Tube Tied: Peggy Olson Enters Oppression Olympics, Falters

Michelle Dean
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When I last wrote about Mad Men two weeks ago I mentioned the affinity I had for Peggy, and a commenter noted that they'd never really understood Peggy's appeal, that she seemed entitled to them, and "embodies the kind of "feminism" that places the needs of white, cisgendered, straight, able bodied women at the center of the universe." As if on cue, this week Mad Men provided an episode in which proto-feminist Peggy is invited to comment directly on the civil rights movement and what she said was jarring.

Set up at a bar by her new friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet—yep, of those Mamets, hence the flat affect), Peggy got thrown for a loop when young (white) radical Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) decided to start lecturing her about the moral compromises of her career path. Pointing out that one of her clients was currently under a boycott for refusing to hire African Americans, Abe made fun of her work. "Civil rights isn't a situation to be fixed with some PR campaign," he said, snottily. Thus backed into a corner, Peggy noted, somewhat non sequitur-ishly, that she, as a woman, cannot do many of the things African Americans are also barred from doing. And then comes
the kicker. When Abe notes (incorrectly, both historically and in the show's own context) that there are no African American copywriters, Peggy says: "I'm sure they could have fought their way in like I did; believe me, nobody wanted me there." Abe snorts: "Alright Peggy, we'll have a, uh, civil rights march for women." Peggy picks up her purse.

And scene.

There was so much going on here that's worth commenting on. First of all, and I wish this went without saying but it probably doesn't: Peggy was wrong, wrong, wrong to equate or even compare her struggles as a white woman with those of African Americans of the same era. First of all, it's demonstrably true that they aren't the same, either in character or in seriousness—Abe is right in that no one was firing bullets at women at the time to keep them from voting. Second of all, it erases the experiences of people who actually face both kinds of discrimination at once. Third, it sets everyone up in a kind of competition for equal status, that assumes that whatever grant of it we're going to get is a limited pie, so we'd all better start squabbling over the pieces, rather than expect the kind of unlimited horizons that are currently granted, as of birth, to the people at the top of the pyramid in this culture. (The competition suggested here is often referred to as the Oppression Olympics.)  And in doing this she demonstrates a common problem that the feminist establishment has run into whenever it's tried to make analogies between the experience of women and the civil rights movement.

I do think that sometimes analogies of this kind can be wielded effectively, say where one is trying to demonstrate to a white woman that her opinions about the experiences of black women are not as useful as the actual reports from people of that kind: "How do you feel when men try to tell you what it's like to be woman?"  In other words, I am okay with appeals to other kinds of oppression if the idea is to get people to use the kind of double-consciousness almost all systemically disadvantaged people have—the realization that what your culture tells you you are is not what you, in fact, are—to get them to open their eyes and ears to types of disadvantage they don't suffer from. But there is less of this empathetic motivation present when you are, as Peggy is here, abstractly using the struggles of others as a means of self-defense or aggrandizement.  ("I'm just like them... and they could have done what I did.")  Someone else's suffering shouldn't be your rhetorical strategy to deflect personal criticism.

Of course, Abe was doing the exact same thing.  And this is why I think this situation was a little more complicated than being just a typical white-lady denial of concerns that were not her own.  See, I would have had far more of a problem with what Peggy said if she had said it to an African American.  Instead, she said it a young white man who was seeking, at the time, to lecture her about how she was ignorant of oppression, that she didn't understand what it really was or how it really worked, and who was trying to suggest to her that she was more complicit in it than he was.  In other words, she said it to someone who was also trying to wield other people's actual lived oppression as a sword, to "disprove" that Peggy herself suffered from any disadvantage worth considering.  This is a maneuver I find unbecoming of any real kind of progressive thought, and I am therefore rather sympathetic to Peggy's defensiveness, even if I think it was wrongheadedly applied.  If I am dealing with a certain kind of oppression in my daily life, and you try to suggest to me it isn't serious even though you don't experience it, I think it's understandable that I get upset.  I am not suggesting that Peggy's reaction is the right one; I am only saying I can understand why she got frustrated with Abe as a young white guy particularly, and I wonder if the conversation would have gone the same in another context.

