On tonight’s episode of Mad Men, Peggy was an embarrassing mess. Assuming that the flowers on Shirley’s, her secretary, desk are a Valentine gift sent to her from Ted, her ex-lover, she steals them. Too self-absorbed, Peggy is oblivious to Shirley’s attempt to correct her mistake; she only gives the flowers back in a smug act of regifting. She lashes out ragefully at poor Shirley, barking at her, “You have a ring on. We all know that you’re engaged. You didn’t have to embarrass me. Grow up.” It’s a cringe-worthy display of narcissism and rage. I have almost never felt such secondhand embarrassment for a TV character, but the response to Peggy’s behaviour from many on the internet went beyond embarrassment: as a character that many are fond of projecting empowerment fantasies onto, seeing Peggy’s ugly side invoked a backlash against her. Yet the truth is, Peggy has always been kind of an asshole. Like any fully realized character, like any real human being, she is imperfect. Peggy’s flaws, her narcissism and her insecurity over her love life, may have been at the forefront of her characterization in this episode but they’ve always been a part of her character’s makeup. Like so many of the characters on this show, Peggy is, and has always been, a deeply flawed person.
In fact, her flaws are part of why Peggy is such a strong character (and one of my favourites). Yet the backlash against her after tonight’s episode stems from exactly this problem: she is the favourite character of many but she is celebrated in a manner that shortchanges the complexity of her character. The hatred the show’s fans are spewing towards Peggy in the wake of her foolishness demonstrates the toxicity of putting female characters on a pedestal. Boxing Peggy into the Empowered Lady category doesn’t leave her character room to be an actual person with flaws and insecurities. Peggy is a lady who is doing it for herself, even amidst the patriarchal work environment of 1960s advertising. I’d love it if the show’s final shot was a freeze frame of Peggy throwing up her beret into the air in a the Mary Tyler Moore show intro way. But doing it for yourself, while empowering, comes with costs, costs that we see are beginning to take a toll on Peggy’s peace of mind. Ignoring that fact in order to focus on Peggy’s more empowering moments, or outright hating that aspect of her character because it may seem to undermine her empowerment, does the character a disservice.
Her failed affair with Ted has left Peggy reeling. She’s lost all control of her love life. Full of despair at being unable to fulfill romantic aspirations, full of rage at being abandoned by Ted, she envies Shirley for having what she craves: being engaged. Peggy’s storyline in this episode concentrates on the fallout from her relationship with Ted. It makes sense for her to be a bigger asshole than ever because of all the Ted-related anger and the work-related frustration she’s feeling from working under Lou. And we saw all that anger be translated into her short-temperedness with Shirley, poor Shirley. It’s frustrating because it pulls more focus onto Peggy’s concern that she’ll never be loved or married in an equal relationship and her fear that she’ll be alone forever. These are insecurities that have always been a central part of her character, and while I wish they’d have her overcome that, it is important to note that she isn’t a darling angel who is going to singlehandedly smash the patriarchy. She’s a flawed, fucked up human being with insecurities, anxieties, and fears. The putting-a-character-on-a-pedestal model of appreciation is flawed and fickle; when a character is at their best and most kickass, they’re celebrated. In Peggy’s case, this is when she is seemingly at her most feminist, at her most empowered. Yet the moment a character acts in any questionable or less-than-perfect way, they are trashed. This is appreciation that is problematic for its lack of empathy. Celebrating and loving characters only when they’re doing right is a failure to understand character, and with Mad Men it’s especially surprising to see this kind of narrow kind of engagement since this is a show that is all about its characters and their development.
The response to Peggy’s asshole behaviour is espcially troubling with Peggy because the show seems to have directly positioned her as Don’s inheritor, in a sense, or as a mirror of Don. He’s been her mentor, and she’s often been positioned as sharing a lot of his ambition and his talent. So people love it when she demonstrates her skill and her talent, when she’s a spunky and ambitious ball buster. They love it when she when she shows she has got all of Don’s positive qualities but the moment she reveals herself to have some of Don’s weaknesses and flaws as well, his narcissism and his penchant for abusing his underlings, when she reveals she can be just as much of an asshole and terrible human being as he can, they turn on her.
Trashing Don but praising Peggy doesn’t work; they’re both fucked up and flawed and that’s the whole point. Turning on Peggy demonstrates a failure to appreciate characters for their depth and wholeness; a failure to attempt to understand them in all their flaws and foibles. You don’t necessarily have to agree with, condone, or justify their terrible behaviour but you can at least try to empathize and understand it. Peggy’s storyline tonight was actually great because it called her out on her foolishness re: Ted. It was painful but necessary that she see herself acting the fool. She needs to see how the person she is because of Ted is her worst self. Ultimately, it’s growth and development for her character, and it shouldn’t be disparaged just because it means the audience has to see Peggy for who she is, not for who they want or wish her to be.