“Some Woman in Michigan Didn’t Like It”: Married… with Children and Its Times

Hawthorne may have said families are always rising and falling in America, but he never knew the Bundys. Crawling from the depths of suburban Chicago in the late 1980s, the underachieving family seemed to represent the nadir of Western civilization – the inverse of the happy 1950s sitcom family. Father clearly did not know best. Conservatives might have applauded the fact that Peg Bundy stayed home with the kids, but she only did so in order to eat bon-bons and watch Oprah, neglecting both her children and her husband. Daughter Kelly was basically a bubble-headed bimbo – so under-served by the educational system that brother Bud could convince her that Thomas Jefferson wrote the lyrics to The Jeffersons’ theme song on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Life peaked early for Al Bundy, the great high school football player, and the future only offered a long slog of handling the feet of overweight women who insisted they were a size 6, because they had always been a size 6. For these obese harpies, as for Al, life remained stuck in a delusion of past glory – a fine metaphor for the illusions of the Reagan Era.

What did this grotesque and depressing family mean for American culture in the late twentieth century? At bottom, it represented an attempt by the fledgling Fox network to get a foothold in the public consciousness with a gross-out comedy that refused to flinch in its cynicism, unlike the supposedly cynical Simpsons, which reliably turned to sitcom sentimentality in each episode.

This dark edge was uncommon, not just for its selfish, amoral characters – it predated the similarly bankrupt Seinfeld by two years – but also for its portrayal of a downscale working class life. This was not the lunchpail working class of the 1950s or 1960s. This was the low-wage, non-union service job that replaced industrial labor for many white, male high school grads of Al’s generation – and for his son Bud, the only Bundy to go to college, who might have ended up working at the Gap even he managed to get a degree. (See Reality Bites, and the Class of 2009.)

Like All in the Family, Married… with Children was a show about class conflict. Whereas Archie Bunker feuded with his businessman neighbor, George Jefferson, and college-educated son-in-law, Meathead, Al Bundy’s nemeses were his white-collar neighbors – Marcy, Steve, and Jefferson. (Unlike All in the Family, the show seemed to avoid race – perhaps it was easier or even safer to turn its jaundiced eye on class dynamics than race relations?) Steve was a banker – condescending toward the less-educated Al, but also henpecked by his wife Marcy (Amanda Bearse), who was Al’s true nemesis. A career woman and feminist, she enjoyed ridiculing her dim-witted neighbor.

Married… with Children inverted sexual politics in a number of ways. For instance, Al and his ne’er-do-well son Bud seemed conquered by women and their sexuality. Al’s sexual destruction seemed to have reached the point where his character’s only sexual thoughts involved his dread about having sex with Peg; few episodes exist in which Al expresses sexual interest anyone. If anything, Peg occupied what some might suggest is a traditional masculine role, i.e. the horny aggressive male. Peg consistently belittled Al’s sexual prowess, but expressed a desire for it nonetheless.

Like their parents, the Bundy children embodied two very different kinds of sexuality. Oversexed and unattractive, Bud found little luck with the ladies. The few sexual encounters he experienced on the show usually involved some level of deceit; of course, one might argue the majority of sexual interactions worldwide involve some mistruth, but for our purposes, Bud was not a ladies man. In contrast, Kelly’s character was defined by her stupidity and promiscuity. Kelly’s success with men inversely rivaled that of Bud’s with the ladies – in a sense, both Kelly and her mother were predatory and sexually threatening, in contrast to the inept or impotent men in their lives.

What of the white-collar folks next door? Intimations of lesbianism were common for Marcy – a reflection of stereotypes in an era when gay characters were still hard to find on television. With her short hair, assertive personality and feminist politics, Marcy provided an easy target for Al’s (and possibly the writers’) misogyny. It is possible that the writers used her character to mock stereotypes at the same time they indulged them, but we don’t want to read progressive intent into a show where it was not really intended. Marcy was both a Republican and a supporter of environmentalism, among other causes; she was, in short, a yuppie know-it-all who liked to lord her superiority over her crude neighbors.

