Monday, July 26, 2010

Mad Men: Remind me again how Pete Campbell is supposed to be a sympathetic character?

The season premiere of Mad Men was yesterday.  I watched it; I loved it; better people than me have written recaps.  I want to talk about Pete Campbell.

You remember Pete.  Him and Peggy had a thing.  He used to be somewhat of a smarmy ass.  His dad died.  Oh yeah, and he raped his neighbor's nanny.  He had done her a favor by replacing a dress she'd borrowed and ruined, and tries to make a pass at her.  When she declines, he shows up at her door drunk, demands to be let in, and then forces himself upon her.  Apparently some people think this is a "gray area"?  This video shows only part of the interaction, not the part where he demands she undress (by insisting she put on the dress he's replaced), blocks her exit from the bedroom, and kisses her despite her clear fear and discomfort, but I think you can get the idea:

I thought that scene would be a turning point for Pete Campbell's character, where he went from being a misguided schmo in the viewer's mind to being a really entitled asshole who deserves comeuppance.  But that comeuppance never came.  Instead, here we are in season four expected to laugh at Pete's antics, and the oh-so-cute dynamic between him and former flame Peggy.  His character arc is, apparently, that he got more likable after raping his neighbor's nanny, and now we're supposed to accept him as one of the boys.  It troubles me that after all the positive feminist ink Matthew Weiner and co got from portraying Joan's rape by her fiance and Pete's rape of the nanny--showing that rape isn't always the kicking, screaming, violent act we expect, but rather one where men trade on other power dynamics than merely physical superiority to coerce women into submission--they've failed to let Pete's character bear any of the moral consequences of his actions, or even paint them as reprehensible to the audience.

Weiner is trying to portray a time when women were less powerful, rape culture was perhaps stronger, and men frequently saw crossing the line as their entitlement.  And yet, I still see space for defining the morality of individual character's actions within that time.  If Weiner doesn't, that's a problem for me.  Because then every frat boy who lives in an environment where women aren't respected gets to say he didn't know better.  I think he does; and I think Pete Campbell did, too.  And so, no, I can't laugh at his jokes, I can't smile at his character development, and I certainly can't root for him as an up-and-coming member of the new agency.  He. Is. A. Rapist.

Even this article from Bitch magazine, while at least clearly defining Campbell as a rapist, seems to see him as a "product of his times" instead of someone making criminal, morally repugnant, and damaging decisions in the context of those times:
Pete Campbell is a rapist.  I keep repeating it like that, keep saying it flat-out like that, not because I demand that you hate his character now.  (In fact, I've always thought Vincent Kartheiser - who I hated on Angel - does an excellent job of making such a weasel character kind of sympathetic, human.)  I keep saying he is a rapist because I think everyone would benefit from understanding that "rapists" are not monsters: they are human beings.  They are human beings who have been taught, time and time again, by this culture, that they are entitled to sexually use other people.  They are not outliers; they are not blips on the radar; they are not deviants.  They are, often, just men who have gotten so caught up in themselves, so blinded by the ego they are told from birth they must develop as a symbol of virile masculinity, that they have utterly forgotten that woman are human beings.  They have forgotten that women are not there for their sexual use.
In this interview, Pete's portrayer says he doesn't see his character as a villain, and doesn't think in terms of "good and bad."  Apparently neither does Matthew Weiner.  This is not about the "world of Mad Men," which is meant to be deeply flawed, and viewed through a critical lens.  This is about the world we live in, where that critical lens settles only so briefly on a man's rape of a domestic servant, before moving on to admire his personal growth.  Men who rape get to be oh-so-very complex and troubled.  Women who get raped get to dry their tears alone.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think you can see the actor's or even the writer's comments about Pete's ambiguity as a sign of them thinking that what Pete did can be shrugged off. I think it's how they get into the mindset of the characters. Pete thinks it's bad that he cheated on the wife, and he's upset he got caught - MAYBE even sorry for making the nanny cry. So the actor is going to be as sympathetic towards Pete as possible.

    That said, Matthew Weiner said in an interview that he thought the conversation about the nanny between Pete and his neighbor was possibly "the creepiest scene we've done on the show."

    Also, the fact that he doesn't have a comeuppance is interesting. Sometimes the worst don't! (But in the next episode, he coughs a ton while smoking a Lucky Strike, and I don't think that was a coincidence. Not that it makes up for what he did, of course, but I think it was a bit of a nod to the audience.)

    Pete didn't actually cross a line my eyes because I assumed he was capable of crossing that line (if he hadn't already) in the first or second episode. At his birthday party, I believe, he had absolutely no understanding of what the word no meant. The woman he was harassing told him he was hurting her and eventually had to sit far away from him.


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