A note from Roberta:
Our frequent commenter, Max the Communist, left this as a comment buried under another topic.
Uh-uh. She can hide, but she cannot run. or something.
And I’m bringing its first comment, from dansj30, with it.
Enjoy her post.
I’ve been thinking about Pete Campbell for a long time and this piece comes nowhere near exploring every issue he brings up for me, but I had to put something concrete together. I dedicate this to Roberta, Deborah, and all the rest whose ideas contributed to the making of this piece–they are too many to mention.
I hope you find it entertaining and stimulating.
PETE: THE LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK
Where have all the cowboys gone?
From volatile mood swings to calculated blackmail, from topping Peggy in his office to wounding her at her most empowered moment, from pandering for Sterling Cooper to pimping out his own wife, nothing is terribly safe, sane, or consensual about Pete Campbell.
But before we break out the leather, let’s noticed that Pete’s is not a tale of sadism unfettered. Rather, it is a tale of sadism imprisoned in unconsciousness, constrained by all the wrong bonds—of conformity to bourgeois family, to class prejudices and entitlement, to unexamined masculine and feminine roles, to power-based alliances in both bed- and boardroom that only further disempower him. Every restraint checks Pete, except those of personal responsibility and self-aware agency. He struggles like a blind man in a net, unaware that every move leads to further entanglement, grasping for ever more treacherous means to make himself powerful and free.
“ A deep lack of character” indeed—but more troubles Pete than just a personal lack of character. To put it in a Mad Men frame of reference, what’s character got to do with it? Character may not exist for Pete, but whatever of it exists at Sterling Cooper is far too meager and flimsy to interrogate his worldview. If a man truly is “the room that he is in,” and not what might come from within him, then the office Pete holds is the Ministry of Pandering and he is the Panderer-in-Chief and, as far as the top brass is concerned, he will never leave that office. Talent? Ideas? Creativity? It all falls into the void, since he wasn’t hired for his ideas anyway—a fact that never escapes him.
“No job for a white man?” No job for any man, especially a young man in desperate need—not of masculinist hunting fantasies—but of real, backbone-of-America masculinity, the kind whose main ingredients are courage, integrity, and self-honor. Indeed, it is both poignant and horrifying to observe Pete pitching “Bethlehem Steel: The Backbone of America” to Walter Veith, while at the same time, plying him with drinks and ho’s. “Kids today, they have no one to look up to, because they’re looking up to us,” says Don, presciently. At this moment in Mad Men, third wave feminism is a good ways away, but American masculinity is already in really big trouble.
At work and at home, Pete’s marquee value, the value of the Dyckman-Campbell family name, comes first in people’s assessment of his worth to them. Who can tell for how long that famous, high-class name recognition has informed his self-concept. Burdensome as it is personally to him, he will continue to use it and not question how deeply it structures his relationship with the world. The result: Pete principally knows himself in relation to other “names” around him and the ranks of position and power that they hold. In his world, therefore, nothing is won on merit. People succeed by having power and status or by having access to or alliances with people of power and status. The only other variable is the acquisition of information that could change the power dynamic. Since power, status, and information are always shifting, so are Pete’s impulses and objectives.
Ken Cosgrove, the New Hampshire salesman’s son, has beaten Pete and the other guys to being a published author, in a prestigious magazine that Pete’s father reads. Did Pete every really want to become a writer? He does now. Was he ever really upset that Trudy lost her virginity—and to the man that he now wants her to influence, by any means necessary, to get him published? He has forgotten it. Lots of Pete’s battles are for the moment and he stakes almost everything over trivial wins. His inner world is a confusion of impulses and desires rocked by office politics and changing social relations.
Like King Leontes in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” he is “a reed for every wind that blows” and jealousy is his chronic condition. Only his ongoing war with Don Draper provides a stabilizing conflict upon which he can rely. This makes Don not just any obstacle to Pete’s desires, but a Necessary Enemy, an enemy by which he can define himself. Too bad Pete’s enmity will not simply rest with Don.
Whatever feelings Pete harbors for Peggy, she cannot escape his jealousy. Her own position in terms of gender and job hierarchy may be below Pete’s. Her success in the office may be creepingly incremental, but what little attention or rewards she receives, (along with innocent affection, as from Freddie Rumsfeld) they all go into Pete’s jealousy stewpot. Till at last, what courtesy remains between them cracks when Pete perceives she has allied herself with Don, by refusing Pete information: “Good thing you’re a writer now,” Pete says, acknowledging what Don has encouraged in her, “What do you need me for?” After a lifetime of knowing himself by position or status, and only knowing his desirability in those terms, he can hardly imagine someone liking or wanting him for himself. Like character, it may not exist for him.
