This post is part of the 100 Days Project
For a reason known only to himself, my partner has begun watching the TV series M*A*S*H from the beginning. Although I'm trying to avoid TV (I'm a binge-watching freak who must be stopped) I've been in the same room as at few episodes recently and I'm impressed at how well it's aged.
Each episode manages to mix comedy and drama in a way that M*A*S*H made its own - the ludicrous nature of war, the psychological toll, the odd juxtaposition of educated, liberal doctors and the bureaucracy of the army. The dialogue is pin sharp still, the stories fresh if no longer original, and if the cutting is a little clunky, the acting is as committed as the day it first hit celluloid. The interaction of the main ensemble rings, if not true, then certainly familiar for anyone who's ever worked in a team.
There are things to criticise of course. In its sexual politics it's completely of the 70s - all the woman are nurses and all the doctors are men, there's a revolving set of sexually available ladies, widespread infidelity and sexual harassment as a narrative staple. The six-character ensemble, features a single woman (for there can, of course, be only one), her moniker is 'Hot-lips' and she's the main object of sexual attention for the rest of the cast.
But - all of that said, there's a degree of complexity in Margaret Houlihan's characterisation which belies the very liberal positioning of the show. She's a Major, out-ranked by only one other character, she's a careerist (with occasional regrets) and she's shown time and again to be extremely competent at her job. This is the reason she garners more respect from the rest of the characters than her partner, Major Frank Burns, aka Ferret-face, who is known to be a bad surgeon.
Margaret's value as constructed in the narrative comes from the approval rating she gets from the 'star' Captain Hawkeye Pierce. I would read this as a Lacanian configuration in that her 'meaning' is determined by a man and we as the audience read with his assessment of her. However I confess myself to be charmed by the way she is valued both for her professional competence and for her sexual attractiveness - she even gets to have a sexual relationship with a married man and still be seen as a goodygoody. This comfortable duality would no doubt collapse completely under a more rigorous reading, but its accommodation inside one character is an interesting take on the whole Madonna/whore construction.
On consideration, there are many worse narrative representations of woman I could have grown up with. Although she unhelpfully emphasises the idea that there's only one spot for women at the top and she doesn't often lead the narrative, 40 years down the line Margaret Houlihan is looking pretty darn good, especially compared to a lot of the two-dimensional roles available to woman in contemporary media. M*A*S*H is alright...