Bobby Hill, feminist icon.
I am an unabashed fan of King of the Hill. To the uninitiated, or the casual/unwilling observer, it seems like a dull, slow, PG show about a bunch of rednecks. I am going to do something ridiculous (and maybe slightly hyperbolic, but maybe not. How serious am I? I can’t tell):
Best Television Shows of All Time:
1. The Wire.
2. King of The Hill.
Are you outraged? Disbelieving? Do you think I am a cretin? Well, I’ve got my reasons. (And if you are a Family Guy or Futurama fan, then YOU are the cretin, so fall back.) The Wire, as we’ve all breathlessly repeated to each other at dinner parties for the last few years, is an elegant lesson in how to write a novel. Its narrative structure is on point. Its characters are real. OK. Well, King of The Hill also has real characters–though it is animated, its treatment of the characters’ psyches is not cartoonish. I mean, this show traffics in the seemingly-mundane: Peggy is insecure about her big feet. Hank is uptight and nervous when his home owner’s insurance briefly lapses. Bobby gets a part-time job. This is not like most sitcoms, where a bunch of totally improbable, but entertaining, things happen to one-dimensional characters. It’s a fine example of well-written characters–rendered warmly, subtly. Each character has his or her flaws, but, just as in real life (or as in good fiction), they are likable despite their failings, still sympathetic. This, I think, is the key to the show, which despite being centered on the traditional and cautious Hank, actually has a progressive spirit. Hank’s affinity for following the rules and sticking to tradition is both the thing we like him for and the thing we laugh at him for. It’s what the show uses to take him down a notch episode after episode.
Having realistic characters lets the writers do important things:
1. Outline and name Real America. The outlining and naming is important. Just like outlining and naming whiteness. That is why Stuff White People Like is useful and meaningful, despite being a joke. I mean, yes, it is all for a lark, but it also means that bourgeois white folks can’t sigh and say they wish they had “a culture.” When you name it and make it concrete, you can then point out all the privileges that lie within its bounds. Unpacking our backpacks! Naming whiteness, naming maleness, and, in the case of King of the Hill, naming American-ness.
2. Gently skewer Real Americans without being political…with truths bigger than the political. The show takes down cherished ideas from the left and from the right without ever stooping to the base, petty accusations hurled by tea baggers and fringe bloggers and cable tv personalities. No finger pointing, no calling some people real Americans, not-so-subtly implying that other people are NOT real Americans. But still getting to some essential truths about life in this great country of ours. What a feat! We are talking about observational powers about America and Americans right on up there with Tocqueville’s! I think maybe each character represents some characteristic of American society. In Hank we see our puritanical streak and protestant work ethic; in Peggy, our good-natured hubris; Dale is the eccentric fringe element, and on and on.
I think it is a real feat of being evenhanded and subtle and above partisanship that both this weird, racist conservative blogger guy(who, I think, totally misreads Mike Judge and KOTH) and former Democratic NC governor Mike Easley can relate to it. Easley was not messing around, either. The NYT wrote about it:
North Carolina’s two-term Democratic governor, Mike Easley, is so obsessed with the show that he instructs his pollster to separate the state’s voters into those who watch ”King of the Hill” and those who don’t so he can find out whether his arguments on social and economic issues are making sense to the sitcom’s fans.
When the governor, a former prosecutor, prepares to make his case on a partisan issue, he likes to imagine that he’s explaining his position to Hank — an exercise that might be useful for his colleagues in Washington too.
And according to that NYT article, “the largest group of ”King of the Hill” viewers is made up of men between the ages of 18 and 49.” So. Everything up til now has been a long winded set up for something I want to say. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I am always pleasantly surprised at the show’s feminist leanings. Maybe they weren’t intentional, but they are there. Perhaps that’s just what you get when you treat all of your characters–even the women–as fully human. And maybe the show’s primary viewers aren’t looking for feminism, or don’t notice it, or take Hank’s conservative nature and Peggy’s staying at home, rather than working (mostly, except when she gets her substitute teaching gigs) as vindication of their own conservative values. And maybe I’m totally wrong here–I googled for something about KOTH and feminism, and didn’t really find anything. And when you don’t turn up much on Google, if someone, somewhere on the internet hasn’t thought of the same thing before, then you are possibly veering off into crazy territory. But then, that’s what makes blogging worthwhile, right? If the opinion you seek isn’t out there, by god, make that shit up yourself! So here I go.
BOBBY HILL IS A FEMINIST ICON (and Peggy is his sidekick, but let us first just focus on Bobby). There, I said it. Maybe in future posts, I will get fancy and cite specific instances/episodes, complete with transcripts and screen caps. But for now, because I’ve already gone on long enough (and because god, blogging is hard. I have been working on this post in bits and pieces for DAYS. Days! Because I wanted to do better than “OMG btw Bobby Hill is so cool did you notice that King of the Hill is really good? Because it is!” And I still don’t think this is where I want it to be, but I am really tired of seeing it in the queue, so here it goes, out into the world), I will mostly make some claims and not cite them.
Anyway. So Hank is a traditional “man’s man,” but Bobby is always subverting Hank’s expectations about what a son should be and do. He always gravitates towards the odd, the off-kilter, the less-show off-y, more “feminine.” (He’d rather be a rodeo clown than ride the broncs, for example.) He loves spending time with the women in his life and participating in their conversations. He’s willing to bend the rules of gender a little bit. For these reasons, Bobby Hill is one of my feminist heroes. Exhibit A:
Mom. I’m fat. But big deal. I don’t feel bad about it. You never made me feel bad about it. And just because there are some people in the world who want me to feel bad about it, doesn’t mean I have to. So Bobby Hill’s fat. Eh. He’s also funny, he’s nice, he’s got a lot of friends, a girlfriend . . . and if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go outside right now and squirt her with water. What are you gonna do?
He is saying this to console Peggy, who is insecure about her giant feet. I don’t think I have to spend much time pointing out how radical a statement this is in a culture that has not just made thinness an important issue, but a moral issue;a culture where hating one’s body, or at least being engaged in a perpetual struggle to “improve” it, “conceal” its “flaws,” is just part of being a woman. If I were more of the tumblrin’ type, I would take to tumblr and start a fuckyeahbobbyhill.
And, OK, one last thing. Since I watched that particular episode on Netflix, I CAN cite it: Season 4, Episode 23 (1999), “Transnational Amusements Presents: Peggy’s Magic Sex Feet.” Actually, it is a pretty classic Peggy Hill episode. She gets tricked into filming a bunch of videos for a foot fetishists’ porn site, because the pornographer appeals to her vanity.