Yes it was vulgar and offensive but Married… With Children also broke down boundaries for women in comedy.
Its been 25 years since the finale of the seminal sitcom Married… With Children. The behemoth of a show was one of the longest running primetime sitcoms in history with 11 seasons running from 1987 to 1997. It followed the lives of the Bundy family — Al Peggy Kelly and Bud — as well as their neighbor Marcy and her various husbands. Al the vulgar father that serves as our main character who hates his life and family is played by Ed ONeill also known for his role as Jay Pritchett on Modern Family. Peggy his lazy and equally vulgar wife is played by Katey Sagal. Kelly and Bud their two bickering children are played by Christina Applegate and David Faustino respectively. And Marcy their wellmannered and intellectual neighbor is played by Amanda Bearse.
Often when people look back this series there are two and always these two words that they say vulgar and offensive. Everyone Ive spoken to who was old enough to remember it while it was originally airing as well as most of the cast members now especially Amanda Bearse believe that the show was both vulgar and offensive whether youre viewing it now or in a 1980s90s context — especially for primetime television. A common sentiment that goes along with this is that it was specifically offensive to women this may be an on oversimplification. In reality the shows relationship with its female characters and cast members is a little more complicated and ultimately in many ways it subverted the expectations for women in the 1980s and pushed the boundaries of what women were allowed to do on primetime television.
The key to how it does this really does lie in its vulgarity. In many ways Married… With Children is meant to be a dim skeptical and primarily comedic look at the 1980s nuclear family. In theory it sounds like what were looking at is meant to be the average trueAmerican ideal family. Al works a humble job as a shoe salesmen and money can be tight but they still always have food on the table and a nice suburban roof over their head.
He has a beautiful wife two kids and is friendly with his neighbors and coworkers. So why is it so vulgar? Why do they talk like they do? Whats the point of the constant sexual innuendo masturbation punch lines strip clubs insults talk of sexless marriages and true deep disdain that every character seems to have for one another? The easy obvious and certainly true answer is for comedic effect. The more interesting and complex answer is that it was pulling back the layers to what was behind the real 80s nuclear family.
Its through this lens that we can then understand how and why such a vulgar show even got 11 seasons on primetime television and why it mattered that its female cast members were just as vulgar as their male counterparts. Take Peggy for example. Its no secret that talking about the female libido was pretty taboo in mainstream culture until somewhat recently and even now its iffy. Yet in 1987 Peggy Bundy was on primetime television openly and explicitly talking about how shes sexually unsatisfied. The sexless nature of Al and Peggys marriage is the punchline of at least one joke an episode and usually its Peggy making the joke. Usually its Peggy complaining that shes just not getting enough.
Image via Embassy Television/Sony
Another example is the Season 2 episode Girls Just Want To Have Fun where Marcy is upset when she finds her husband ogling at a female mechanic so Peggy takes her and the rest of their girl group to a male strip club as a sort of revenge. I put revenge in quotations because we then find out that the group especially Peggy are actually regulars at the club — this isnt about getting back at men its about them doing them. Put your opinions on whether one ought to be in a strip club while in a monogamous relationship to the side for the moment and just consider the fact that in the 80s to talk about a stripclub on a primetime family sitcom was risqué – to show scenes of women enjoying themselves in a male strip club was in many peoples eyes vulgar. Not just because of the sexual implications but because of the implication that women were sexual beings.
The fact that this was a primetime family sitcom is vital in unpacking why it was so striking. Traditionally shows like this through the ages think I Love Lucy Cheers Friends Modern Family etc. reflect back at American society what it believes the average person looks like. This inevitably leads to a reflection of its bigotries and flaws hidden behind a veneer of good old American family values where at the end of the day regardless of how much underlying misogyny and bigotry is present we all make up and love each other. The vulgarity of Married…
With Children strips away the veneer leaving us with a horrific and offensive reflection but one in which no one is silent. Al isnt just passively dismissive of Peggy in the way wed expect a man of the time to be hes actively insulting — his misogynistic tendencies are on full display. But Peggy doesnt just take it either the way one might expect the ideal wife of the time to she fires insults right back at him and its the sparks between these two equally strong characters that makes the comedy work.
The show didnt just subvert expectations for women on screen though. It would be a crime to talk about the shows relationship to women without discussing Amanda Bearse. Bearse was not only a star on the show but actually found the chance to work behind the camera as a director. She ended up directing 34 episodes of the series many of which are some of the most beloved and she also managed to leverage these to transition completely from acting to comedydirecting after the show ended. For those unfamiliar with the behind the scenes of television it may be difficult to grasp how uncommon female directors were in the 1980s and still are today.
That discrimination then only gets worse when we speak about the comedy world I cannot stress enough how many boundaries Bearse broke by clawing her way off frame and finding a position as a director for a primetime sitcom in the 1980s. The achievement only gets more incredible when you realize that Bearse came out as lesbian in 1993 four years before Ellen came out and made it a little more acceptable meaning she came out while she was starring on and trying to direct a primetime family sitcom.
Looking back at the show many still will likely call it vulgar offensive and
misogynistic — and theyre not wrong. The show reflected back at American culture warts and all its true values. And though I can write about how that may be a good thing in some ways it wouldnt be accurate at all to say that Married… With Children critiqued these values. They simply reflected it back for comedy. Nonetheless that honest reflection combined with the voice that the women associated with the show fictional and real had was still something boundary pushing and subversive for the time. Though it wasnt perfect it would be a real shame to forget the good that did come from the show.