Marcy’s second husband, Jefferson, was her opposite: a vain pretty boy with a polished coif and little ambition beyond the occasional con. Most of the time, he lived on her earnings – another flip to the gender dynamics of traditional sitcoms. (Actor Ted McGinley has perfected this character since Married, most notably in the Nixon satire Dick.) In a sense, Jefferson also seemed like the inverse of Al. Whereas Al dutifully trudged through his day job and put next to no effort into his own appearance, Jefferson sailed through life on his good looks. In the spectrum of sitcom respectability, he would place well behind Homer Simpson, Archie Bunker, and even Al Bundy himself.

While many conservatives have attacked the show for its immorality, a few have made a different case. For example, John Derbyshire of the National Review argued in 2003:

Married…with Children was a funny show because it showed us the Sancho Panza side of our natures in all its aspects, male and female, sexual and gluttonous, irreverent and work-shy. It showed it in proper social context, though… Al hates his work, but he goes to work every day none the less. The Bundys’ marriage is stale, but they stay married anyway. The kids are slaves to their own libidos, but it’s hard to imagine them doing anything unkind or seriously illegal, or turning into dope addicts. You might even stretch a point and say that the show was a celebration of marriage, as that institution has been experienced by most Western people through most of history.

Derbyshire acknowledged the derision the show had received at the hands of his peers, who objected to the nuclear family as a comedic punching bag but also believed that “[i]t promoted parental irresponsibility and teenage promiscuity . . . The Bundys were crude, antisocial, and occasionally criminal in a mild way. The show held up to ridicule all that we hold dear, etc., etc.” Moreover, Derbyshire connected the Bundys’ painful continued matrimony to the marriage culture of the English working class of the past, pointing out that for much of the twentieth century no culture of divorce existed for such folks. This fits well with what Derbyshire identifies as the show’s “underlying principle”: responsibility or, more accurately, duty. “It would be too much to say that the show actually celebrated it, but it was there anyway — the principle of duty. This is not a very fashionable principle in an age like ours, an essentially hedonistic age.”

What of its legacy? Married… with Children predated another portrait of working-class life in the Midwest, Roseanne, by a year, which directly spawned a series of copy-shows such as Thea (the black Roseanne) and Grace Under Fire (the single-mom Roseanne). Another Fox show of the early 90s, Roc, attempted to portray black working-class life; its main character, played by Charles S. Dutton, was a sanitation worker in Baltimore. (Notably, a running gag on Married was Al’s inability to pass the test necessary to become a garbageman.)

Of course, such programs might be more the children of Roseanne or Reaganomics, but Married… with Children’s success speaks for itself. It lasted over a decade. And for a trashy show on a fourth-rate network, it led to a surprising degree of career success for Christina Applegate (Samantha Who), Katey Sagal (Futurama, LOST), and Ed O’Neill (most recently appearing as the gruff but affluent patriarch in Modern Family). In fact, when one considers the range of difference between Married and Modern Family, Ed O’Neill’s actorly patriarchal impulses run deep and wide. One might even consider how much ideas of marriage and gender roles have changed by contrasting the two shows. Stylistically, the two sitcoms sit world’s apart, as Married seemed to almost enjoy wallowing in its low production values and traditional half hour set up.

Few shows have gone on to present the stress and strain of economic struggle in much the same way, even if Married’s style was silly and hyperbolic. One of the most recent examples of a white working class family on TV was Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). The parents on Malcolm struggled to raise a large family on two small incomes, with dad toiling as a low-level office worker, and mom, a grocery store clerk. They resented their bosses and screamed at their unruly children. Stylistically, the show fell somewhere between the over-the-top absurdity of Married and the quasi-realism of Roseanne. The much-loved and too-soon-departed Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009) employed a somewhat similar formula that of surrealism mixed with kitchen-sink turmoil.

As in the Chris Rock sitcom, the penny-pinching family in Malcolm could hope for something better, as at least one promising child might look forward to upward mobility. Darlene on Roseanne had literary and artistic talent that she pursued in art school, and even Bud went to college on the otherwise nihilistic Married… with Children. Such shows offered even the hardest-hit families a faint glimmer of hope for something better.

But where would the Bundys be today? A few years back, Roseanne Barr commented about the destiny of her own sitcom family, and the assessment was not pretty: “I’ve always said now that if they were on TV, DJ would have been killed in Iraq and [the Conners] would have lost their house.” Like the shrill proponents of family values, who crusaded against the Bundys’ vulgarity back in the day, economic inequality remains a fixture of the American political and cultural landscape – albeit one that remains more familiar off-screen than on.