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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. But the clincher 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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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Steve Urkel Had a Demonic Ventriloquist Dummy Doppleganger that Massacred The Entire Winslow Family

Well, okay, that was a bit of a shameless clickbait-y headline. Of course, with the TGIF line-up long-runner and militantly G-rated show Family Matters, which was in many ways the Designing Women to Full House‘s Golden Girls, nothing really terrible happens to the Winslows. Still, they come weirdly close to being legit slasher movie kills, but…well, we’ll get to that.

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Maybe the episode itself acknowledges how much it’s not quite removed from a typical ’80s teenage massacre flick by giving the audience a content warning of sorts from Steve Urkel, who has by this point, the eighth season, long replaced the Winslows themselves as the star of the show. The following 20 minutes might be a little spooky, especially for those of you tuning in after Full House! In the show’s defense, though, if this seems quite lame, the much edgier (well, okay, at the time) Simpsons did the same thing for their Halloween episodes.

Despite Steve breaking the fourth wall to give a little warning to viewers, the Halloween special kicks off like many a Family Matters episode, with Steve using a new interest as a vehicle to irritate the Winslows. In this case, it’s a ventriloquist dummy that’s made to be a replica of him. Steve’s dreams of becoming a ventriloquist are dashed by the lukewarm response of the Winslows, who are probably wondering why a super-genius who can clone humans, cracked the secret of time travel, and developed exploding vegetables for the US military is bothering with an archaic type of showbiz.

Despite his genius, Steve just quickly wishes that his dummy could talk. His wish gets granted, but in the problematic form of apparent demonic possession.

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Okay, we don’t really know what happens to create “Stevil”, the sociopathic Steve ventriloquist doll, but that’s not important: it’s time for the Winslows to fall prey to the diabolical faux-Urkel! Laura is split into three parts and scattered across the Winslows’ kitchen cabinets, Harriet Winslow’s head ends up being the centerpiece of a giant jack-in-the-box, the two young Winslow kids are chased down by Stevil in a car while they’re trick-or-treating, and Eddie Winslow is dragged into a chimney, and, in a moment that probably did actually freak out some of the show’s kiddie audience, an unresponsive Carl is used as a human dummy by Stevil.

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I mean, don’t expect a genuine Child’s Play à la dead Winslows. Most are still talking and seem only mildly disturbed by their “deaths” (even if Carl never moves on his own and Eddie’s ultimate doom is never revealed). But honestly, Stevil is pretty explicit about wanting to rub out the Winslows because he despises them for being, essentially, a TGIF sitcom family (hey, Stevil, if that’s really your beef, want to stop by the Tanner household before you call it a night?) Also it doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to suppose that, say, poor Harriet really has been decapitated, had her head hollowed out, and was turned into a novelty toy. Whoever wrote this episode wasn’t a stranger to horror movie death scenes, is all I’m saying.
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But don’t let me fool you into thinking this episode is more bizarre than even by the standards of the adventures of Steve Urkel. The events of the episode all turn out to be a dream, albeit with a “false awakening” during which Eddie tries to lobotomize Steve with an egg-beater. Also, as per TGIF policy, most of the jokes were probably ancient when they were first written down in papyrus (although I was legitimately impressed we did get this less than family-friendly remark from Eddie: “The only doll I want sitting on my lap can talk on her own!”), although as always it still managed to be a cut above the diabetes-causing sugar pap that was Full House. I will admit, though, the bit where Steve tries earnestly to seal his bedroom door with Scotch tape did get a real laugh out of me.

The best part, though, is that this episode got a sequel in the show’s ninth and final season, where Stevil returns alongside an evil ventriloquist dummy doppleganger of Carl, Carlsbad. Maybe we’ll get to that one next Halloween (which, at the rate I’ve been posting this year, will be two or there posts later).