See, I couldn't help but hearken back to several conversations I was either party to or overheard during the 2008 election season, in which young liberal white men sought to "explain" to young liberal women (white or not) that the only proper course of action was to support Obama over Clinton, that in fact any kind of criticism of Clinton was appropriate because sexism was over, and who often dismissed any complaints of sexism even when those complaints came from young female Obama supporters themselves.  These young men then claimed the mantle of progressivism when elected, even as they engaged in sexist gestures themselves.  (Paging Jon Favreau.)  And God knows people have tried, but you can't correct these assholes, because they're not interested in anything but the validity of their own opinion.  The Abes of my experience, in general, do not respond well to my telling them I think they still had some things to learn about equality.  They voted for Obama; what's my problem?

My problem is that if you become so concentrated on one axis of disadvantage to the point that you believe that it is the key to ending oppression, you're missing the boat.  Sexism could be declared over tomorrow (let's hope) and you'd still have a world in which people of color, disabled people, poor people, suffer disproportionately.  This is a criticism often aimed at feminist thought itself, and it is a fair one, but I think one thing that the Peggy-Abe scene suggested this week is that it does work in multiple directions, and that more particularly, the kind of one-upmanship that goes on in the young white left (I'm more anti-racist than you are, etc) has much less to do with actual social change than it does with self-aggrandizement.  Because in the end the Abes of this world don't want to participate in a movement that listens to everyone's struggles; they want to win arguments in bars about who cares the most.  And the revolution, if there is to be one, whatever form it takes, has to be about more than that.

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Totally. But...

I definitely agree with your assessment of Peggy and Abe's scene in Sunday's episode. It made me uncomfortable, and I was frustrated by both of them (though more so with Abe, but I might be a bit of a Peggy apologist).

However, I have to defend my beloved <i>Mad Men</i> (surprise!) because I found the scene to be pretty believable for Peggy's character. She is young, white, has never traveled outside of New York, and has limited life experiences. I would love it if a more enlightened character came on the scene and told her what's what when it comes to systems of oppression, but I wasn't surprised that Peggy reacted the way she did (by suggesting that African Americans struggle in the same way she does as a woman–which is totally not the case). I think she has potential to move beyond where she is now with oppression and civil rights, but I found it believable that she isn't there yet.

Again, I am a total <i>Mad Men</i> fan, so that might be clouding my judgment here, but one of the things I like about the show is that it doesn't pretend that its characters are more enlightened or better than they are/would have been during that era. (e.g., Roger's black face performance or Betty's interactions with Carla)

Great post!
<b>Kelsey Wallace, web editor</b>

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I didn't find the scene to be not-believable. Just the opposite, actually. What I'm saying though is that I think there are layers here that wouldn't come out if I just, you know, stoned her from the wrongness of the sentence.

I mean, note by the end of the episode she is asking Don why they don't care about the client's bad hiring practices.


I totally agree! I basically just wanted to say that those kinds of uncomfortable scenes are one of the things I like about <i>Mad Men</i>.
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I think it's great that MM's not afraid to let its protagonists make problematic statements. If Peggy only ever said and did things that were unassailably feminist / PC / progressive, that'd make her a symbol, not a person. I'd rather see a vivid, complicated, realistically flawed female character over an two-dimensional paragon of feminist virtue any day. (And I do think it was a conscious decision to let her say something so jarringly insensitive-- MM is rightfully criticized for not featuring more characters of color, but I think that in context it's clear we're not meant to agree with her.) It also serves to open up discussions like these where we can examine the relationship between sexism and racism. So kudos, Mad Men! Somehow, you're a more feminist show for letting a feminist character say unfeminist things.

(Aaaand the record for using "feminist" the most times in one paragraph goes to me.)

Agreed, but interesting...

I agree with Kelsey in the fact that it is an answer in line with her character. It's clear by the fact that she doesn't know that the company she reps isn't hiring African Americans that she is hardly politically aware. It's this scene where I've first seen any hint of Peggy coming into some kind of consciousness about oppression (even if it's just her own at this point). The fact that she asks the room full of her male colleagues why they're doing business with a racist company hints at the fact that she might start becoming at least more attuned to the world outside. We can hope anyway...

