In Defense of Peggy Hill, Our Complex Heroine of Hope

TV Features King of the Hill
In Defense of Peggy Hill, Our Complex Heroine of Hope

Peggy Hill is the hated wife and mother of adult animated TV—a quick Google search will tell you exactly why. Peggy is arrogant, sure, and could easily be read as a killjoy. She makes disturbed family meals and speaks in broken Spanish, which she occasionally uses to micro-aggress the racial minorities in her neighborhood. She also has a habit of passing common knowledge off as a discovery of her own; she’s a classic know-it-all all grown up, complete with the insecurities that fuel her most juvenile behavior. But like Breaking Bad’s Skyler White, this hatred of Peggy isn’t as baked into the show as fans may make it seem.

Next to Hank, Peggy is King of the Hill’s most complex character, and a keen satire on the way Southern suburbia mollifies women with talent into embittered sidekick roles to mediocre men. The veracity of her character is thanks in part to an impeccable performance by Kathy Najimy, who provides a deliciously varied and inimitable delivery to Mike Judge’s more controlled Hank Hill. These are the type of women who wind up so alone and bored they join multi-level marketing schemes (which Peggy herself is susceptible to), or get conned into diploma mills (which, again, Peggy has been a victim of). For a good chunk of the show’s 13 season run, there’s an effusive sympathy ascribed to the tragedy that is Peggy Hill, like in “Arrow Head,” where Peggy’s enthusiasm for the Native artifacts found in her frontyard is manipulated into a feat of public humiliation by a professor of archaeology.

Peggy’s faux-intellectual leanings often lead to messes like this—she’s the type to always reply “heard of that,” when someone off-handedly mentions something obscure. But King of the Hill isn’t a particularly mean-spirited show in the realm of adult animation, and shies away from laying in when characters are denigrated, as Peggy occasionally is.

In King of the Hill, to transgress your lot in life is to set yourself up for failure. Peggy is the antithesis of Hank in this regard—where Hank quakes in fear at the mere idea of propane being obsolete or the slightest bit of emotional honesty, Peggy craves immediate change and to feel transformed by big decisions. This core difference in expectations for their marriage is what led to the events of the Season 3 finale, “As Old as the Hills.” It’s a pretty classic set-up; Hank is blindsided when Peggy reveals she’s dissatisfied with their sedentary lifestyle after their 20 year wedding anniversary. Hank attempts to add some spice to their weekend alone in infuriating fashion.

They wind up lamenting all the things they never got to do, mostly because of Hank—they couldn’t have any other kids because of Hank’s narrow urethra, they threw away their dream of making a world-renowned steak sauce because Hank abandoned the project before it began, and they never travel because Hank is much more content staying put in Texas. Feeling squirrely amid stagnant feelings, Peggy witnesses a few parachuters floating down to Earth. She impulsively decides to sign Hank and herself up for skydiving, hoping to compete with their neighbors Kahn and Minh who brag about their bungee jumping anniversary. The gaggle of people sharing the plane with them all seem to be in a similar boat. They stare vacantly at the walls of the hull while muttering their empty reasons for boarding the flight. Like Peggy, they were attracted to the idea of skydiving by its revolutionizing quality. Their instructor stresses it’s an experience better than sex, and he likes sex “a lot.” Peggy is stricken with panic when she peers outside of the ship after watching Hank jump successfully, but is reinforced in her decision after learning Hank’s stepmother is in labor. The scene of Peggy leaping from the plane is beautifully transposed against a scene of Didi giving birth. Just as Hank’s half-brother begins to crown, Peggy plummets to Earth, untethered due to a faulty parachute cord. and The episode ends.

The first few episodes of King of the Hill’s fourth season follow Peggy’s recovery from the incident, as she deals with being restricted by a full body cast and having to overcome physical therapy. Contrary to the dire subject matter, Peggy’s initially in good spirits—she wears her near-death experience like a badge of honor, touting it as a unique experience she’s attained that few others will ever understand. Peggy is a conqueror; she cheated death and survived an 8,000 foot fall. Her adrenaline high soon fades though into a crushing depression beset by being incapacitated. Her already fragile dignity is now threatened by her newfound physical limitations.

The insecurity that led to Peggy’s fall was kindled by her typical jealousy, but more specifically the envy she felt towards Hank’s father Cotton and his young wife. In them she sees a couple who are ungrateful for their newborn. Most if not all of Peggy’s trials are tied to her role as a mother—this is a potentially problematic archetype within sitcoms, but for Peggy, it makes a lot of sense. She was robbed of many of the opportunities she may have experienced in life because she had a child at a relatively young age with a well-meaning but oafish man blind to any of her more complicated feelings.

But Peggy also leans on her motherhood for a sense of superiority when her other modes of arrogance are challenged; in “Peggy’s Pageant Fever” when confronted with a young and hot contestant who thinks nothing of her intellectual pursuits, Peggy boasts about her one child in comparison to the other contestant’s none. But unlike all of Peggy’s other pursuits and flights of fancy, she isn’t propelled merely by her hypercompetitive spirit when she talks about motherhood. In “The Decline and Fall of Peggy Hill,” while still in her full-body cast, Peggy weeps with joy as she’s able to rock Cotton’s child back-and-forth with her toe. She’s the only one in her family who is able to pacify G.H. (Good Hank) because she is actually a wonderful mother. As she cries, she whispers to Hank “it’s the greatest dang feeling in the world”—the same words Hank used to beckon Peggy to jump from the plane after his successful skydive.

Despite Peggy’s overwhelming flaws, she’s a good mother, and the cornerstone of the relationship between Hank and Bobby. She’s also an excellent friend; Nancy describes her as the type who “always believes the best in people,” which is why she’s blind to the flaws (and, to her detriment, troubles) of others. She is wrapped in her own self-doubt in the same way a teenager walking in the halls of their high school might be.

At times, Peggy reminds me keenly of my own mother. Despite being born and raised in the same rural landscape she’s always known, she carries a great pride (and a contrasting shame) that she clings to when nothing else is left. My mom, too, once suffered a great injury—after a car wreck, she was suspended in a coma for four months. After waking up, she could barely speak and went through rigorous physical therapy to return to about 50% of her previous strength. My mom still feels a deep embarrassment about all of this, a fear of meeting people from her prior life because of an Icarian accident that caused her to look, speak, and walk differently than she did before. She leads a largely secluded life now because of it.

Peggy, however, was able to bounce back completely. She wasn’t disabled by the end of the skydiving arc. My mom has never watched King of the Hill (I wasn’t allowed to watch any adult animation as a kid because she thinks they’re all ugly), but I imagine she would feel reinforced by Peggy’s journey through rehabilitation. Not only was Peggy able to recover fully (something not every person is able to do after an accident), but Peggy is also as preternaturally petty a person as my mom is. After “Cotton’s Plot,” Peggy slowly becomes Flanderized by her own superiority complex, which is the main reason many viewers hate her character. But for women like my mom, this is a keen parody of the type of feelings they may never vocalize.

I’m not asking fans to afford more sympathy to Peggy than she deserves—she’s still haughty, a near-compulsive liar, and sometimes quite ignorant. But she’s no worse than the community she grew up in, and any attempt to frame her as a shackle on Hank’s freedom is based purely in misogyny and hatred for the everyday women we tend to villainize or ignore. For that reason, I consider Peggy Hill one of America’s most iconic cartoon characters, and a heroine in her own right—deeply flawed, sometimes misguided, but like a mirror to a specific type of woman (especially one that anyone raised in the South surely knows).

Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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