taking advantage of a young, naive woman.

For those who aren't as obsessed with this show as I am, Peggy was recently rebuffed after asking her boss, Don Draper, to increase her salary to one on par with her male colleagues. Then, last night, Don unloaded on her after she boldly requested to be considered for the new prestigious Hilton account. This, after Peggy has consistently been shown to be smarter and harder-working than the other (male) account executives. She even recognized the hot mess that would be the Patio "Bye, Bye Birdie" commercial before it happened...though Don and the boys dismissed her reservations. Don's smackdown made Peggy think twice about the (professional) advances made by former Sterling Cooper employee Duck Phillips, who has been trying to woo Peggy and her colleague Pete to another agency with promises of better accounts and more money. Of course, when Peggy showed for a hotel meeting with Duck, his professional wooing turned rather, um, personal.



Oh and seriously Peggy I know Don was a bitch to you but Duck? He's twice your age and carrying a boatload of baggage...

Peggy, Peggy, Peggy...I hope she is using some sort of birth control. Is she like Don? Not learning from past mistakes and spiraling down into self-destruction because her ego has been bruised? Sounds like Don to me. Just like Don, her meteoric, unobstructed rise to the top came to a grinding halt. She got smacked down and just like Don, she risked ruining it all for the petty victory that is ego stroking. She wants to get with a loser named Duck? A drunk who has flamed out twice within the infrastructure of a company to support him? She's an ass. Unlike Don, though, she has not built the goodwill or the record to have people come to her rescue. Don may be a big baby and an ass, but he isn't disloyal. Peggy is being a disloyal fool. Oh, and Duck threw his innocent, loyal dog out in the street. What does Peggy think this drunk will do to her?

I can't believe Peggy let Duck move straight in for the kiss like that. It's like she knew he'd try to bed her, and she resolved to accept it before she even stepped through the door.
As far as NOT being squicked by Duck and Peggy... I have to say, she's usually... okay, no, when it comes to men, she's NOT brighter than that. But to sleep with someone who's been blatantly blurring the lines between personal and professional to woo you away from your current employer is just... willfully naive. It makes me a bit sad for her, and I'd love to see some glimpse that she knows full well what he's trying to do and she's just taking him for a ride, as it were.

Okay, I'm not arguing that Peggy did not do a reckless and silly thing, just that the reckless and silly thing was her choice and that she was probably aware of its recklessness and silliness. I can't imagine, "Hey, why don't you meet me in my hotel room after work to return that gift I gave you" meant something different in 1963 than it does in 2009. Peggy may be young and often naive, but she is never stupid. It is interesting that when Don or Roger Sterling are reckless with their sexuality, when they bed a client or secretary or someone's wife, it becomes part of their alpha male mythology--a conscious choice that proves their adventurous natures. We assume that they know exactly what they are doing and that they have some ulterior motive, if not simply their own pleasure. And indeed they do not agonize much over consequences.

Peggy does not seem to agonize over her sexual choices either. Sometimes I actually wonder whether her sex life and lack of guilt are realistic given who the character is and the timing of the story. In season one, Peggy went to Joan's gynecologist to get on the pill (too late, though). She took her reproduction into her own hands at a time when doctors actually warned women not to become "strumpets" with their new found sexual freedom. Since then, she has explored her burgeoning sexuality. In the few encounters we've seen her have since then, we have not seen Peggy talked or manipulated into anything. She has chosen her choices, good and bad.

I agree with the TWOP commenter who said:

Obviously, Duck did something right because Peggy wasn't exactly barging out the door as she was a few weeks back with Hamburger Guy. Yes, I know it's wrong and his seduction is in no small part due to his desire to woo her professionally, but Peggy's using him as well. Don's shooting her down at the office, her mother is cruel instead of thankful and Pete's getting on her last nerve. She's lonely and he wanted her. It's not too difficult to understand the temporary attraction.

This narrative of the wily, male predator using his superior craftiness and seduction skills to dickmatize a naive, fragile and virginal woman seems an anachronism in 2009, though it exists for sure beyond the small screen. If two characters on Mad Men were discussing Peggy Olsen this way, it would seem fitting with the mores of the early 60s. But it seems odd that viewers, many of whom are women themselves, are so quick to strip the agency from a female character who is all about having agency over her life. This is, after all, the character, who matter-of-factly told a (now married) coworker who left her pregnant following a post-party liaison, that she gave away their child because "I don't want that. I want something more." [paraphrasing from memory]

When women are willing to own their choices, shouldn't we let them?

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