October 12, 2016

A time capsule moment: Petticoat Junction, 1970

When people ask me what this blog is about, I sometimes struggle to answer in such a way that I don't come off as a nerd or a kook, or make people give me sidelong glances as they edge slowly away. That's not to say I don't have that effect on people, but I'd just as soon this blog not be one of the causes.

Anyway, we know that this blog is about classic television, but what about it? It occurs to me, in thinking about it, that the best way to describe what I do is to return to a term I coined back at In Other Words. Back then, I used to refer to myself as a "cultural archaeologist," one who looked at the remnants of a particular time in television history and drew conclusions from it that I could relate to our own times, much as an actual archaeologist looks at artifacts and bones and tells us what life was like in 100 BC. It is often said by historians that it can take decades before one can accurately assess the overall effect of a particular era; therefore, the time should be ripe for us to look at the classic television era (for our purposes, primarily the 1950s through the 1970s) and find out what it tells us about life, and how it's changed (or hasn't changed) in the interval. Television, as much if not more than other contemporary sources (history books, newspapers, Time and Life and Newsweek and other topical magazines) functions as a sort of time capsule, a description of what life was like then.

This week, what we have on tap is what I like to call a "time capsule moment." It's when we come across something - a clip from a television show, an article from a magazine - that teaches us a fundamental truth about the era. I'm sure I've written about such moments before; the one that leaps to mind is this piece about the 1950s medical show Medic. The particular example to follow isn't the only illustration of what I'm going to point out, of course, but it's a representative one.

It happened one morning last week. As is my wont (and that of most people, I suspect), when I go to bed I usually leave the TV on the station I've been watching, even though that might not be the station I'll want to when I get up in the morning. It's not a surprise, therefore, that I always see a minute or so of Petticoat Junction* on MeTV first thing in the morning, since I usually watch Hogan's Heroes last thing in the evening.

*Petticoat Junction is, I think, one of those shows that I tend to be embarrassed to admit having ever watched. I can remember it from when I was a kid, and I suppose I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoyed Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies and other sitcoms of the era. It doesn't interest me today, but I'd never criticize anyone who does watch and enjoy it. 

The moment in question comes from the series' final season in 1970, an episode called "Susan B. Anthony, I Love You." In it, "Billie Jo returns from Chicago with a visionary zeal for the women's liberation movement, and enlists her sisters in 'the cause.' " It's a product of its time; women's lib is all the rage, no-fault divorce was passed by California the year before, Ms. will start publication the year after, the Equal Rights Amendment is already in the works and will be passed by Congress in 1972. At the point in which I joined the episode, Billie Jo is in high dudgeon, reciting various statistics illustrating the various states of inequality that exist between women and men, and urging her sisters and Dr. Janet Craig (June Lockhart) to fight. (When Betty Jo says that doesn't sound very "ladylike," Billie Jo reminds her that they're women, not ladies, and that "ladies" is a term coined by men to subservient women.)*

*Lest you wonder how I was able to amass this kind of detail while only catching a glimpse of the episode, I won't lie to you: I looked it up.

The key line - the one that insures this episode a spot in the time capsule - is when Billie Jo insists that the way to fight back is to have nothing to do with men, including "complete segregation" from men, including sex and marriage. In response, the doubtful Bobbie Jo, replies  "If we're not going to marry men, who else is there?" The line gets a huge response from the laugh track, and Billie Jo assures her sister this isn't going to happen, that they're just going to let men know that "we're invading their world."

If anything, the episode is probably a Hooterville (i.e. G-rated) take on Aristophanes' famous play Lysistrata, in which Greek women withhold sex from their men to force them to stop warring. It's an old and venerable story, one which has been adapted endlessly, and I suspect this had to be at least in the back of the minds of writers Charles Stewart and Dick Conway. (As perhaps a concession to the sign of the times, Dr. Craig asks Billie Jo about what happens to "sex and marriage," subtly suggesting the two might exist separately.)

Now, you have to keep in mind that by this time in the series, Bobbie Jo has come to represent, as the always-reliable Wikipedia puts it, the "humorous scatterbrain," In other words, someone who often states the obvious. And in this case, the obvious is reduced to: duh, women marry men. Billie Jo's answer is equally obvious; she doesn't suggest that women marry each other, or live together communally in a community that excludes men. No, it's to get men to accept women as equals, to redefine the relationship rather than eradicate it.

There's no doubt that the institution of marriage had already been battered by the revolution of the '60s; remember the joke about "who wants to live in an institution"? It's an era of free love, of shunning the shackles of marriage in favor of open relationships. Gay rights protests are hardly unknown at the time; Stonewall happened just the year before.

As a companion piece to the episode in Medic, this episode of Petticoat Junction gives us yet another look at how marriage is seen in its time. While Dr. Craig's comment does suggest sex can exist outside of marriage, Bobbie Jo's question about who else they could marry - well, it certainly shows that same-sex marriage isn't on anyone's radar screen at the time. It's a punch line, a statement so utterly obvious that it's put in the mouth of the resident scatterbrain to prove its point. It's a perfect representation of popular culture at that moment in time, far more so than pictures of a lavish wedding in Life. Secondarily, it tells us something about the fight for equal rights in 1970, the thought that such a revolutionary idea could even come to Hooterville. Even while presenting serious statistics, however, it leavens the moment by leaning heavily on the naivete and earnestness of the equality movement's less dogmatic members. It is, after all, a comedy - not a dramedy.

Again, this is not an essay about politics, or moral beliefs. As a writer on television, I couldn't care one way or the other what you think about the issue - what I'm interested in with this time capsule moment is what it tells us about the culture that conceived and aired it. And in this episode, "Susan B. Anthony, I Love You," Petticoat Junction presents the perfect time capsule moment, the clip that I'd show someone if they asked me what we thought about marriage way back in 1970.

2 comments:

  1. Another thought-provoking piece. No one would ever confuse 'Petticoat Junction' with the Norman Lear sitcoms, but every so often Hooterville would become aware of what was happening in the rest of the world. The example that stands out for me is "Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik" from the show's first season in 1964 (with Dennis Hopper as...well, you can probably guess). That story, especially through a memorable scene with Hopper and Bea Benaderet, did not find much merit in the counter-culture.

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  2. Hoppers character was a rather negative representation of the beat culture, which by 1964 had fizzled out. Kerouac had become sort of a redneck by that time and Ginsberg had established himself as a literary figure. I think Kate would have liked either one.

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