Feminine at work

 Posted by on April 27, 2011 at 8:07 am  Characters, Retro
Apr 272011

One of the things that I’ve noticed about Peggy is that she doesn’t try to be professional by acting like a man. Maybe it’s Bobbie Barrett’s advice, or maybe it’s the absence of other advice.

In the ’80s, when women in the workforce started being a reality and not an anomaly, the “power suit” came in big-time,* and women were taught to be in business by looking like businessmen. (The pantsuit was popular in the ’70s, but wasn’t masculine, despite the uproar it caused. The power suit generally had a skirt, but was modeled after men’s suiting.) With power dressing came power behavior, and there was a whole slew of advice for women in the workforce, and a lot of it amounted then, and still amounts now, to suppressing femininity. “Professional” behavior amounts to masculine behavior; men set the standards, then women came in, so women have to play by men’s rules.

In Season 2, Peggy said “I love Freddy,” which was personal, and girlish, and very sweet, and not something a man at work would ever say. But the circumstances are unusual, to say the least, and I don’t think there’s anything unprofessional about it.

No, what struck me most was in Season 4, when Freddy came into the office, and later when Kenny did, Peggy hugged each of them. I mean, those hugs really struck me, they really felt remarkable.

It’s definitely a feminine gesture, particularly in those days: Men don’t hug each other, and if they do, not at work. The masculine inhibition about touch is so pervasive that you might say it’s unprofessional, but that conclusion comes from a workplace in which no women are present; the standards are set by the masculine inhibition, not the other way around.

So when I see Peggy hugging, I think that in a few years a woman wouldn’t do that at work, because she won’t want to be seen as girlie or weak. Peggy, as a trailblazer, doesn’t have advice books** telling her how to assert herself in a man’s world; such a book might well say “no hugging.” She’s done a damn fine job on her own so far, and she’s done it by experimenting; she’s tried assertion and complaining and just showing up at the strip club—and she’ll keep trying things.

On the other hand, the hugs also demonstrate Peggy’s self-confidence. She’s successful enough, at this point, that she’s able to be herself, and not try to mold herself into the not-Peggy that someone like Stan wants to demand of her. She can be exactly as feminine as she likes, and exactly as ambitious as she likes.

*Dress for Success for Women was published in 1977. The notion of power-dressing for women took off beginning in the late 1970s and really hit big in the ’80s.

**Helen Gurley Brown insisted that every issue of Cosmopolitan have work advice as well as sex, love, and fashion. The first fully revamped Cosmo, reflecting Brown’s vision, was September 1965.


  8 Responses to “Feminine at work”

  1. Great insight! Makes me really wish I didn’t have to wait so long to get back to new episodes of MM 🙁

  2. It’s true that men don’t hug at work…but they do shake hands, and, especially back then, do that “arm punching” thing. Roger did it to Don in a bar, I believe… so, touching, of a sort.

  3. hmm. I’da spelled girlie “girly”. But Gurley was just fine.

  4. Maybe it’s Bobbie Barrett’s advice, or maybe it’s the absence of other advice.

    I think Joan and Kurt helped too with the physical side of it. Joan told her to stop dressing like a little girl, and Kurt said her hairstyle was “old-style” and not “modern office working woman.”

    P.S. Peggy really solicited Kurt’s advice when she felt she was picking the wrong men (“What’s wrong with me?”) but hair and clothes do play a big part in making an impression at work. As Melanie Griffith’s Tess said in the ’80s movie Working Girl, “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair!” 😉

  5. Speaking of Working Girl, remember how the softer, shorter hair made her look more elegant and professional, but still feminine. And then when she went to that business event, she wore a cocktail dress. Harrison Ford’s character marveled that “…You’re the first woman I’ve seen at one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.”

  6. The advice I was given in 1970 “Act like a woman, think like a man and work like a dog.”

  7. This post inspired me to go back and look at a bunch of Peggy’s outfits and how they changed. Joan’s and Bobbie’s advice had an impact. You can first see it in the black and white dress in “The Inheritance.” It’s more modern and stylish than anything she wore earlier. I don’t think she would have agreed to Kurt’s haircut in “The Jet Set” if she hadn’t been listening to Joan and Bobbie. The gray outfit she wears in the next episode, “The Mountain King” is the most grown-up thing we’d seen in, and is a good indicator of the kind of thing she wears throughout season 3. By season 4, her wardrobe is a little more stylish.

    It’s a lot easier to change clothes and figure out what’s stylish as well as what works for her. Figuring out how to behave as an office professional when she has few models is more difficult. Peggy is my favorite character, and I love seeing how she evolves during the series.

    @4 Mad Chick and @5-I would love to see Peggy and Joan watch “Working Girl.” It’s a great movie, and very 80s, but in a good way.

    • RG, Janie also pointed out that Peggy’s salary changed. Her Season 1 clothes were largely home-made.

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