“Fuck Pete Campbell!”: Mediations on Mad Men and Whiteness

by Latoya Peterson



*Spoilers ahead*

I knew for a while I wanted to write a piece on Mad Men and race. After Double X accepted the piece, I re-immersed myself in the two previous seasons, wanting to make sure that I did not miss a single reference to race or a character of color. However, digesting that much Mad Men at over a three week stretch was a horrific challenge – the world painted by Matthew Weiner is grim, and as each episode marched on, I found myself wanting to step through the screen and grab a scotch and a smoke myself.

Instead, being a nonsmoker and a light drinker, I chatted with G.D. of PostBourgie while watching:

me: I am going to die if I keep watching so much mad men
G. D.: lol
son
we’re doing our weekly recaps
which season are you on?
me: about to cross into 2
me: My lord
Pete Campbell is a little shit bag
Can’t they kill him off?
G. D.: pete’s…complicated.
me: Pete is a shit bag. A total pile of privileged fecal matter. All the characters on mad men are fucked up, but he has no redeeming qualities.
G. D.: keep watching
me: I’m up to the Nixon election
You know
they never mention race there either
G. D.: i’ve been wanting to blog about race on that show
i’m trying to think of a black person
with a speaking line
the Drapers’ nanny
the dude in the very first scene of the first episode of the first season
the elevator operator
me: not really.
[Pete is a] sniveling little shit
dude
sorry
I went to school with the simpering privileged set
and Pete Campbell is a dickbag
(at the part where he’s trying to blackmail Don/Dick)
anyway
(I heart Bert Cooper)
me: look – even if Pete does reform in the second season and decide to help a homie out, he’s still a dickhead
G. D.: oh, indeed.
i’m not sure how far in you are
G. D.: but Pete’s big issue is that all the metrics for his manhood are fucked
so he feels emasculated
constantly
me: oh, cry me a fucking river
G. D.: i dunno
me: fuck Pete Campbell
G. D.: LOL
me: those guys still exist Gene
the Pete Campbell archetype is still in full effect
I suppose, in a way, I can’t sympathize
Don Drapers and Sterling Coopers are men of a bygone era
they may share similarities with the modern white man, but they are gone
Pete Campbell? Mofo is still here
G. D.: lol
aside: can i tell you how deep my want is for Christina Hendricks?
your opinion of pete will slowly become
nuanced contempt

And yet, he didn’t. I watched him earn a compliment from Don and inform him of Duck’s impending betrayal and I still hated him. However, I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly where this burning hatred was coming from. After all, each character had some kind of privilege, many of them wealthy, all of the main characters white. But for some reason, my reserve empathy for Pete came up dry.

So you can imagine my face when I choked on my ice tea reading “In Defense of Pete Campbell.” People actually liked this fucker?

He’s a brown-noser with smarmy choirboy looks. And I root for him. As does, perhaps not surprisingly, his creator, Matt Weiner. “I love him,” says Weiner. “I went to an all-boys school, and Pete’s like the kids I went to school with. He could have been Holden Caulfield’s roommate, who borrowed his coat and didn’t bring it back.”

Pete is liberating because he says and does all of the evil things that I, being a socialized human being, cannot. (Though I might make an exception for tossing a roast chicken out the window.) “He was constructed as a villain,” says Weiner, “but I hope people see that he’s more complex than that. He has vision and is ahead of the curve. And he’s probably the most honest guy on the show. He just can’t keep his mouth shut.”

That’s when it hit me.

Pete Campbell reminds me of the human embodiment of white privilege. There are no mitigating factors. Just pure, unadulterated privilege – that people celebrate! Other people are happy to watch him, wishing they were him. No matter how prickish he may act, they root for him.

And then, all the hatred made sense.

(Altered Mad Men logo courtesy of Highjive over at MultiCultClassics)