January Jones is uncommonly beautiful. Christina Hendricks is smolderingly sexy. But give me Peggy Olson.
I’m comparing apples to oranges here, of course. Hendricks and Jones are the actresses who play Betty Draper and Joan Harris on Mad Men, respectively. Peggy Olson is a character on the show.
Hendricks, voluptuous and sultry-voiced, was just named sexiest woman in the world by Esquire. Jones, with her porcelain-delicate features, has recent rumored romantic connections to fellow television stars Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Piven. They are getting famous for how they look, which Elizabeth Moss, who plays Olson, is not.
Moss is physically attractive enough, more cute than hot, with her round face, awkward hair cut, and slightly disjointed nose. But that’s not why, if the characters were real people—and they feel like real people more than any other show on television—she is the one I would ask out on a date. She is the best thing about the show. So many characters seem unchangeable: Roger Sterling remains a cad after his heart attack, and Don Draper remains one after his wife temporarily throws him out, while Pete Campbell keeps behaving like a spoiled brat. But Peggy grows in three short seasons from an impressionable, nervous, naive “new girl” around the office into a daring, independent woman.
Peggy is a proto-feminist, pluckily moving from secretary to ad copywriter in the shockingly sexist environment of an early 1960s ad agency. The fictional Sterling Cooper agency is rife with the creepy quality of young women behaving girlishly to attract older men. Peggy stands out from the other women in the office for her refusal to play those games as much as for her professional ambition. She dresses modestly, without any apparent concern for fashion trends. She does not sell herself, even though she sells products for a living.
Peggy handles her femininity with a sort of demure understatement. She seeks sexual independence and liberation; she isn’t afraid to hit on a man, and she doesn’t feel the need to behave like a coquettish teenager or a sexual object.
By contrast, and with no apparent role models in sight, Peggy pursues her own career in the office and her own personal life. The television character Peggy most reminds me of is Lisa Simpson: nerdy and awkward; earnest, yet witty without being cynical; ambitious and brilliant. By brilliant I don’t mean that Peggy is a rocket scientist with an IQ of 150, but that her intelligence courses with creativity.
What is perhaps most appealing about Peggy is that her bold independence extends beyond defying gender expectations. After the sexism, and perhaps the incredible amount that people smoke, the single most striking depiction of America circa the early ’60s in Mad Men is the way that most characters are held prisoner by their social milieu. Men are supposed to drink and ogle women; suburban housewives are supposed to drive everywhere—when one of Betty Draper’s neighbors goes for walks in their Westchester town, she is the subject of baffled gossip.
Peggy’s milieu is Bay Ridge, a middle-class Brooklyn enclave two neighborhoods over from where I grew up. Bay Ridge was a provicinial outpost of white-ethnic conservatism in New York’s famous urban melting pot. The social expectations that came with being a good Catholic girl from Bay Ridge in 1960s: go to church, marry a nice boy from the neighborhood, and stay near your family. Peggy breaks away. She skips church services, questions her faith, pursues her own career, has sex, and, most scandalously, moves to Manhattan. “Do you want to be one of those girls?” Her sister demands when informed of Peggy’s impending address change. “I am one of those girls,” Peggy defiantly answers.
“I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana.” When Peggy says that to her male colleagues who had assumed she didn’t want to play in their reindeer games—just like when she shows up at an after-work office outing to a strip club—she is both announcing her adventurousness and crashing the all-boys club. But while she is independent, she is also loyal to the club that lets her in. She tries to protect her mentor, Freddy Rumson, from being embarrassed for his drinking problems and she drives out to Long Island to rescue Don in the middle of the night when he drunkenly crashes his car with a married woman in the passenger seat. When she is wooed by a rival company, she tries first to get a fair deal from Don—equal pay, the same as her male colleagues—before even considering leaving. But after Don turns down her request and then leaves to start his own firm, she refuses to go with him. Like any good feminist, she also knows her own worth.
The season-three finale, unfortunately, throws out all her character’s growth from the starstruck new girl who makes a pass at “Mr. Draper” to the confident professional who tells Don not to take her for granted. Peggy implausibly caves and comes along just because Don tells her how much he respects her work. That’s disappointing. Peggy is supposed to be the one woman in the office who wants more out of her job than male attention.
The new Peggy would have settled for nothing less than a massive raise. Here’s hoping she gets what she deserves and next season meets a man worthy of her.