Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Moonlighting" and the Defense of Domestic Violence

I've been watching a lot of the old Moonlighting show recently for a paper I'm writing for my History of Television class, and I've noticed a distinct change in tone from the writing in the third season. Previous seasons always tackled the idea of "the battle of the sexes" with the two leads, David (Bruce Willis) taking the role of the lowbrow, laid-back, street smart, sexist guy and Maddie (Cybill Shepard) taking the role of the uptight, uptown, aloof, cultured, feminist woman, butting heads over just about everything while clearly just wanting to rip each other's clothes off under it all. Season three was more of the same, but I can't help but notice a very discernible shift in loyalties on the part of the show itself. Instead of trying to present Maddie's side (and her character) as understandable and reasonably angry with her partner's grating and unprofessional behavior, it goes out of its way to construct her as an overly judgemental harpy who needs to be brought down a few pegs, preferably by her suddenly more reasonable and more often correct partner. Her character is harshly criticized and often shamed far more frequently than his is, and a much bigger deal is made about taming her 'shrewish' behavior than about confronting David's personality flaws-- in fact he's more frequently constructed as the sympathetic hero just looking out for her and trying to humanize her than before.

There are plenty of examples of this at work, like the Christmas episode which takes the Dickens approach to Maddie's humbug attitude: her staff is angry because she's keeping the office open until Christmas to work on a case they'd already accepted (I'd be angry, too), but she's been stressing about making ends meet since they have so few cases, even covering her employees' paychecks herself when there wasn't enough money in the company account, and on top of it all, her sick aunt, whom she'd been meaning to visit in the hospital but hadn't gotten to yet, died that morning. As sympathetically as the episode starts, it quickly goes on to show her how terrible she's been in wishing that she hadn't kept the business open by showing her how people's lives would have turned out without it-- Agnes the kindhearted receptionist wound up the cold, steely president of a greeting card company (supposed to be a reflection of Maddie herself), David wound up engaged to a supermodel and even bought Maddie's house because of "a very good year" which is never elaborated on, and Maddie herself wound up broke and alone, crashing her car into a wall. All this is to get her to repent her humbug ways and drop the case so everyone can have Christmas off. There is a token bit where the three people who had been particularly mean to her apologized when they found out about her aunt dying, but it's really Maddie who's shown to have the most to apologize for.

However, I feel the most blatant example of the shift in writing comes from the episode "The Man Who Cried Wife", only the second one of the season. Here, a man is shown coming home to his philandering wife, whom he strikes so hard, he kills her. He's so remorseful over this that he doesn't call the police or relatives, but instead drags her body to the woods, buries her, and doesn't say a word to anyone. Until he starts getting phone calls from her, that is. So he goes to hire some private detectives to figure out what's going on, but Maddie doesn't want a thing to do with a man who hit his wife, no matter how remorseful he may have felt about it afterwards. David disagrees and thus follows one of the most one-sided, flagrantly biased debates on the entire show.

Because we all know it's all right to hit someone as long as you feel really bad about it afterward and the person "had it coming". Come on. So after this, of course Maddie's so shamed by her irrational dislike of a man who killed his wife in a fit of passion and then buried her in the woods, that she apologizes and joins David on the case. David, as he so frequently is in these episodes, is coldly condescending and clearly supposed to represent the more "realistic" attitude about passion and spontaneity that excuses and forgives both the husband here and Maddie for their physical displays of anger. There's no point of contention that it was wrong for either of them because they were angry and provoked into behaving in such a way. (For my money, Maddie hit David way too much in the whole show, but I guess in the 80s it was still funny and acceptable for women to slap men because men were manly and could take it. Or something.) Once again, Maddie is shamed and brought down off her high horse while David gets to play the condescending educator who can sanctimoniously forgive her after the realizes the error of her ways.

I don't hate the whole show, really. But some of these episodes sit in a really icky place with me.

No comments:

Post a Comment