Since the days that Mad Men depicts, blatant workplace sexism may have retreated, but it’s in no way been eradicated. In fact, a woman can go through a long career feeling like she’s been squeezed into being a Megan, then a Peggy, then a Joan, even taking a detour into being a Betty when she has kids. Yet Peggy Olson is perhaps the most predictable focus of identification for the female fans of the show, because her journey is so painful, and feels so real. From the first-episode moment when she tries to comfort Don Draper with a flirty hand-squeeze and that habitual secretary seducer essentially laughs her out of the room, we knew her story would be different.
Now, if Mad Men were more like a romantic comedy, any season could have ended with Don Draper seeing the error of his ways and realizing that the clever, if sometimes abrasive, workmate he’s sparred with and collaborated with through the years is The One who will balance out his intelligence and reform his drinking, womanizing ways. In this alternate universe, he’d run through the halls of whatever Sterling Cooper incarnation he’s currently working at, scored by swelling strings. At last, he’d look in at Peggy Olson, haloed in light, deep in thought at her own desk and, as though she’d been waiting for him the whole time, they’d embrace.
Instead of this, of course, Mad Men provides a different and original kind of consummation between our two main characters: hand-holding, platonic Sinatra dancing, and secret-keeping are the sealants of their work marriage. And that’s as it should be. Peggy has been called the show’s “secret protagonist” by more than one critic (Mad Men starts on her first day at Sterling Cooper, after all). Weiner takes seriously Peggy’s position as a woman at work who is basically clueless at flirting and using sexual wiles to get ahead, and relies instead on raw ambition and intelligence, sometimes in ways as subtle as a whack on the head.
Her transformation from fashion-backward secretary to corner office-holding, power suit-wearing boss is feminist inspiration with a side serving of peril. She begins as the target of Pete’s predatory impulses, Joan’s derision, Don’s tyranny, and hundreds of snickers. Later, she becomes the target of Stan’s competitive drive (which ends with their memorable stripping competition) and then his sad, lost lust, Ginsberg’s psychotic breakdown, Duck’s creepy infantalization (although you kind of brought that one on yourself, Peggy), Ted’s sad-sack frustrations, and Lou’s maneuvers against Don.
Everyone tries to use Peggy: she’s their mom, their wife, their punching bag. Sure, she goes from serving coffee to the men at the office to asking them to get her some — but that doesn’t stop them from laughing at her the whole time, even as she earns their respect. She simply advances from one stereotype to another: frowsy underling to shrill bitch boss.
It feels impossible for her to win, except she does, time and time again, when she lands accounts and makes lasting friendships with her male colleagues. What saves her is that she can do the work and face down her fears, whether it’s stripping naked, toking weed, and drinking with the guys, or finally — finally! — in the last episode of the last half-season, winning that Burger Chef account on her own. Before she wins the account, “the camera pans from one middle-aged man in a suit to the next, all the way down the table — every one of them ignoring Peggy’s presence,” Ashley Fetters wrote of that episode. “Simply put, it’s a gorgeous reminder of what Peggy’s story has been throughout this series: the struggle to succeed in a world that thinks she doesn’t belong in it.”
When I asked a group of girlfriends why they identified with Peggy, they said things like, “her struggle to gain approval for her creativity, first from more powerful people, then from herself,” and “being meek and naive and then finding power in spite of all the dudes who treat you like their bitch,” and the “rocket-like professional climb juxtaposed with romantic fumbling, the older men who make her feel seen and desired (to her eventual pain and detriment), the struggles with femininity as a cute but not as obviously gorgeous woman.” Through Peggy we got to witness what many of us have been through at one point or another: being made to feel unattractive and asexual and then being hit on; being ignored, then screamed at. She’s an intruder in the world of the ad men not simply because she’s a woman, but because she’s a woman who wants to get ahead by proving herself like a man — yet this, without having the fact of her womanhood erased. Equality is complicated!
Recall the sequence when Don suddenly fell for Megan, his secretary, a kind of bright and sexy young thing, maternal and sprightly and naturally feminine in a way Peggy never will be. Peggy watches Megan ride her own coattails into a copywriter position and take a spot near the boss’ heart that he’s made clear she could never occupy, and we groan with her and Joan as they pour a conspiratorial drink.
Peggy’s personality veers from lovable to maddening. Many of her biggest fans wouldn’t claim for ourselves Peggy’s occasional iciness, her forays into egotism and cruelty or the kind of “me first” feminism that can occasionally lead to her dismissing other, younger women and the struggles of people of color or other groups. Instead, we can relate to the way she is treated, and the way she overcomes that treatment, time and time again. We want happiness for her because we want it for ourselves, but maybe happiness isn’t the point.
Maybe the point is that we recognize what the Peggys of the world won for the rest of us, and what we have to keep winning for younger women, even if they threaten our position when they show up looking perky and young. After all, eventually Peggy realizes she likes Megan, and they become friends and allies at work. Sisterhood is powerful, and for seven seasons, Peggy has been viewers’ sister, the embodiment of our various struggles in a working world that was supposed to open its arms to greet us a long time ago, and never fully did.