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Overthinking It: Marcy Rhoades and the Paradox of Reagan Feminism

If you’ve been a long-time reader, you might have picked up that one of my favorite sitcoms is Married…With Children. Watching it as a kid shaped not only my dark and naughty sense of humor, but also, much like The Simpsons, it gave me invaluable lessons about cynicism and hypocrisy, preparing me for a world where people who try to push prudery upon the world might be perverts in private and where those who hold fast to noble ideals might have more than a bit of a sadistic streak. And in the show’s universe, no character better taught those lessons better than Marcy Rhoades D’Arcy.

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Marcy has a reputation as a straw feminist in a show that tends to be more remembered for Al Bundy’s NO MA’AM club and for an audience audibly leering at Kelly Bundy’s skimpy outfits than for biting social satire. It’s a view that’s simultaneously fair and unfair. Al Bundy has had the same appeal to people who don’t get the joke as Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and in our current era, when questions of gender are more politically fraught now than they have been since arguably the 1960s, more than a few of the jokes (like when Bud Bundy says he’d rather be a man than a cook in one episode) have more of a bitter taste than they probably would have when their episodes first aired. That said, the show was much more clever with its commentary about than it’s usually given credit for. If you peek behind the curtain, it shouldn’t be too surprising. The show’s creators, Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, were both men, but out of the 15 writers who wrote more than 17 episodes for the show throughout its entire run, eight were women, a majority of episode directors were women, and the show also had eight female producers, including Katherine Green, who was an executive producer along with Moye and Leavitt for most of the show’s run. Compare that to another hit comedy of the era, The Simpsons, which only had one regular female scriptwriter out of thirteen scriptwriters through the period roughly lining up with Married…with Children’s run, or even to The Golden Girls, which throughout its entire history had four women out of the fourteen scriptwriters who wrote for more than ten episodes.

I don’t think there’s a better example of the show’s commentary about politics, class, and gender than one of history’s greatest annoying sitcom neighbors, Marcy. Played to perfection by Amanda Bearse, who herself was an out-lesbian and ended up in the show’s later seasons being a frequent director on crew, Marcy was indeed a feminist. However, she was also a Republican, something that tends to be unknown by both the show’s detractors and Al Bundy’s unironic admirers. But wait, you may be asking, my hypothetical reader who is too wrapped up in the contemporary political wars, a character who is both Republican and feminist? I’ll explain, but first, let’s try to capture the essence of Marcy Rhoades, later Marcy D’Arcy.

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At first, Marcy along with her husband Steve Rhoades is part of a naïve, newlywed couple, in contrast to the long-married and bitter Bundy couple. The joke was to contrast the progressive idealism of the Rhoades with the ugly reality of the Bundys. However, by at least the end of the first season, the characters were evolving beyond the original concept. The difference was no longer the span of their marriages. The Bundys were working-class and militantly apolitical, beyond Al Bundy’s broad distaste for feminism and vague hatred of France, while the Rhoades were an upper middle-class couple that worked in banking and clearly identified as feminists and social progressives while also holding conservative ideas. This wasn’t something just made up for comedic convenience or to serve as a foil for the Bundys. The Rhoades, especially Marcy, represented something of the‘80s and ‘90s that the audience would have recognized: the Reagan-era feminist.

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Like her sitcom feminist predecessor, Maude Findlay, Marcy is cosmopolitan and intellectual. She enjoys going to Moroccan restaurants and watching PBS pledge drives and hates sports. Also her feminist bona fides are impeccable, even if in the show they mostly come across in her opposition to Al Bundy, who is, in her words, “a cheap, sexist, primitive throwback of a human being.” She encourages Peg Bundy to get a job in more than one episode, much to Peg’s chagrin, and encourages her husband to be a more gentle and modern man, telling Steve on one occasion with disappointment that “under that sensitive, caring façade, you’re nothing but a…a man.” One time, she is proud that Steve got a promotion, but admits that she hoped a woman would get it instead. However, just under Marcy’s post-1960s liberalism, there’s the sort of primitive impulses that she urges her husband to oppress. First, she has a violent streak, vowing to hunt down a neighborhood peeper, smash his toes with a hammer, and then “turn the hammer around…” Second, even though she disapproves of pornography and smut – to the point she even reacts to a male strip joint as “immoral” and “degrading” – she has a rich and rather perverse sex life. She nearly gets arrested when she role-plays as a prostitute getting picked up by a sailor played by Steve, lusts after high school football players in a game (“Spike me, baby. Spike me”), it’s strongly implied that she and Steve engage in S&M (“Oh, Steve. I’ve been bad”), she objectifies television fitness guru Jim Jupiter alongside Peg on a regular basis, and she rents movies with titles like “Judy’s Big Date.” One episode even has Marcy losing her wedding ring down the pants of a stripper at the aforementioned male strip club (which Peggy dragged her to, naturally).

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Marcy’s little hypocrisies are part of the show’s humor but also what makes her a relatable character, but then there’s Marcy’s brand of feminism. She’s a feminist, but she also savors her upper middle-class lifestyle. If anything that’s an understatement. When her marriage with Steve is on the rocks, in no small part because Steve has gone full Pamela Anderson and has embraced animal rights activism to the cost of his economic lifestyle, she yearns for the older Steve who was “money-grubbing” and “would step on an old lady for a dollar.” The joke here is Marcy represents the compromises many feminists made with the conservative “greed is good” decade, finding ways to reconcile their struggle for egalitarianism and progress in gender with their acceptance of the inequality in income and class. She’s an exaggerated representation, as all representations of real-life types would be in a comedy like Married…With Children, but there is something to the woman who disdains the Bundys’ crude and self-indulgent worldview yet is delighted when her husband promises they will “punch up some of our old classmates credit ratings on the computer and make love by the flickering ashes of their lives.”

But does this mean she’s a feminist and a Republican? Well, yes. It’s canon. In one episode, when reminiscing about her youth in the 1960s, one of the things Marcy remembers with fondness is Young Republican meetings in the 1960s. But the clencher is the seventh season episode “Al On The Rocks.” Peg has exiled her children Kelly and Bundy out into a freezing Chicago night so that they don’t endanger the ill-fated Seven with their cold germs. Bud begs Marcy for help, but she shrugs and says, “I can’t. I’m a Republican.”

So there you have it. Marcy was more than just an obnoxious neighbor, but also the embodiment of the uneasy yet still sustainable truce some individuals hold between social and cultural progressivism and views that border on economic Darwinism. Thankfully that’s no longer a readily identifiable type today, right?

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