Counterpoint: These TV Shows Didn't Really Defy Gender Roles.
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Counterpoint: These TV Shows Didn't Really Defy Gender Roles.

In fact, what they did was mostly lowbrow and sexist.

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Counterpoint: These TV Shows Didn't Really Defy Gender Roles.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexism, homophobia, racism, and transphobia in fictional settings. Dated terms and offensive words are used, mainly in the context of quoting characters.

While writing a previous article about an episode of M*A*S*H, I stumbled upon a piece about another topic on the show, and whaddya know? It was published right here on Odyssey! The article's title read “TV Shows That Defied Gender Roles Before It Was Cool", and while I'm not entirely convinced that defying gender roles is really “cool" yet, at least not in the mainstream, I was curious about how that subject tied in with M*A*S*H.

For those of you who don't know the show, it takes place in a mobile army surplus hospital (hence the name) on the front lines of the Korean War. While the show was certainly progressive during it's run in the 1970s-80s, it was a product of its time as much as it was ahead of it, with plenty of "problematic" plotlines, jokes, and characters.

I click on the article, and once the page loads, my intrigue turns to wariness due to the header image I was met with.

Not only is The Fairly Odd Parents not a good example of a TV show that broke gender roles, that image specifically is a shining example of everything wrong with TV shows "breaking gender roles".

For those of you who don't write for Odyssey, you should know that we have certain formatting standards we have to follow. Images in our articles have to be sourced and centered, and our header images have to be "labeled for reuse", and meet a minimum size requirement. How specific or vague your topic is effects how easy it is to meet those requirements. I figured (hoped) that the author of this article had chosen this image out of desperation, and decided to read on.

The introduction was compelling, which lifted my spirits, and the first show they listed was M*A*S*H! Awesome! I figured they'd talk about the portrayal of women in the army during wartime challenging the concept that a woman's place is in the home. They... kind of did, bringing up Major Margaret Houlihan, the head nurse of the hospital, who is indeed shown to be competent, decisive, intelligent, and strong.

She's also shown to be shrill, nagging, and uptight. Most of her plot lines revolve around her having an affair with the least likable character; an incompetent, married doctor. She sleeps with most of the older men on the show, all high ranking army personnel that she constantly compares to her father. In reality, as progressive as the show was for its time, it's not one I would bring up when discussing groundbreaking defiance of gender roles, but I'll admit Houlihan is a solid character with enough redeeming qualities that I can understand why someone would bring her up.

Unfortunately, the article didn't stop with her but went on to talk about Corporal Max Klinger, a part of M*A*S*H that has not aged well at all . This particular character was an enlisted man who had decided he wanted out of the army, and the way to do it was by receiving a Section 8, which was essentially being discharged on the grounds that you're not psychologically fit for service.

The way he accomplished this was by dressing in drag. Constantly.

Most of the other characters don't act too bothered by it, but it's constantly the butt of people's jokes, many of which come off as either sexist or transphobic. I'm well aware that Klinger's character is not trans, nor is he queer in any way. In one episode he gets married to his high school sweetheart via long distance phone call. But the fact that the best example of "crazy person" he could come up with was "man in a dress", and the fact that most of the jokes about it entail him being called ugly and insane, or making fun of others by alluding to them being attracted to Klinger is not only an overused gag but a trope rooted in transphobia and homophobia.

In one episode, a psychiatrist shows up at camp to evaluate everyone and make sure they're fit for duty. Klinger is elated, especially when the psychiatrist spots him and immediately pulls him aside for a personal interview. Eventually, the psychiatrist says he'll send Klinger home, but first, he has to sign a piece of paper saying the reason he's unfit for duty is not, in fact, being crazy, but because he's a “transvestite and a homosexual". Klinger is furious, reacting to the titles as if he'd been accused of murder, and refuses to sign it, offended at the allegation. The psychiatrist is made out to be a good guy and repeatedly brought back as a guest star who's friends with the main characters, despite the fact that he treated Klinger with an inordinate amount of disgust.

Nothing about his character is a positive representation, and there's a VAST difference between a character breaking gender roles being portrayed as a good thing, and a character breaking gender roles being nothing but a punchline, and something to be laughed at.

Which, unfortunately, seems to be the pattern for the rest of the article. The author cites Roseanne as another show where gender roles were broken due to a character, Darlene, being the "head of the household" while her husband, David plays a more "sensitive, passive, female role". They neglect to mention that the trope of "domineering wife and thoroughly whipped husband" is yet another common trope that has dozens of examples, all of them negative.

Comedy shows frequently exaggerate real-life situations, or "flip the script" to make things unexpected and funny, which is fine, but not when it sends the wrong message. We laugh at the sight of the husband in a frilly apron cooking dinner or vacuuming because it's unexpected, and it's unexpected because obviously that's a "woman's job." He'll be made fun of by other characters or merely shown in humiliating situations for the audience to laugh at. This doesn't break gender roles, it enforces them. Other men see that and associate basic tasks like cooking or cleaning with femininity, and associate femininity with weakness or humiliation. Then, they avoid them like the plague.

The article brings up The Fairly Odd Parents as another example, citing Cosmo's pregnancy and the fact that in one episode Timmy's Dad enters a women's beauty contest. But Cosmo being pregnant is made out to be a horrible thing, with him being a caricature of a pregnant woman, throwing up all the time, having weird cravings and mood swings, and eventually running away in a fit of anger. And again, putting Timmy's Dad in a dress and purposefully exaggerating certain features in an unattractive way, i.e. his body hair, is ridiculing the idea of a man in a dress. Even if we ignore the transphobic and homophobic connotations, showing someone's body hair and shape to be unattractive, especially when that person is presenting in an otherwise feminine manner, is a bad message to send, especially to kids. It's why we have grown-ass adults in the year of our lord 2018 who still think that women having armpit, leg, pubic, or facial hair is "gross".

To end this on a slightly nicer note, the article brings up Law and Order SVU as a show that broke gender roles by portraying a female detective being successful and independent. She adopts a baby, as a single mother, all while continuing to be amazing at her job. I wholeheartedly agree with this. SVU is one of those rare shows that manages to evolve with the times, and they should get props for that.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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