Once in a while, a term bubbles up from the collective consciousness that captures a human experience so perfectly that you want to fist bump the person who invented it. High on that list are things like hangry (hungry and angry) and ‘mansplain’. They not only make you feel validated for your pet peeves but also remind you that you are not alone in your misery.
Last month, musician Neko Case has gifted the world with such a term on social media. To promote a review of Case’s solo album “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”, Playboy magazine tweeted, “Artist @NekoCase is breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be.”
Case, who didn’t care for Playboy’s patronising ‘woman in music’ label, responded thusly:
@PlayboyDotCom Am I? IM NOT A FUCKING "WOMAN IN MUSIC", IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!— Neko Case (@NekoCase) May 21, 2014
@PlayboyDotCom GET WITH THE NOW, PUSSY-SHAVERS!— Neko Case (@NekoCase) May 21, 2014
While most fans applauded her for calling out the treatment of women as a niche genre, one intrepid Twitter user took issue with Case’s ‘ungrateful’ response, noting: “Never has a compliment been so vehemently rejected."
And that’s when the magic happened.
Case’s comeback went instantly viral. She may be referencing a Mad Men character who struggles to thrive in a boy's club, but you don't even need to be a fan of the show to understand her frustration intuitively. Here was a high achieving woman whose hard work was not only dismissed by a patronising comment, but who was also told to be a doll and STFU in the aftermath of an insult.
As writer Margaret Eby pointed out, “The utility of the term “Peggy Olson-ing” runs far outside the intricacies of the AMC series. It’s one of those cultural terms which immediately makes sense in context, and that fills a demonstrated need.”
In fact, it’s every time you are being defined by your ovaries first and your abilities second. And the implication that any offence taken is just further proof that you are womanning wrong.
To Eby, this means things like: “When you hear ‘that’s pretty good for a girl’, you’re supposed to be flattered by the “good” and ignore the “for a girl.” It means that recognising a backhanded compliment as the backhand it is makes you ungrateful. It means that you should take what you can get and be happy with it.”
Neko Case wasn’t the only high profile woman who has been Peggy Olson-ed lately. Nor was Playboy the only one guilty of the casually sexist slights. Indie pop band Haim (formed by sisters Este, Alana and Danielle and drummer Dash Hutton) also bemoaned being slapped with the “girl band” label. In a recent interview with UK’s Sunday Telegraph, youngest sister Alana said, “When people call us a girl band, I take it as an insult – being a girl in a band shouldn’t be a thing. It seems so medieval.”
But why care about semantics if the quality of your work already speaks for itself? For one thing, the ‘Woman in...’ label tends to distort the value of our jobs. It turns what’s considered a legitimate career for men into a dispensable role for their female counterparts.
Earlier this year, English comedian Jenny Collier was dropped from a stand-up show because there were “too many women” on the line-up.
This just happened. pic.twitter.com/Ap0IamzdR7— Jenny Collier (@Jenjencollier) March 7, 2014
While the tone of the booker’s email was apologetic, as fellow comedian Katrin Higher points out in an article on The Frisky, it’s the flippancy of the dismissal that’s truly “disturbing”. Here, a lost gig is seen as nothing more than an ‘inconvenience’– as if he’s simply rescheduling their book club.
“It’s not hard to see how keeping down the number of women on a comedy bill is an extension of the idea that women should only be seen and heard in small doses,” writes Higher. “Our society says it’s okay for men and women to listen to the gendered experiences of men, but men and women together shouldn’t have to hear about just women’s issues — that’s just for women. This extends beyond comedy.”
Perhaps the worst part about being Peggy-Olsoned is the moment you are told to just grin and bear it. Earlier this year, novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton told a Sydney Writer Festival audience that people tend to get “very annoyed” whenever she points out that ‘male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel’: “What is she doing, having an opinion? Why isn’t she grateful? Why doesn’t she just shut her mouth and feel something?”
The short answer, which rings true today as it did in the 60s, is that it sucks to be defined by a single facet of your identity. There’s no shame in wanting to be recognised for your work without a stranger qualifying the hell out of it.
Indeed, one could argue that Case’s Twitter outburst wasn’t just provoked by a clumsily worded tweet, but a worthy protest after years of being told she is “just as good as any woman in the business”. And like a true Mad Men fan, she would’ve channelled Peggy’s much loved motto: “If you don’t like what they’re saying. Change the conversation.”