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Uncategorized

Doctor Who – The Space Pirates (1969)

spacepiratesA commander of the Earth government’s Space Corps, General Hermack, figures out that a group of space pirates had moved on from attacking cargo ships to stripping government beacons of argonite, a rare and valuable extraterrestrial metal. Hermack arranges to set a trap on Beacon Alpha Four, and it is sprung…by the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe. Pursued by Space Corps troops with orders to shoot to kill, the Doctor manages to seal a door, but he and his companions also wind up trapped. This leaves them helpless as the Space Pirates show up, defeat the Space Corps, and leave Beacon Alpha Four to fall apart with the TARDIS and its crew still on board.

Meanwhile Milo Clancey, the lone crew member of an out-of-date ship who is part of a dying breed of interplanetary prospectors, runs into General Hermack. After interrogating Clancey about the Space Pirates, Hermack lets him go, but suspects Clancey is the one who is behind the Space Pirates’ argonite stripping operations and plans to have him tailed. He shares his suspicions with Madeleine Issigri, the owner of a planetary mining corporation on the planet Ta and whose father was thought to have been killed by Clancey. On the remains of Beacon Alpha Four, the Doctor works out that the beacon was not really blasted apart, but that the electromagnetic field that kept the beacon’s sections together was destroyed so that the sections could be transported by rocket. However, when the Doctor tries to link the sections back together in order to reach the TARDIS, he ends up blasting the section they’re on further into space.

They’re saved from being literally lost in space by Clancey, although he suspects the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie of being pirates. “Luckily” the situation is resolved when the Space Corps attack and Clancey manages to fly away. As Clancey lands the ship on Ta, the Doctor frets that the Space Pirates might destroy the TARDIS when they melt down the sections of the beacon for argonite, but fortunately Zoe uses math and physics to calculate where the beacon sections were being taken. Suspecting that Clancey might be working with the pirates, the Doctor and his crew take advantage of his absence to go get the TARDIS.

They find the pirate base on Ta, but are nearly captured. While fleeing from the pirates, they find an injured and imprisoned Space Corps member, Sobra. In the meantime, General Hermack is sent on a wild goose chase to a frontier planet by the pirates’ leader, Caven, who sends a few of the beacon sections away from Ta in order to frame Clancey. Clancey shows up to save the TARDIS crew once again and manages to convince them of his innocence, but to elude the pirates they’re forced to take an elevator that lands them right in Madeleine Issigri’s offices. Caven follows right behind and kills Sobra when he tries to resist.

Caven has Clancey, the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie locked up. Clancey recognizes their prison as the private study of Dom Issigri, Madeleine’s father. It is not long before they find the man himself, weakened and crazed, who has been kept prisoner by the pirates. Madeleine, who had only got involved with the pirates because they promised to sell her materials recovered from salvaging operations and is panicking at their increasingly illegal antics, tries to alert General Hermack, but submits when Caven plays his trump card: he has secretly kept him alive.

The pirates’ prisoners find a way out. The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie stay on the planet while Clancey and Dom take off in Clancey’s ship. Unfortunately, Caven had a plan B: sabotage Clancey’s ship by cutting the oxygen supply. The Doctor saves Clancey and Dom by telling them over a transmitter how to repair the ship. General Hermack finally realizes that the pirates are on Ta after running across Clancey. Desperate, Caven sets explosives all over the pirate base. The Doctor saves the day by diffusing the bombs while Caven is killed when the Space Corps blasts his ship. In the aftermath, Madeleine, while pleased to be reunited with her father, admits she will have to return to Earth to stand trial, but is optimistic about the outcome. Also Clancey has reconnected with Madeleine and his old comrade in prospecting, Dom Issigri himself. As for the Doctor, Clancey offers to fly them to the beacon section that holds the TARDIS in his ship, a prospect that horrifies Jamie.

Choice Quotes

“Zoe, don’t be such a pessimist.” – The Doctor to Zoe, when she reveals that one of his plans could get them lost in deep space (and it does).

Continuity Notes

It’s suggested that the Doctor does not need as much oxygen to survive as a human being, another hint that he has a tougher constitution than humans.

This is also the last “Doctor Who” serial that has footage that was lost or destroyed by the BBC, with five of the six episodes missing.

