A Meditation on Mailer, Pete Campbell and The Language of Men
"His anger often derived from nothing: the set of a pair of far lips, the casual heavy thump of the serving spoon into his plate, or the resentful conviction that the cook was not serving him enough." —Norman Mailer, "The Language of Men"
Pete Campbell presents a whole different kind of masculinity issue than does our mainstay Don. From S1E1 Pete’s been a mess of insecurities, all stemming from the essential Pete nugget that he simply doesn’t know very much about people. Wavering between the petulance of a child and the brimming over-confidence of a teenager, Pete is his own worst enemy.
He’s quick to lash out — recall this is not the first time he’s been in a fight at the office. He punched poor Kenny for his indelicate comments about fair Pegs back in season 1! Of course, that might have had something to do with his extreme jealousy of Ken — this comes only a few episodes after Ken gets his first story published in The Atlantic. And he’s become so used to shooting off his passive-aggressive sniping comments and being ignored that when Lane actually challenges him to a fight, he’s floored. He’s not used to being directly confronted or spoken to about much of anything, really.
Here’s Mailer again:
"He became aware again of his painful desire to please people, to discharge responsibility, to be a man. When he had been a child, tears had come into his eyes at a cross word, and he had lived in an atmosphere where his smallest accomplishment was warmly praised."
Pete has some…issues with recognition and pride, no? He craves it desperately, and yet he’s either so unctuous or so biting that even when he does good work, people are reluctant to reward him. This man, who was so spoiled in his youth, finds that his peers don’t like him at all. When he pitifully says at the end of “Signal 30” that “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends”, we get the sense that he actually means it. That SCDP holds the only friendships he’s ever known! This coming on the heels of Don telling Megan that the people at work are not her friends only underscores Pete’s essential misunderstanding about other people and his innate loneliness that comes from being excluded.
As decent as Pete has become at his job, he’s never gotten over his puppy love with Don Draper, the man he has been trying to get a reaction as long as he’s graced our screens. When flattery didn’t work, Pete turned to subterfuge. None of it seemed to work very well, but Pete is still giving Don the biggest steak.
"…with his heart aching he lunged toward Hobbs. He had no hope of beating him. He merely intended to fight until he was pounded unconscious, advancing the pain and bruises he would collect as collateral for his self-respect."
"[He] began to wonder about the things which made him different. He was no longer so worried about becoming a man; he felt that to an extent he had become one. But in his heart he wondered if he would ever learn the language of men."
So then of course, Pete does get called on his pervasive misanthropy and reflex anger toward the rest of the world. And in every glance and gesture, Pete has always tried to ape the standard masculinity: he tries to dress like Don, he blusters through work drinks living up to Roger, he commits adultery after the both of them. And yet even when he’s embraced the trappings of masculinity, he still can’t connect. He hates himself for it because it’s not what he wants, and Don hates him for it because it seems like such a poor imitation of the thing he himself does. Everything Pete does has an air of forcedness to it, because it just doesn’t come naturally to him — the language of men.
*Footnote by Natasha Simons
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