She actually reminds me a little of myself from 10 years ago, not really questioning the workings of capitalism or other types of oppression. I was always acutely aware of the lack of female representation in pop culture, but it took a lot of education and experience to grow into my understanding of the other structures in place that contributed to the status quo and the oppression of other groups.


great article. i especially love this part:

"My problem is that if you become so concentrated on one axis of disadvantage to the point that you believe that it is the key to ending oppression, you're missing the boat. Sexism could be declared over tomorrow (let's hope) and you'd still have a world in which people of color, disabled people, poor people, suffer disproportionately."

This scene really shows

This scene really shows Peggy struggling to construct a feminist analysis of her workplace without ever having been supplied with the tools to do so. She reaches for the racism analogy because in 1965 in New York City, race bias is something liberals "get," in a way that gender bias still isn't.

Mad Men has always been a show about sexism. This season, it's on the verge of becoming a show about feminism, too.

And MAD MEN has/is always

And MAD MEN has/is always about whiteness and white privilege, too. To me Peggy's comments noted her acceptance and expectation of privilege as a white woman.

Great post, Michelle! I

Great post, Michelle!

I have to say though that at the end of the episode, when Peggy brought up the boycott at a staff meeting ("Why <i>are</i> we working with a racist company?") and her white male co-workers basically shut her down, I sort of thought the episode was letting her off the hook in a way. Like, "But look, Peggy gets it now! But not the SCDP men--they're pigs as usual." I thought it was kind of forgiving her for her earlier assertions.

And I think it's worth mentioning that this episode featured A Very Scary Black Man. <a href=" Curtis</a> says this better than me, but for all the white characters' problematic notions of race, the writers should come up with more three-dimensional--not "symbolic"--black characters.
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Black characters

I have a feeling that Mad Men is building up to do something spectacular with a race-centered story arc, with possibly the introduction of permanent or semi-permanent black regulars (perhaps a black copy writer?). The previous seasons have been pretty anvilicious in this regard, with references being made to pivotal black figures or moments in Black history. As we're nearing the second-half of the 1960s, where Black is Beautiful awaits us, I just have a feeling that Matthew Weiner et al. have something up their sleeve for this.

Mad Men is kind of a slow burn. Characters and story arcs take seasons to develop, so I wouldn't criticize (just yet) the lack of substantial A-A characters.

I humbly disagree with the

I humbly disagree with the author's tone when she states: "Peggy was wrong, wrong, wrong to equate or even compare her struggles as a white woman to those of African Americans of the same era. First of all it's demonstrably true that they aren't the same either in character or in seriousness -- Abe is right that no one is firing bullets at women at the time to keep hem from voting...[etc.]" Although she chides the character for participating in the "Oppression Olympics" that is exactly what the author is doing right here by suggesting that women's rights and liberation was not nearly as serious an issue in this period as Civil Rights. One of the most powerful (and historically accurate) aspects of this scene is how the white male who purportedly "gets it" when it comes to freeing other men is still blinded by gender (which is what ultimately leads to the feminist movement -- women's experiences in the New Left and the Civil rights movement being treating as 2nd class citizens.) It is only BECAUSE the oppression of women was so total in this period that no one was "firing bullets" at them -- you only waste ammunition on REAL threats. Further, this critique is extremely ahistorical -- as an earlier commentator noted, women did not have the privilege of vocabulary for the nascent consciousness that "hey, everything you're saying sort of applies to me, too." Almost all early second wave feminists first understood their oppression through the articulation of the "Other." I think if the writers had done it any other way, it would not have come off as genuine to the period.

With respect, no.

First, you are equating quality of oppression with quantity here, it seems to me. My point is that qualitatively there are differences in the way oppression plays out, and Peggy was trying to reach across those and imply they didn't matter by claiming equal seriousness for her oppression in a conversation that initially wasn't about it. <i>That's</i> ahistorical. And that's the essence of Oppression Olympics. I'm not diminishing any position Peggy's in; I'm saying her claim to the seriousness of her own involved some serious wilful blindness.

Second, your logic suggests that the oppression of African Americans was "less than" total <i>because</i> bullets were being fired at them, which is a strange leap. Again, it's this trying to flatten out how oppression happens in the real world that's dangerous, and that you're trying to do here under a claim of "historicism."

Third, no one critiqued the historical accuracy of the scene.

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