Comments

The Space Pirates was filler for a story that got cut, and it shows. Even though this was the second outing of Robert Holmes, the most popular screenwriter of “classic” Who, this is a disappointing penultimate adventure for the Second Doctor. Most of the “action” is dedicated to men talking exposition and describing past events to each other, especially in the earlier episodes (it’s fifteen minutes into the first episode before the Doctor even shows up!) or to extended chase sequences that just drag out the plot. I know even the better ’60s Who serials were guilty of padding. Yet this is one that I would say you can probably watch halfway through, go get your car worked on, buy groceries for a month, and come back and you still would know what’s going on.

Even if the pacing was more brisk, it would not do much to help just how generic the foundations of the story are. Now there is a kernel of an interesting idea here in how the serial unfolds in a future where part of outer space is a lot like the Wild West, but centralized government in the form of Space Corps has been slowly taking over and bringing an end to a lawless but romanticized way of life. The problem is that nothing is really done with it, except in presenting one of the most irritating characters in all of Who history, Milo Clancey. He is literally just a 19th century prospector dumped in a sci-fi setting and armed with one of the most exaggerated, bizarre, unconvincing American accents possible. Milo Clancey is such an unsubtle, clumsy attempt at making a sci-fi Wild West allegory you’d think he was a character from Firefly (yeah, that’s right, I went there). By the end of this thing, I just felt motivated to write a 560-page epic where the Daleks kill Milo Clancey horrifically. He is the only thing memorable about Space Pirates, and that’s not a good thing.

Now that I’ve alienated my five readers, let me just say that, while like all the lost episodes of Who it’s not hard to find a fan recreation out there, it’s really not worth it for this one. The one attempt to give the plot some kind of mystery, by suggesting that Milo might be working with the pirates, is spoiled by how obviously he is not intended to be a villain and how quickly Madeleine’s actions are brought under suspicion. Plus it doesn’t help that Madeleine winds up with the “siding with the villains because a loved one is being held prisoner” cliche.

Luckily, though, we’ve got a flat-out epic just around the corner…

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nothing But Trouble (1991)

Phew, even by my usual lax standards, that was a long hiatus, huh? To try to make up for it, I did two little things. One, I gave Trash Culture a long overdue facelift, and two, I thought I would take an opportunity to discuss my own favorite movie that no one else likes and that consistently gets one-star ratings, Nothing But Trouble.

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If nothing else, the movie deserves to be remembered as the oddest collaboration between most of the ’80s/’90s comedy brat pack of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy. (I’ve scoured the Internet for evidence that Bill Murray was nearly involved in some way, but no luck). Written by Peter Aykroyd, Dan’s brother, and the only film ever directed by Dan himself, it’s easy to dismiss this movie as a forgettable blunder birthed by pure nepotism, which many have. To me, though, I see Nothing But Trouble as a breath of fresh air, especially in a time when Hollywood (already rarely in its history a place that nourishes raw creativity) has become pathologically risk-averse.

I mean, it’s a comedy that just needs a tiny bit of tweaking to make it into a grindhouse horror movie. That’s basically both the premise and the sales pitch. New York financial expert Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) hits on high-class divorce lawyer Diane (Demi Moore) and uses a trip she has to make to see a client in New Jersey as an excuse to accompany her on a day-long drive. Chris thinks the trip is already ruined when his wealthy Brazilian clients, siblings Fausto (Taylor Negron) and Renaldo (Bertila Damas), invite themselves along just to see how the primitives outside New York City live. Chris’ lustful plans take even more of a nosedive when they get pulled over by a cop in the decaying rural town of Valkenvania, which lies atop a perpetually burning coal mine. See, Valkenvania’s economy was forever ruined by a deal with corrupt bankers nearly a century ago, which also saddled them with the unstable, burning mine that threatens to one day cause the town to collapse into the ground. This sin against them has not been forgotten or forgiven by the Valkenheiser clan that runs the town like a fiefdom, especially the decrepit family patriarch, J.P. Valkenheiser a.k.a. the Judge, who just so happens to be the judge over Chris Thorne’s traffic case (and, in fact, the only judge in town!). A one-man Occupy Wall Street, Judge Valkenheiser is liable to not just throw the book at city slickers, especially ones with jobs having anything to do with banking, but if he’s in a particularly foul mood he’ll feed them to his roller coaster death trap, Mr. Bonestripper. The only hope for the four to escape without their bones stripped is the growing disgust the Judge’s grandson Dennis (John Candy) has with how his grandfather runs things, or the hots the Judge’s mute and super-strong granddaughter Eldona (also John Candy) has for Chris…

