Entitlement, or Nobody Has Suffered As I Suffer

Anent nothing (or actually, anent a long, chewy series of Tweets by David Rothkopf about the way a certain class of people in our society–guess whom?* gets a pass for treating people badly–which the author calls Asshole Culture) I started thinking about M*A*S*H. Not the beloved TV show where many of the most despicable characters turn out to to be people who can learn not to be despicable (or are revealed to be secretly not despicable, etc.) and in which the remaining despicable people get their comeuppance before the end of the 22-minute episode. Who doesn’t love Alan Alda?

No, I’m talking about the 1970 Robert Altman film with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as the focal characters–Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre. In 1970 I was still in high school; the zeitgeist was (at least if you were young, or at least if you were me) irreverent and disruptive. I saw M*A*S*H a couple of times. I loved it. Here were two guys who were forced to be somewhere they didn’t want to be, and found colorful, disruptive ways to express their dismay and to flout authority whenever authority raised its head (and seriously: the Army in 1953–what’s not to flout?). They were heroes! Up the revolution. Etc.

When it aired a couple of years ago I thought “Hey, haven’t seen this in forever. I’ll watch it!”

It was unbearable.

It’s got an amazing cast: in addition to Sutherland and Gould there’s Robert Duvall, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, and Rene Auberjenois, among many others (my lifelong crush on Donald Sutherland probably started here). And the individual episodes are mostly funny. Except that Pierce and McIntyre, in particular, spend the entire of the film being assholes. It’s not that their situation–drafted, in Korea, in a war that seems to be organized via clown-car, fighting for an abstract cause among people whose pompous self-importance can be infuriating–doesn’t beg to be treated to black comedy that points out the absurd. It’s that these characters make the lives of everyone around them, particularly the less powerful ones–the nurses and orderlies, the local kids–a misery. Their essential message is “I don’t want to be here, and I”m going to take it out on everyone else.” And the film wholeheartedly endorses this; suggests that it’s admirable. Way to develop a coping mechanism, guys!

In 1970 there were a lot of films that took this stance: anything that undermined the dominant order was good. Stick it to the man. Etc. Except that in most cases the people doing the sticking were younger versions of the same as the people they were sticking it to: cisgendered white men. Women are treated either as compliant sexual receptacles or as foils. And the foils are, essentially, Mean Mommies who use the rules to foil our free-spirited heroes.

Our free-spirited heroes are assholes. They have their kindly moments (mostly toward other cis white men) but for them it is always appropriate to treat someone in authority–especially women in authority–with contempt. And because these guys are doctors, and apparently good ones (“We’re the pros from Dover,” one of them says as he bulls past a nurse, using an umbrella like a fencing foil) they are suffered, even by other cis white males in authority, to be assholes. As Rothkopf puts it, “Entitled, wealthy, bros who take what they want, treat everyone around them like shit and then rise to positions of power is practically a cliche it’s so common.”

The message of M*A*S*H the film is “if Daddy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy.”  And decades later the sight of grown men taking out their anger on everyone around them is not liberating, it’s unbearable.

*White males. I don’t want to bash white males as a class–I’m married to one, and most of the excellent people I know who are white and male are emphatically not assholes, except on an occasional, everyone-has-those-moments basis–but the bad apples ruin things for the rest of the guys.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Entitlement, or Nobody Has Suffered As I Suffer — 17 Comments

  1. Sadly I discovered this when I rewatched some of it a few months ago, thinking I’d relax and enjoy. Who took the funny out of it and replaced it with douchecanoes?

    Wow, that was actually funny back in 1970. New meaning to the careless advice to “Grin and bear it” for anyone who wasn’t a white male.

    • There are a number of films from that era that now grate hugely. Even at the time I found Five Easy Pieces difficult to watch, and the famous scene with the waitress and the toast infuriating. All the time I was watching I was in her head, narrating: “Look, man, I’ve been here since dawn, my feet hurt, I’m tired of pretending to smile. If I go back to the kitchen and tell them you want your sandwich toasted I”m gonna get screamed at because I don’t make these rules.”

      Is she rigid? Yeah. But Jack Nicholson’s response never struck me as a triumphant blow to societal rigidity; it was a petulant guy who didn’t like being told No by a tired woman who had 10 other tables to get to.

  2. I can still watch about 70% of the episodes by focusing on their railing against the brass and military stupidity in general, and how they put aside their frustrations to take care of people. But yeah.. especially with regards to Major Houlihan, and the casual sexism of the period, it often gets muted for background visuals.

    Interestingly, the character who stands out, on viewing now, is Klinger. Rather than being a joke character, he’s three-dimensional and compassionate, funny without being rude, and never once treats his cross-dressing antics as a joke, even when those around him do (and the way he becomes fond of his wardrobe, and shares it with women in need, is delightful).

    Our hero all along was the grumpy non-white cishet guy in a dress.

    • I love Klinger. And Radar, the least-powerful-guy-who-actually-runs-the-joint. But that’s the TV show. It hasn’t aged brilliantly, but it can be mostly watched. But the movie, oh, God.

      • Yeah – this is one case where the book may not be better (tho I think it is) but it makes you cringe somewhat less. or at least it did when I reread it ten years ago, nobody tell me otherwise now. 🙁

        • I thought the book was dreadful when I read it right about the time of the movie. It was badly written, and while the funny stories were there, it didn’t hang together or have much purpose. And I suspect the misogyny was in the book, too.

  3. You know, I liked a lot of Altman movies back in the day, but they really don’t hold up. I gave up on him entirely after he butchered The Long Goodbye, which is my favorite Chandler. I know he wanted to make a statement about detective novels, but he shouldn’t have used that book to make it. And while I’m not sure I can get past the sexism and racism in Chandler anymore, it was still a nuanced story in which right and wrong are complicated. Altman missed all that to hammer his theme.

  4. Yeah, I can’t believe now that I ever thought it was funny when they pulled the “hilarious” prank of exposing Sally Kellerman to the entire camp while she was in the shower. I was only about 12, but still.

  5. Back in the ’90s AFI did their “100 Greatest Movies” list, and for a while my sister, my father and I were picking things off that list to watch (usually as a double feature with some mindless action movie for me and my sister to cleanse our palates with afterward). I watched M*A*S*H and loathed it — to the degree of utterly not even comprehending why it was on the list. Because yeah: all I saw was a couple of assholes being awful to everyone around them, in a way that was apparently supposed to be funny.

  6. Interesting. Even in the Seventies, I didn’t like the film. Too mean-spirited. Not my cup of tea. Though I will concede they took the trouble to set up a few of the targets as deserving of a come-uppance.

    • One of the reasons the TV show works better is that even Major Houlihan, who was the Nurse Ratched of the story, gradually became more comprehensible, less rigid, more of a person. The Movie did not trade in persons–except for Hawkeye and Trapper, everyone else was a paper target.

  7. I tried to watch The Muppet Show a while ago. First season. I was…mindboggled by the amount of humor based on domestic violence. I finally gave up and got rid of the DVDs.

    A recent article talks about how Sixteen Candles–seen as this sweet romantic comedy–is also full of date rape.

    I just wish society changed as much as movies do.