Hobo Code/Hobo Clueless
Be it career or sexuality, nothing in Pete’s WASP background has ever prepared him for what he wants. Don, as Dick Whitman, gets a little help. A mysterious stranger, like so many 1930s John Doe’s before him, comes to Dick’s childhood home. There he gives Dick a near-magical set of symbols by which hobos learn from each other what kind of people they are approaching and how they can get what they want out of them. Admen have their own code, a language they use to dissect us, the consumers, and to get what they want—our attention, our money.
As it has been pointed out both here at BOK and among AMC Mad Men bloggers, other codes are at work. Gay subculture is so underground, odd girls1 and odd guys must rely on cues from clothing and cultural references to find each other. When they do, even the slightest revelation may be too much to risk—which easily explains Sal’s hasty retreat from Elliot, regardless of the potential for a perfect match.
So Pete and Peggy act out their own BDSM scenarios just barely within established, conventional codes of 1950’s masculine and feminine roles. If they would want to go further, if they could even begin to identify their desires as such—what can we say?—it’s 1960. Sal’s or Carol’s is not the only love that dare not speak its name. Where is the code, the manual? Where are the more experienced Doms and Subs to show them how? Which way to the demimonde? As has been thoroughly noted, Pete has needs far beyond sexuality. His problems will not be solved simply by spending his evenings at Shaw’s2 or collecting old copies of Bizarre magazine3 (now there’s something for Trudy to find in a shoebox!). Besides, he has bigger gender trouble on his sexual horizon: he has Peggy.
For a brief moment at PJ Clarke’s, Peggy considers herself at the pinnacle of success in love and work. The breakout of the Twist transforms her from meek, obedient secretary into joyous, celebratory, sexually powerful Peggy. Her hottie-hot buxom figure, Twisting her way toward Pete, easily dominates his smaller frame curling up on the bench. I used to look at this scene and think, “Wow, look at all that great body language Vincent Kartheiser uses to show us how twisted Pete is,” when, just as possibly, he could be showing us Pete trying to hide a woody. Happily, as viewers, we do not have to choose. A sexually powerful Peggy might bother our latent, young, insecure sadist not only because he doesn’t like her that way, but also because he does. Pete’s flight from PJ Clarke’s may be as much about his incomprehension of his own desires as any supposed rejection of Peggy.
During the 1980s, family systems therapist John Bradshaw, who wrote Bradshaw On: The Family, and many other works would say that the worst abuser was the undisciplined disciplinarian, the person who had no structure or control for themselves, but attempted to control everyone else. How great it would be if a big ol’ Dominatrix or Dom Daddy would learn Pete some self-discipline; but no one, especially Don, is about to perform that function and it strains belief that Pete will go looking for it. As a result, Peggy becomes the most susceptible target for all his abuse.
Plus, at this historical moment in American BDSM subculture, the Old Guard4 still holds sway. Tops are tops and bottoms are bottoms—no switching allowed. They hardly explore the fluidity of power within relationships. So they, as well as Pete, may be unprepared for a woman, like Peggy, who has the capacity to be both innocently submissive, as she was that morning in Pete’s office, and, potentially, joyously dominant. At least Sterling Cooper is ready for her copy, the “Mark Your Man” campaign for Belle Jolie lipsticks. “She wants to tell the world, ‘He’s mine’,” says Don, in full-on pitch. “He is her possession. You’ve given every girl who wears your lipstick the gift of total ownership.” Who knows how much Don or Ken are ready for this “fresh approach” from the women in their personal lives, but they are certainly ready to sell it.
If only Peggy knew how powerful she is. She could act with utter confidence and not be wounded by whatever Pete says. His insecurities would be writ large for her and she could make a clear decision about whether she wants to play at all. The good news for Peggy is the Twist is in full swing; the Cha-Cha is fading way. Motown is already churning out hits and the British Invasion is just over the horizon. If she could just survive this horrible year, then she’d leave Pete in the dust, still wondering what that thing they had was all about.
As for Humps, time is running out. He is not getting any younger and the nuclear family is closing in on him. If he hopes to get a clue about himself, sexually or otherwise, he will not find it at home with his vanilla-sex wife, Trudy, and his grandchild-crazy in-laws. We shall have to wait for Season 2 to discover if he ever finds, not what he wants, or wishes for, or dreams of, or envies, or fleetingly desires, but what he truly, deeply, needs.
1. Odd Girl by Artemis Smith is a 1959 pulp novel about forbidden lesbian love.
2. Shaw’s was New York’s first leather bar, opened in 1951 or 1953. I was not able to establish if it was still open in 1960.
3. Bizarre was an illustrated fetish and bondage magazine, published from 1946-1959.
4. Old Guard is generally characterized as rigid in role-playing and sticklers for protocol. But Old Guard vs. New Guard may be a myth; it’s a controversial discussion within BDSM communities and too much to go into here in this post.