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If the plot synopsis above makes the movie sound strange, there’s still plenty of details I left out. Like the fact that there’s a plot-relevant cameo by Digital Underground with a young Tupac Shakur, all as another group of defendants dragged before the Valkenheiser court,  who break out a musical number with Dan Aykroyd as the Judge joining in. Or that the Valkenheiser clan includes two twins so deformed, Bobo and Debull, that they look like they were kidnapped from the set of an ’80s fantasy flick. Or that the climax involves Chris Thorne running through a wall in the style of a Looney Toons character.

To be honest, I might be biased, since I grew up watching this movie on network TV and USA Network on Saturday afternoons, in the mysterious Hyperbolean Age before streaming services. A child with a taste for horror, fantasy, and pure schlock like lil’ me was likely more receptive to a movie like this than your average movie-going adult who just wanted a good comedy starring the comedic A-list of the day. To drive home the point, the movie did flop terribly, even if it’s not exactly remembered as being a failure on the scale of Waterworld or The 13th Warrior. It lost $32 million and its reception even caused Dan Aykroyd to write a letter of apology to the entire cast, taking the blame for the movie’s failure. In his Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin, with the usual squeamishness of mainstream film critics when they’re forced to approach movies that are unapologetically weird but not at all pretentious, unequivocally denounced the whole thing, from the stereotypical depiction of the “Brazillionaires” to being about a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world.”

I can’t help but ask, somewhat indignantly, why is a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world” a problem for you?

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For the sake of my own sanity, before writing this I scoured the Internet for just one positive review. I finally found one by Peter Trbovich, which deems Nothing But Trouble “a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie.” I think Rob Zombie has taken up that legacy, but, regardless, I generally agree and I believe Peter Trbovich hits on why I still like, even love, this movie despite the persistent hate-dom it gets. The way it straddles the line between trashy hillbilly horror in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vein and a comedy that’s equal measures dry and goofy, the elaborate sets that invoke H.P. Lovecraft better than some Lovecraft adaptations, and the purely gross comedy around the Judge’s gruesome body that makes me think of what it would be like if Clive Barker made comedies instead of horror and dark fantasy…these are all reasons why I will stand against the whole world, or at least the whole Internet, to defend this hideous, unloved darling.

At the same time, I would never call anyone an unredeemable normie for hating it (although something about Nathan Rabin’s review, to be honest, rubs me the wrong way personally since he seems to be an awfully bad sport for someone who built his career on finding gems among flops and b-movies). Its tone slips and slides all over the place, Chevy Chase is giving his performance his usual Caddyshack II-style apathy, and, well, it really is perhaps too weird for its own good, especially if you’re still expecting a typical big-budget comedy from the era. Mr. Bonestripper, the backyard roller coaster of death, is easily the most famous concept of the movie, but it barely touches the iceberg of the bizarre that Nothing But Trouble has to offer.

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Still, I can’t help but wonder if Nothing But Trouble has actually aged well, even if the core gag about yuppies being terrorized lost its relevance years ago (although arguably poverty-stricken, opioid-soaked, and wrecked-by-Wall Street rural America has become a bit more like Valkenvania, and I say that as a native of rural America). It’s hard to imagine a movie like this getting a sizeable studio budget in 1991, much less in 2017, when quirky and visionary “middle-budget” films are practically extinct and studios hedge their bets on existing franchises, remakes, reboots, and paint-by-numbers action films and comedies that can rely on either built-in fan bases, well-researched and poll-tested audiences,  or on overseas markets. Nothing But Trouble definitely isn’t a movie made for any demographically concrete or studio researched audience, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

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