Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man
5 min read

Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man

Mad Mascs

Mea culpa: I have no idea if Daniel Lavery has done this riff. Danny — who is my friend and one of the best writers alive; I’m saying this because I am honest, because I love him, and because I’m a starfucker — has certainly done riffs like this, and it seems like an opinion he’d have, but I don’t remember, can’t find it, and can’t ask, because Danny is currently on Digital Hiatus with his glittering wife.

Also, this post is an adaptation of a conversation with Calvin Kasulke. Some of the insights are his, and are adapted with permission. I believe he has seen about five episodes of Mad Men, while I’ve seen them all, but our hit rates are similar because Calvin can see the future.

Anyway, it’s sure an opinion I have, and here’s why.

1. Peggy is so utterly dissociated from the flesh of Peggy that she can carry a baby to term while pretending, even to herself, that she is just putting on weight. This deception requires her to develop a new pattern of disordered eating — a task she completes with more focus than Don has ever used to sell deodorant or beer, but also without once letting it come to the surface of her consciousness. As soon as this relationship with food has served its purpose, Peggy drops it forever, as do the writers. Unlike Betty, she hasn’t spent her life gently cycling between various eating disorders. The whole business is temporary and instrumental.

The sheer labor of this, the effort it takes. And look, there’s Catholicism, right, and there’s saving face in front of your midcentury co-workers, and there’s shame, and there’s wanting to keep your job so badly that you’re willing to transform your body to do it. This is something else. This is dissociation. This is seeing your body as an imprecise instrument which you must learn to use. It’s seeing your body as a thing out of your control, so that anything else it does, or that you may happen to make it do, has no meaning. It’s just topology.

It’s not just that Peggy is willing to endure all kinds of things — Joan’s cruelty about her body, a pregnancy without medical care, the logistics of a new wardrobe, the bearing and giving up of the child, becoming a temporary ward of the State of New York — in order to avoid more conventional humilations. It’s also that she endures them, does her usual hard course of work, gets through it stoically, because the alternative is acknowledging the life of the body.

I do think that the trans undertones of Peggy’s situation are unintentional, but I cannot emphasize enough that this is the pregnancy plot — an inconceivable child— that a man writes for another man.

2. Peggy clearly loves men, but her attraction isn’t entirely about desire, or it would have a more comprehensible pattern. Instead, she fucks the ones who ask and the ones who must be asked. She fucks hippies, squares, casual pickups, potential life partners, skinny fanatics whom she will later impale on a makeshift spear while trying to prevent a burglary; human jawlines who only smoke weed; aging alcoholic preps called “Duck”; Pete. Peggy’s fucking is nothing like that of Don, a vampire. Peggy fucks men as if they are dangerous books that she has brought to read — furtively, desperately — in a quiet corner of the library, daring to check out only the ones with the blandest covers. Sure, she may want Don and Abe and Pete and Duck and Stan (Peggy insists on making plays only for men who have half the syllables in their names that she has in hers; that is one of the ways she seeks power). But she also wants Don’s ruthlessness, Abe’s lefty credibility, Pete and Duck’s entitlement, Stan’s devil-may-care creativity. She fucks in order to pattern herself after these men. That’s one reason Stan wins: with his flowing hair, no-nonsense bitchiness, and love of soft vests and knits, he’s the most comfortable fit and the most fun man to be.

(Yes, I do remember that Peggy’s early play for Don fails, but she does ask and she does want something from him.)

I should say here, in case it’s not apparent: I love Peggy. I think she’s a good person, and when I speak of her relationship with her body, sexuality, and the men in her life as instrumental or power-seeking, I mean it in a morally neutral way. You need to seek power, when you have none. You need to treat yourself instrumentally, when you  only see your body as a medium for your intellect. And whether or not you’re enjoying this conceit that Peggy fits between Reed Erickson and Lou Sullivan in transmasculine history, for some knowable reason, the character is presented as dissociated, fascinated, transfixed by the world, an outsider to herself.

It goes without saying the those books are gay books.

3. Peggy rather famously spends the whole series trying to figure out how to be a woman. I would argue that her process here — which, like her process of fucking, is all about patterning and identity theft — nonetheless has a very different vibe from her relations to men. I’m thinking of how she tries dressing like Joan for a hot minute, but more than that, I’m thinking about her attempts to feel close to Joan, and how the two women become decent work friends without ever connecting the way, say, Joan connects with Lane. The sequence where Peggy tries to defend Joan from those dicks who draw obscene pictures of her, only to be shut down by Joan’s lifelong insistence on playing the game, is more than two different visions of what feminism is. It’s a demonstration of Peggy’s vision of feminine solidarity, which is essentially chivalrous. I am one kind of person; I protect the other kind. Likewise, Peggy’s attempts to bond with Megan have an awkward-dad vibe, masculine mentoring at its most football-tossing: “This is as good as it gets!” She’s hoping Megan will turn out to be like her, and she’s wrong.

I’m not saying that because a woman is awkward, that woman is a man. After all, Megan is spectacularly awkward, and she’s not only a woman, but seems thrilled to be. (Whatever Peggy’s social sins, she can read a room better than Megan does in “A Little Kiss”).  Neither am I saying that queerness is always detectable by tropes and trappings, or that tropes and trappings are more important to a queer identity than what people feel — I leave that view of queerness to Mad Men itself, and its questionable treatment of Sal. But the series is littered with the bones of women Peggy has tried to bond with, with all the sincere good will and feminist consciousness in the world. Peggy likes women, is politically aligned with women, makes a career of selling products to women. Peggy’s friends are men.

In the end, Peggy gets good at being a woman — she’s gonna make it after all! — but that’s distinct from wanting it.

4. Peggy’s longest onscreen relationship begins when a man compliments her powerful shoulders.

5. I don’t think Peggy will ever come out. I don’t think she’ll ever even realize that what’s wrong with her life might be knowable and nameable. I think she’ll have a long and satisfying career, side by side with the adoring Stan, who is named for the concept of Admiration, just as she is named for the concept of Pegging.

This is not a tragedy, though it’s no sitcom either. People do the best they can with the times they have, with the kinds of person those times will stretch to allow them to be. Peggy’s no different, and neither are we.