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The TV series M*A*S*H holds a special place in the history of American popular culture. M*A*S*H ran for eleven seasons beginning in the autumn of 1972 with a total of two hundred and fifty-one episodes, and the series finale of M*A*S*H in 1981 remains the most watched series television episode of all time. Yet from the standpoint of critical analysis, there are a number of curious issues about the show and its popularity. For a start, what genre is it? The 1970 Robert Altman film upon which the series is based is usually described as a "black comedy," but the reality of the series is slightly stranger than that. Budd and Steinman, for example, define the genre as something they call "warmedy" -- "comedy overlaid with empathetic audience identification." This is an important concept as to how the show worked (and we will return to it later in discussion) but it also fails to capture the strangeness. For example, the theme song to M*A*S*H (originally written by the fourteen-year-old son of director Robert Altman for use in the 1970 film) is entitled "Suicide is Painless," seemingly an odd choice for a sitcom. But the song's title is a reference to the central scene in Altman's film where the M*A*S*H unit's dentist, nicknamed "Painless," decides to commit suicide after fearing that erectile dysfunction means that he is homosexual. (This is an additional shock because Painless is said to have a remarkably large penis.) Hawkeye and Father Mulcahy (two characters who would cross over from the film into the series) then set up a "last supper" -- complete with Altman's visual parody of the Da Vinci fresco -- in which Painless takes a "suicide pill" (really a sleeping pill) and prepares to die. Hawkeye then finds a nurse in the barracks who is willing to have sex with Painless, thus solving his problem. Yet the episode of Painless in the film -- who does not make it into the series, except through the show's theme song -- inclines us to focus on a sort of feminist analysis. What is the connection between the dentist's large penis, homosexual panic, and suicidality? The central metaphor in Altman seems honestly to be a sexist one: war is an emasculating force. Yet I would like to look at two characters in the TV series -- Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit in the series (and by Sally Kellerman in Altman's film) and Corporal Maxwell Klinger, played by Jamie Farr in the series (and not based on a character in the film) -- to show the ways in which M*A*S*H as a series attempted to negotiate issues of gender. I will conclude with an analysis of one of M*A*S*H's most famous episodes -- the finale of its fourth season, entitled "The Interview" -- to show the way in which the comedy's attempts to aim at greater seriousness required a suppression of the low-level sexism and homophobia which were initially a part of Altman's film and which extended to some degree into the series.
If we suspect M*A*S*H of a slight indirection in handling the viewers, this is entirely natural. Budd and Steinman note that "from the early seventies to the early eighties M*A*S*H was always more about its own era than the Korean War " (72). But more crucially it is important to see how Altman in 1970 had made a film set in the Korean War at the height of the Vietnam War: Altman himself had been a bomber pilot in World War II, and was a generation older than most of the actors in the 1970 film. The studio had permitted the making of a Korean War film solely because they were filming several other military epics at the time (Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!) and had already hired the relevant military equipment for the filming of large scale battle sequences, and Altman filmed on a back lot using the equipment from the other films. But this cognitive disconnect was crucial to the success of M*A*S*H as both a film and a TV series: it only pretended to be about the Korean war, while in reality tried to provide a commentary on the Vietnam war. This is where an episode like "The Interview" becomes so important in how M*A*S*H constructs meaning for its viewers. Wittebols calls it "one of the more unusual, introspective episodes of the entire series" and notes that it was the last episode to be written by the show's creator, writer Larry Gelbart, so to some extent represents a sort of swan song (75). The evacuation of Saigon in the Vietnam conflict occurred on 30 April 1975. When the fourth season of M*A*S*H concluded on 24 February 1976, it was not quite a year later -- in other words, the Vietnam war was still a source of much conflict and debate. "The Interview" meanwhile signposts its seriousness -- as it begins, viewers note that it is filmed in black-and-white, rather than color (which is what M*A*S*H was always filmed in, and indeed the closing credits of the episode use the standard color footage). Meanwhile the episode's guest star was Los Angeles network news anchor Clete Roberts, playing himself -- Roberts had worked as a war correspondent in Korea before becoming a television news broadcaster, and was here playing himself on assignment. The success of the episode was so well established at the time that Clete Roberts would be invited back for another episode filmed in the same style in M*A*S*H's seventh season -- and to a certain degree, Gelbart was following in the series Robert Altman's famous penchant for allowing actors to improvise, as much of "The Interview" was not written directly by Gelbart but was committed directly to film in the style of journalism. The actors were interviewed in character by Clete Roberts, and the resulting footage was edited together into a script.
Yet here is where the feminist analysis becomes absolutely necessary, because what "The Interview" rather glaringly does not include is the nervousness about gender which is customary in M*A*S*H as a series, especially in earlier seasons. The character of Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan -- played by Loretta Swit for all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H on television -- had been introduced in the 1970 film as the butt of rather ugly sexist humor. (To find out if Houlihan is a "natural blonde," the entire camp sets up chairs outside her shower, then pulls the shower down, leaving Houlihan flailing and naked -- her nickname comes from her sexual encounter with the reactionary Frank Burns, which Hawkeye and the others broadcast over the tannoy, hearing "Hot Lips" as Burns' term of endearment for her). The status of "Hot Lips" as the only female character today would raise obvious feminist questions, but of course in 1970-2 that wave of feminism which would permit such questioning of a pop culture artifact was itself nascent. Yet it is worth noting that, in the opening four seasons of M*A*S*H, the lonely initial function of "Hot Lips" Houlihan -- to provide a nexus for both sexual fantasy and nervous (often sexist) laughter) -- is altered by the introduction of Jamie Farr's character of Corporal Klinger. Klinger wears women's clothing in the hopes of being invalided out of the Army as a mental case or homosexual. This was groundbreaking at the time, and to some extent the series would back away from its broader suggestion, as David Diffrient notes, eventually "heteronormalizing" Klinger by presenting him with a "Korean war-bride" (Diffrient 123). Klinger -- whose portrayal seems actually anachronistic, more a suggestion of Vietnam-era draft dodgers moreso than Korean conscripts -- is given the most memorable statement in "The Interview." When asked by Clete Roberts what he thinks of the war, Klinger…[continue]
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