Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

Married with Children, Season 7 Episode 8 “Kelly Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

I’ve always had a soft spot for Married with Children, a sitcom that ran for eleven seasons after debuting during Fox’s 1987 network premiere. The Bundys were so different from other television families I was used to seeing at the time. They weren’t the first working class clan on an American sitcom, but they were the first unabashedly trashy one. 

MWC is the closest thing we’ve had to a John Waters-created sitcom on broadcast network TV. The show plays with a lot of silly stereotypes about suburban white trash. Patriarch Al is a miserable shoe salesman married to lazy housewife Peg. They have two kids – dorky wiseass Bud and slutty nimrod Kelly. Perennially broke, the Bundys live in an ugly suburban Chicago home with tacky decor. They’re frequently mean, occasionally sweet, but always sleazy. Al leads a proto-Men’s Rights Activist group called NO MA’AM (National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood). Peg gleefully sponges off of Al’s wages and cares so little about homemaking that she extinguishes cigarettes in food as she cooks for the family. Bud can’t get laid so he makes out with the vacuum cleaner. And Kelly is essentially a walking, talking “dumb blond” joke – popular (unlike Bud) because she’s hot and puts out, but also deeply stupid. I’ve never found any of these stereotypes truly offensive because this is such a goofy, intentionally lowbrow show.

I never found the Bundys especially relatable, either. But after years of being told that “normal” TV families like the Bradys and Huxtables all lived in comfy, well-furnished abodes where everyone essentially loved and supported each other, this freak show was a refreshing sight. My family loved MWC and videotaped it every week when it first premiered. We savored this program that dared to be funny in a way family sitcoms never tried before.

Once The Simpsons and Roseanne came along and broadened the catalog of dysfunctional, working class sitcom families, my interest in MWC waned. But back in the mid-90s I caught this episode in syndication and it quickly became my favorite, a feminist pop culture piece that deserves a spoiler-filled tribute (I’m just hitting the highlights – it’s totally worth watching even if you know what’s gonna happen). If you’re familiar with MWC, you might assume this episode would feature yuppie neighbor Marcy Darcy. After all, she is a self-proclaimed feminist (and sexist Al’s arch nemesis). But she’s not here at all.[1] Her absence from this episode will make sense later…

Believe it or not, the feminist heroine in this scenario is Kelly, who must get a job after Al demands that someone in the family start pulling their financial weight. Though turned off from the idea at first, Kelly warms up to the notion because she’s going through an existential crisis and seeking  a sense of purpose. Peg, on the other hand, is mortified – “Wanker women don’t work!” Yes, Peg’s maiden name is “Wanker.” God, I love this show.

When we next see Kelly dressed and ready for her burger waitress gig, her enthusiasm quickly fades after the scummy diner manager/cook tells her she’s gonna hate it. And then we dive into my favorite musical sequence from any TV show ever. Set to the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s feminist anthem “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves,” we see angry, impatient diners banging their silverware to the beat as frantic Kelly fumbles about the room – serving cups of water with her hands all up in the beverage, busing napkin dispensers along with dirty dishes, squeezing a ketchup spill out of her apron and onto someone’s burger. This scene cracks me up every time I watch it but also triggers anxious memories of my own brief stint as a burger waitress.[2] The moment when she dissolves into tears as customers scream at her is only a slight exaggeration of my worst day on the job.

Things get worse for Kelly when the cook calls her “the stupidest girl I’ve ever had working here,” right before he asks her out on a date. But she’s used to fending off scumbags. The real indignity is when a former high school teacher conducting a “Scared Smart” tour brings a crowd of young girls by the diner to see how far pretty, popular Kelly has fallen (the teacher hates Kelly for sleeping with her husband, of course).[3] And then when a dead tired Kelly goes home with bags of half-eaten burgers and fries — which Al and Bud devour with great delight — she pitifully asks for her mommy only to be greeted by Peg in full mourning garb. “I don’t have a daughter,” Peg says. Physically and emotionally broken, Kelly tells Al she wants to quit. But then he offers this pep talk – “Bundys are losers, not quitters.” That might as well be the theme of the entire series. 

Emboldened by her dad’s advice, Kelly dons a retro beehive hairdo and decides to fully embrace her waitress identity. Peg later comes by the diner to offer forgiveness, adding, “Love the hair!” But the big turning point is when a scantily clad teen girl visits Kelly to seek advice on sneaking out of her parents’ house to go to a party. Suddenly in a position to espouse useful wisdom, Kelly coaches the girl as Peg watches with deep admiration. Now mom is proud of her daughter for ignoring customers to chat with a friend. Peg notes, “This diner is like a husband to you. It gives you shelter and money, and you don’t have to do anything to earn either!” At last, Kelly has found her purpose, dispensing advice to other young promiscuous girls who like to party – she then announces herself as, “Kelly Bundy, Philosopher Waitress!” And then when a customer demands service she says, “Drop dead… but stay in school.”

The episode ends with Kelly advising a gaggle of teen girls. As they leave and closing time approaches, she flits from table to table, collecting tips. Then she casually hip-checks the jukebox. While “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves” plays again, Kelly props herself up on a stool, smiles, and counts her cash. It’s so beautiful! And then the icing on the cake – credits roll and reveal the episode was directed by Amanda Bearse, the actress who plays Marcy Darcy!! I still remember my friend and I hollering with delight the first time we saw that. It’s just so perfect, you guys.

So yes, Married, With Children slut-shamed Kelly, week in and week out. I guess that never bothered me because it never seemed to bother her character (though it definitely did bother this wealthy suburban housewife/anti-obscenity activist/Romney family-in-law who led a sponsor boycott of the show in 1989). Like the rest of the Bundy clan, she’s just a likable loser looking for a little dignity. So I 100% celebrate an episode that tells young working class women like Kelly Bundy this very important truth – most jobs are stupid and shouldn’t define your sense of self-worth, but making your own money totally rocks. Keep counting them bills, girl.

[1] I’m a little sad to not write about Marcy in this context because she’s the most pitch-perfect embodiment of a terrible, white corporate feminist since Lucy from The Peanuts Gang. But that will have to be another Problematica post.

[2] It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had and if you don’t tip well, you’re dead to me.

[3] Again, a similar thing happened to me – a couple years after I quit working in the nonprofit arts world, a former fellow board member mocked me when she spotted me wiping tables at a coffeeshop gig. The difference was that her amusement in my seeming downfall was purely classist in nature, as I never slept with her husband (though he was noticeably waaaaay hotter than her ::cough:: marriage of convenience ::cough::). Hope you’re reading this, Heidi!

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