Good Girl Gone Bad? In Defense of a ‘Difficult’ Peggy Olson

Television is awash in male antiheroes like Don Draper, but we prefer female characters to be likable.

(Photo: AMC YouTube)

May 5, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

In today’s so-called Golden Age, which started roughly with the 1999 debut of The Sopranos, television (especially cable) is awash in antiheroes. We root for murderous meth maker Walter White or conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano or alcoholic womanizer Don Draper despite that, or perhaps because, their existential unhappiness explains or forgives their moral ambiguity. We may not approve of how they make their living or treat their wives, but we are fascinated by them. We are on their team.

Yet how quickly some have stopped being on Peggy Olson’s side.

Peggy, whom New York magazine recently called the real protagonist of Mad Men, has come a long way in the show’s previous six seasons. She’s used her talent and ambition to rise out of the secretarial pool and into a role as Don Draper’s protégée and, eventually, Sterling, Cooper and Partners’ copy chief. She has secretly given birth to a baby, had affairs with not one but two of her married coworkers, moved in with her radical-journalist boyfriend, and bought a building in the not-yet-gentrified Upper West Side. Despite romantic setbacks, she ended last season on a high—seated in silhouette in Don’s office (an image right out of the show’s opening credits) after he was dismissed. The implication was that our girl was going to be the boss. Peggy Olson—sign of the times, plucky feminist hero—was finally going to get her shot as creative director of the firm.

That’s not quite what happened. When Mad Men’s seventh season debuted last month, we found Peggy still working for the man. Don had been replaced by an unimaginative cardigan-wearing pencil pusher named Lou, who dismissed Peggy’s copy recommendations, claiming to be “immune to [her] charms”; in the most recent episode, he offered her a raise and a new fast-food account as a way to knock down a returned-to-the-fold Don (and perhaps Peggy) in an interoffice power struggle.

Filled with frustration and personal unhappiness, Peggy spent the first three episodes of season seven lashing out—snipping at Ginsberg and Stan and berating her secretary and the young son of one of her building’s tenants. Though last night’s episode finally brought her some good news—the lead on a new account pitch and a $100 a week raise—it became clear that her new responsibilities were both a reward and a punishment as she struggled to supervise her deflated former mentor, whom she can’t (or won’t) actually manage.

I, for one, have appreciated the mouthy, resentful Peggy of recent weeks. After all, her bitterness is situationally appropriate. Despite being one of the most competent people in the office, she may have risen professionally as far as she can and is facing the truth of a glass ceiling at Sterling Cooper and Partners in 1969. Having chosen her job over her personal life (as in season four’s “The Suitcase” in which she stayed at the office to work on a Samsonite pitch instead of joining her boyfriend for a birthday dinner), it must sting to finally grasp how undervalued she is because she is a woman. The kicker last night was Joan’s flip “I don’t know if this will make you feel better, but I don’t think they thought about it at all” response to Peggy wondering if Lou was setting her or Don up to fail. Peggy is not just unappreciated; she’s an afterthought. It’s no wonder that she’s lashed out at the few people over whom she has some sort of power.

Many, like Time’s James Poniewozik, are uncomfortable with this less likable version of their favorite character. Poniewozik asked in a recent column, “Where have you hidden our Peggy, Mad Men? And how did you replace her with this hostile, unpleasant basket case?” Critics don’t like seeing that kind of “ugliness” from a woman. But aside from the many plot reasons that have led to Peggy’s behavior, her unapologetic aggression is refreshing in the larger television landscape.

It’s not just Peggy. There is a noticeable dearth of difficult women on the tube. Televised womanhood still must be “conventionally attractive.” With few exceptions it is depicted as thin, pretty, white, and likable in ways that we no longer expect from its masculine counterpart, especially on “prestige” shows like Mad Men. Need proof? Just look at the rancor directed toward Breaking Bad’s Skyler White (and the actor who played her), even though her transgressions were much less malevolent than her husband’s.

So when Peggy shows a competitive drive or cowardice, speaks sharply to her coworkers, or just can’t swallow the disappointment heaped on her by her chauvinist workplace, she is staking out new territory for women on television. You don’t have to like it or her, but it’s a step in the right direction.