An Ode to Peggy Olson
By Diana Matthews
[dropcap background="nos" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]f you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you probably missed the launch of The Handmaid’s Tale, a highly-anticipated new show on Hulu based on a book by Margaret Atwood.
If you don’t live under a rock, then you’ve probably seen the myriad of interviews, reviews and think-pieces written about the all too timely series set in a dystopian America, starring Elisabeth Moss. You may have even watched the show itself and feel haunted by the terrifying images and unsettling commonalities between the show’s world and our own.
As a feminist who has been unequivocally horrified by the current political climate and profoundly disappointed by Donald Trump’s dedication to make good on his racist and sexist campaign promises, there isn’t much else I can say about the Handmaid’s Tale that hasn’t already been discussed in detail by my favourite female writers and cultural critics.
Instead, I want to take this opportunity to write about Elisabeth Moss, or more pointedly, Peggy Olson, a character she played on the AMC series Mad Men. After the latest episode of the Handmaid’s Tale, I found myself involuntarily reaching for the remote to switch over to Netflix and move from the totalitarian theocracy in New England, to the glossy and glamorous world of 1960s Manhattan - from one misogynistic society to another.
Peggy had a profound impact on me not only as a feminist, but as young women on the brink of starting my career. Over the seven years Mad Men graced the small screen, it was Peggy that kept me coming back week after week, year after year. Her silent struggle, palpable frustration, and socio-political invisibility at Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency where she worked her way up from secretary to copy chief, spoke to me in a way that I found hard to truly name.
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]hile Don Draper and the other men at the office were out drinking lavish cocktails and eating lobster dinner with clients, Peggy would be at the office working on the advertising campaigns for the clients, which the men would ultimately take credit for at the pitch meeting the next day.
With no light on except the one at her desk and a few in the hallway, Peggy would be shown pouring over large white storyboards, organizing the posters to convey the most powerful ad possible. In the background, the night caretaker would be vacuuming the carpet in her office and emptying the trash bins.
She was completely unseen and taken advantage of, something most diligent women who work in this type of company culture can certainly relate to. Peggy worked twice as hard for not even half as much. She worked twice as hard knowing that if she didn’t, there would be a man coming along in a matter of minutes to replace her. It was sink or swim and the gravity what was required of her to work for what she had was heartbreakingly discouraging - unlike the men at the office, the stakes for her were high. But there was something bigger that connected me so deeply to her character - and that was Peggy’s love of work.
She’s shown as the first one at the office in the morning and the last one out at night. Despite being sexually harassed, belittled, underestimated, and completely unseen by Don and the other lost boys she has to call her colleagues, she dives into the work with passion, vision and a true love of her craft. Matthew Weiner, the creator and writer of the show does a masterful job of showing how copywriting becomes Peggy’s safe place, a world where she’s in control of the images and words on the page and designs them so masterfully, you’d think she was born to do it.
When Don takes credit for her work time and time again, when they have secret meetings without her knowledge and justify her exclusion based on how her taking a seat at the table would “look to the client” she grits her teeth and goes back to the drawing board, dreaming up the next campaign and simply doing the work.
If it sounds exhausting, depressing, and unreasonable - that’s because it is. And the reality of her journey in the show is only accentuated that much further by the fact that women are still experiencing these gross inequalities both at work and at home.
Unequal pay, lack of paid maternity leave, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace as well as micro-aggressions continue to persist. The misogyny in Mad Men is blatant and on the nose, but not entirely shocking. And that’s what makes it powerful. Even though the show takes place fifty years ago, it doesn’t feel distant. In fact, it feels heartbreakingly current and real.
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he genius of Peggy (and Elisabeth Moss’s acting) are in the quiet moments, usually shared between her and Don or the in-between moments when she’s in her office, emotionally overwhelmed and striving to connect to a shred of self-control to ground down and keep going. If you’ve watched the show, you know these moments well. Without getting into spoilers (although the show ended two years ago, so if you haven’t watched by now - GET ON IT) the times I felt most connected to Peggy were when she chose her work above all else.
While the men clocked in and clocked out each day, took long lunches, drank at the office, and generally conducted themselves in a way you’d expect from 18 year old frat boys, Peggy had her head down at her desk, not as a martyr, but as a woman with intention. The work served her, it brought her financial success (after she fought for it), it brought her independence from her family (after she fought for it), and it brought her a life beyond her dreams as a young women growing up in Brooklyn who was told secretary manager was about the best she could do, until she got married (again, after she fought tooth and nail to break open every single door she found herself on the outside of, which was almost all of them).
I watched Mad Men throughout university and for many years, I felt the need to apologize for my ambition, like there was something selfish about the breadth of my dreams or that it was boring to care too much about my career. When I would get conflicting messages about needing to be career-focused but maintain balance in my life or when my relationship status became the focus of most conversations, I found solace in seeing Peggy experience the same challenges and confusion.
“Nevertheless, she persisted” is a statement making the rounds on social media and blogs - to me, the character of Peggy Olson is the embodiment of this notion. While every abundance and opportunity was more or less handed to the men working on Madison Avenue, Peggy had to work for every single crumb that came her way.
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]A[/dropcap]t the end of the series, we don’t see a big payoff for her. There isn’t a moment where the feminists in the audience jump up and down, cheering for their gal onscreen. But you know it’s coming, you know that she’s not going to stop until she gets it. Because if the last seven years were any indication, there isn’t anything she can’t handle - she refuses to be defeated by that which is below her. Nevertheless, she persists.
Although she plays another feminist role but completely different character in the Handmaid’s Tale, the ferocity Elisabeth Moss brought to Mad Men’s Peggy continues to inspire me. It gives me comfort to know that I can tune in with her at any moment and watch her fight onscreen. I feel very lucky to work on a team with all women, where feminism is as natural as the air we breathe. But the fight is always with us. It is continual and intentional, grounded in a mantra that encourages us all to keep going.
You may not know what the payoff will be but, but sometimes, you just have to roll up your sleeves, get down to it, and trust the work.