Tube Tied: Peggy Olson Enters Oppression Olympics, Falters
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.
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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