Peggy Olson gets off

What happened to everyone's favorite prim junior copywriter on last night's "Mad Men"?

Published August 24, 2009 6:25PM (EDT)

 Major spoiler alert: Stop right here if you have not yet seen last night’s episode of “Mad Men” and would be incredibly pissed off with us for telling you how it all shook out.

Last night’s episode of “Mad Men” began with junior copy writer Peggy Olson being called a prude by her male colleagues. By the end of the episode, she was having hot sex with a guy she picked up at a local bar for that express purpose. Plenty of other stuff went on -- Don’s having in-law issues back in the suburbs; Betty, as expected, is smoking and drinking her way through her pregnancy; Joan claims she wants to be knocked up by her husband Dr. Rapist by July; and there’s a neat urban studies subplot involving demolishing Penn Station to build Madison Square Garden. But with Joan (perhaps temporarily) otherwise occupied, Peggy’s growing sexual confidence provided the heat for the the night in a plotline that could also double as a primer in what feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey meant when she coined the term “the female gaze” in the early '70s (somewhere off-camera, the post-modernist cineastes are already debating this stuff by 1963; personally, Mr. Weiner, I wouldn’t mind a riff or two on Foucault or Godard).

The episode opens with the copywriting gang sitting in a conference room, discussing a campaign for Patio, a new diet soda to be marketed to women. All the men are gaga for a reel of Ann-Margret singing “Bye Bye Birdie” (Sal, of course, has seen it on Broadway), but Peggy, the one person in the room who can reasonably claim to be a member of Patio’s target audience (when she points this out, Harry, thinking he’s paying her a compliment says, “But you’re not fat anymore!”), finds Ann-Margret “desperate” and “shrill” and thinks it ludicrous that she can be “25 and act 14.” All the guys brush off her criticism, explaining Ann-Margret’s appeal with the old maxim, “Men want her and women want to be her.” Peggy, a woman who is absolutely fucking sure she does not not want to be Ann-Margret, finally loses it with Don and tells him, “I don’t mind fantasies, but shouldn’t it be a female one?”

In the second half of the episode, Peggy experiments off the clock with a little sexual fantasy of her own. She drops into a bar after work and tries out a pick-up line she steals from Joan: “It's so crowded in here, I feel like I’m on the subway.” When Joan delivered the same line, it made her little assembled male fan club swoon; the guys at the bar just seem confused to hear it coming out of the mouth of Peggy in her prim little navy blue blouse buttoned up to the neck and tied with a sweet black bow. (Sidenote: Joan tells us that her husband won’t “allow” her to ride the subway,but in yet another illustration of the difference between married and single ladies, we see penny-pinching Peggy coming out of the subway terminal). But she finally catches the attention of a naive undergraduate at Brooklyn College who buys her a drink and, while wolfing down a hamburger (”My mom says I’m still growing!”), manages to miss all of her jokes and totally not get her job. When she tells him she works at an ad agency, he says, “I don’t know how you girls do all that typing.” There’s a moment when you see her hesistate, perhaps considering if she should tell him that she’s a copywriter, with an office, clients and a secretary of her own. But then she just says, “I work for a jerk” -- indeed Don, preoccupied with his own issues on the home front, has been pretty jerky lately -- and, to let him know she, too, has an appetite of sorts, takes a big bite of his hamburger.

Next thing you know, they’re back at his studio, making out on the couch. Just as one is about to wonder if Peggy’s going to follow up her adoption debacle with an illegal abortion later in the season, she comes to her senses and asks him if he’s got “a Trojan.” He doesn’t. “Well,” she says, “there are other things we can do.” After those things get done, she pulls his arm off her, and, to his astonishment, gets dressed and takes off without leaving so much as a phone number. “That was fun,” she tells him.

On my first viewing, this scene, to me, was all about letting us know that Peggy was getting comfortable with sex for its own sake.  I was intrigued that she’d expanded some of the options in her sexual repertoire and thought she might be gearing up to replace Joan as the office siren. 

But when I went back and looked at the scene again, I noticed that the guy she picks up in the bar is essentially the male equivalent of her take on Ann-Margret: He’s a guy in his twenties who acts like a 14-year-old. Then something clicked: Having spent the whole episode trying, and failing, to educate her bone-headed colleagues on the female gaze, Peggy is trying to figure out the first part of the equation. She knows full well why she doesn’t “want to be” Ann-Margret. But she couldn’t figure out why a man would “want” to have a woman like that in the first place. In picking up a naive guy at a bar, she has learned -- or tried to learn -- what men find appealing about women who seem to act like desperate children. In her A-student, school girl way, she has essentially given herself an extra-curricular homework assignment to figure out the male gaze. No doubt it will pay off: Given that no one else in the office seems to have a clear grasp on what women want, if she can teach herself to “think like a man,” she’s going to know twice as much as the rest of them.

Back at the office, in a nice little riff on her one-night beau’s take on her job, Don is appalled when he sees her typing and calls her back into his office to get down to the real work of discussing the latest account. I think that’s supposed to let us know that even her boss, the jerk, knows she’s meant for better things.


By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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