His Fair Lady
It has been said here and by prominent critics that what happens in the first episode of Season 1, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” continues or sets up what happens throughout the rest of the season. There is one remarkable way in which that is not so. After episode 1, Pete says nothing about Peggy . . . ever . . . to anyone. In episode 1, his mouth runs on and on, trash-talking the new girl, pestering Don about whether he’s slept with her yet. Then, for the rest of the season–nothing. Not a boast. Not a peep. The more one thinks about it, the more astonishing it is.
Here is a young cad, starved for masculinity points. Why won’t he say something? Was he really impressed by that dressing down Don gave him? “No one will like you,” certainly could be an effective threat to Pete. But then again, does he ever really think that anyone likes him? Then, coming back from his honeymoon with that new-baptized feeling, brushing off the guys with, “Gentlemen don’t talk about such things,” that glow doesn’t last for long. So why does his silence about his conquest of Peggy prevail? Why doesn’t he say something, anything, ever?
Afraid it will get back to Trudy? Okay, so maybe he would never boldly claim the money from the office bet on Peggy’s virginity. But say nothing? Sal drops little hints about his gayness all day. Do we really think Pete is incapable of coming up with one plausibly deniable double-entendre about Peggy for the guys? Not our Pete. Our Pete may be a sick, twisted bastard, who is still stupid about life in general—but he’s one clever, little, sick, twisted bastard. The idea that he would be incapable of it is ridiculous. The notion that he is just not that into her, so he won’t do it, is equally nonsensical. This boy raves about coat-check girls and their tangerine panties; what’s one more conquest of a little steno girl?
Episode after episode, Pete’s silence over Peggy deepens into something mysterious and, dare I say it, pregnant with monk-like reverence. Certainly, unlike Paul Kinsey, he is faithfully silent. That silence holds both his longing for her and his denial of his feelings.
Then there is what he does say, to Peggy. Too bad she’s not quite getting that “I’m married,” is Pete’s code for “I want/can’t have you.” I came all the way out to Brooklyn to tell you I’m getting married. I’m back from my honeymoon—I’m married. Why won’t you tell me what I want to know about Don—can’t you see that I’m married? Have I told you yet today that I’m married, my dear? How many different ways can I tell you I’m married?
It’s not just a Pete and Peggy problem. Most all the Mad Men characters have a chronic inability to articulate love. It’s the question of the series: that lightening bolt to the heart, does it really ever happen for anyone? Don uses the concept to sell nylons, but Rachel, a believer, sees in Don the alienation she knows every day as a Jewish woman. Don reacts in shock and awe to her recognition of him. Is that it? Is that the lightening bolt hitting Don, long before he finally kisses her on the roof of Mencken’s? Is it true love or just an adolescent Adam-and-Eve fantasy? Does Don really want to run away with Rachel, or does he just want to run away? And that’s just our hero, ultra-ladies’-man, Don Draper.
Now, returning to our villain: do we dare suggest there is a Romantic suffocating underneath all that blighted self-esteem and twisted ambition? Our final exhibit: Pete attacks Ken. Before this moment, on the same day, Pete gratuitously accosts his willowy secretary, Hildy, in front of all the guys: “I love watching you walk.” We can know it doesn’t mean much to him precisely because he has an audience. The woman whose walk he silently watches is Peggy’s: Peggy, who is leaving the office after her little talk with Joan about her weight; Peggy, who is losing confidence in her beauty, totally unaware that Pete cannot take his eyes off her ass; Peggy who never sees Pete’s furious retaliation against Ken for calling his woman a “lobster.” She may hear about the fight later, but she will never know why it happened. No one will.
Beating up Ken is the noblest, most unselfish and uncalculated act Pete ever commits the entire season. It’s an act made pure by the fact that he will never get anything out of it—no masculinity points, no nothing. Okay, so I am watching African American Lives, Part 2, on PBS. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is going over Don Cheadle’s genetic trace of his middle passage ancestors back to Africa and Don Cheadle says, “You know, you are what you defend.” A lightening bolt out of the blue—thank you for that, Don Cheadle. So, somewhere in Pete there is a light, a hope, a star. Will he ever see it? It seems too much to believe in, because right now he can punch out Ken with no problem, but he cannot defend Peggy against the worst in himself.
Power-from-within, that is the concept so foreign as to be unrecognizable to Pete—power over others is what he knows, what he feels subjected to daily, what he craves, for his own chance at personal freedom. It’s a Dick Cheney world, and Pete only lives in it; but boy, does he ever want to be its master. Now will he kill the Romantic within him to achieve it? And if he does, will Peggy be the first to get shot in the face?