Peggy Olson’s mirror game

Note: The following post is about a scene in season three of Mad Men. I know that some readers have not gotten this far in the series, or have begun watching it. As a result, I’ve tried not to include spoilers in my analysis of a scene in last Sunday’s episode. However, the scene involves the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, which does indicate where the show is in terms of its historical time line.

As you may have been able to glean from a previous post about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, I follow Mad Men, AMC’s original series about advertisers who work at Sterling Cooper, a Manhattan-based agency, and the people who try to love them in the 1960s.

I’m not a super-fan, but the show does make for chewy television. The 1960s is one of my favorite periods in American history and they plumb its depths and margins. Thus, I keep waiting for a phone call at work from some beleaguered production assistant to the LBJ Library. The acting is great, the visual style is sumptuous, the writing is sharp and often surprisingly funny, and the writing staff (despite creator-show runner Matthew Weiner’s authorial presence) has a considerable female personnel. And though sometimes Mad Men can be heavy-handed, it tends to balance these moments with subtle, at times shocking period details or character developments. Also, I really appreciate that I can empathize with almost any character.

One character who I whole-heartedly empathize with is Peggy Olson, a young steno turned copy writer who, unlike many of the women at Sterling Cooper so far, seems more interested in a corner office than an engagement ring. Actress Elisabeth Moss has said that Olson is a feminist and I concur. I love her refreshing lack of sentimentality, her toughness, and her persistence in sticking up for herself, which is hard to do when your male co-workers are looking for dollies when you think of women and girls as real people.

I always root for Peggy Olson; image courtesy of

I always root for Peggy Olson; image courtesy of

This brings us to last week’s episode, wherein Olson is trying to create a campaign for Patio, Pepsi’s prototypical diet soda. The folks at Pepsi want to latch on to the popularity of the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie, which stars the exuberant sex-bomb-in-the-making Ann-Margret. Basically, Pepsi envisions ripping off the movie’s opening sequence (which you can watch below, along with the reprise).

This campaign is something the boys are all too happy to help cast. Her boss, Don Draper, thinks it’s a no-brainer because men want her so women want to be her (I suspect Draper is phoning it in here because he doesn’t like the product, its ridiculous name, and doubts the future of a company he helped build, but I will refrain from commenting further).

Peggy objects to this direction, decrying the planned campaign (and Ann-Margret’s performance) as phony. Peggy wants to tap into why women and girls would like this product, while most of her male contemporaries seem to want to project how they feel about women onto female consumers.

And then things get interesting. At home, Peggy launches into her own impromptu performance in front of her mirror while getting ready for bed. It’s a TV moment so delicious, awkward, and fraught with ideological tension that it makes me impatient for the day I can play the clip in a lecture or a conference presentation. Slate’s TV Club has evaluated the scene with many other journalists and bloggers, along with some problematic character developments that I won’t comment on at this time (though, if you know what I’m talking about, I like Amy Benfer’s read on it). Here’s my take about why I love this particular scene.

1. Yes, there is an element of aspiration to Peggy’s performance. While others have commented on this, I don’t think Peggy necessarily wants to be Ann-Margret so much as figure out the mechanics of her performance and why men seem to want women and girls to be like Ann-Margret. She wants to work through it. And while she’s not a convincing Ann-Margret (in fact, she’s a terrible Ann-Margret), I don’t think she wants to be.

2. This disassociation with Ann-Margret seems further evident in the sarcasm in Peggy’s performance. While at times she tries to genuinely play Ann-Margret, much of her performance seems to mock the original. Once again, I think Peggy’s saying that she doesn’t want to be Ann-Margret and commenting on the performance’s artificiality. In others words, she seems to be taking the piss.

3. Yet, she’s also a little sad that she can’t be Ann-Margret. There have been other moments in the show where her colleagues have made fun of her for seeming harsh and mannish and, therefore, not sexy. Sometimes, she swallows their barbs. Other times, she spars. Sometimes, at other women’s urgings, she dresses or behaves in a more conventionally feminine manner. But I think her inability to channel Ann-Margret doesn’t suggest that she’s not sexy so much as comment on the limitations of this notion of female sexiness, as well as its lack of attainability (possibly even for the actresses who seem to possess it). Because, to me, Peggy is sexy, especially when she takes control, makes a transgression, declines a compromised offer, or bucks the established order of things. Thus, she suggests sexiness is elastic (something Ann-Margret herself would do at the end of the decade with a beguiling, damaged performance in Carnal Knowledge).

4. I love how arrhythmic and unnatural this scene is. I love that we see Olson stop mid-song, forget the words, re-remember dance moves, squint to study her performance, and then finish the song abruptly so she can finish brushing her hair.

5. Finally, Moss’s performance adds an additional layer of delightful inquiry. I’m always fascinated by scenes where great actors play characters who are bad actors (for an terrific example, see Julianne Moore’s performance as Amber Waves acting with Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights). It may look easy for actors to deliberately act badly, but assuredly it isn’t. It seems even more difficult to convince an audience that the character is doing the bad acting and not the actor. That it’s a woman playing a character she inhabits fully playing a character she can’t inhabit fully because she recognizes that it’s a deceitful, potentially damaging construct makes for very chewy television indeed.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Joan Holloway’s “magnificent” parlor game « Feminist Music Geek

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