nothing sacred (william a. wellman, 1937)
margot at the wedding (noah baumbach, 2007)

dan quayle was right

I wrote this in 1992. It was the first quasi-academic piece I ever published. Because of the title, it was linked to by a few right-wing sites, who likely didn't read the article but just agreed with the title. I'm reposting it here because Murphy Brown has been rebooted. I've included the entire text, because the site that holds it (Bad Subjects) has been flaky of late.

Dan Quayle Was Right

"Few contemporary forms of storytelling offer territory as fertile as television for unearthing changing public ideas about family.... The shared experience of tele-history has become one of the major ways in which we locate ourselves in time, place, and generation, and at the heart of that history lies television's obsession — the family."
— Ella Taylor, "TV Families: Three Generations of Packaged Dreams"

Dan Quayle doesn't think Murphy Brown sets a good example for the people of America. It seems that Dan decided, without actually watching any of the programs in question, that Murphy's decision to have a baby out of wedlock represented the crumbling of traditional American family values under the corrupt influence of the liberal entertainment industry in Hollywood. "It doesn't help matters," commented Dan, "when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'." It is unclear how much more damage could be done to the image of the American family after decades of watching such exemplary leaders as the Kennedys and the Reagans collapse across our front pages, but Dan apparently sees the popular culture of the 1990s as significantly more dangerous than the J(G)ennifers of George and Bill.

When I first heard Quayle's attack on "Murphy Brown," I wasn't surprised to find that Dan had never actually watched the show. His reading of the program's subtexts was so different from my own that we might have been watching different programs, and in a sense we were, since I was paying homage to the "text," watching the program on my teevee while Dan was "watching" the program in its broader cultural "context." Nor was I surprised when the "liberal media" rose up in arms against Dan's attack. The Veep has never been a favorite of theirs, anyway, and now he was vilifying their product in a most obvious way. What did surprise me, though in retrospect I'm not sure why, is the direction their response took. The general argument that arose against Dan Quayle's read on Murphy Brown went something like this: Dan Quayle is a moron because he thinks a teevee show has something to say about ourselves and our culture.

Master ironist Dave Letterman echoed the refrain of the media when he stuck his face a few inches from the camera on his Late Night show and yelled out, "Dan! It's a TELEVISION SHOW!" There seemed to be a general agreement amongst the "liberals" in Hollywood and the media in general that this time, the Vice-President had really flipped his wig. He couldn't tell the difference between real life and television ... imagine that! He had the cockeyed notion that a program watched by tens of millions of Americans every week might actually illuminate our culture, and for this he became, once again, the butt of our national jokes. But, in a warped way, Dan Quayle was right. Or rather, he was right where people thought he was wrong, for Murphy Brown is important. Dan's sense that sitcom values are markedly different from his own was a bit misguided, and the simplistic nature of his attacks belie the complexity of the relationship between the producers and consumers of popular culture, but his belief that our popular culture reflects the values of the culture as a whole is absolutely correct.

What seems most ironic about the faux-battle being waged between Quayle and the entertainment industry is that, whether they admit it or not, they are on the same side. Perhaps it is to be expected in a country where the moderately conservative presidential candidate attacks the conservatively moderate candidate for being too "liberal," but the difference between the positions of Mr. Quayle and the folks at Murphy Brown are barely significant. In the absence of real choice in the U.S. election of 1992, this minor tiff between the "cultural elite" and the actual "elite" is blown out of proportion, effectively burying the deadly, boring sameness of the major parties under a pseudo-war of massive unimportance.

If Dan Quayle had deigned to watch the 1991-2 season of Murphy Brown, he would have seen a tale of a pregnant woman who decided against having an abortion (never has a show been so proud of itself for what it didn't do: we had to hear endless paeans to the greatness of Murphy Brown because they allowed Murphy to choose, as if CBS wasn't still thinking about the uproar in the 70s when Maude actually DID have an abortion ... surrrrrre Murphy had a choice). She has the baby; don't you think Dan would have been pleased? Unfortunately, Dan was too busy to watch any of the episodes in question, and so he was stuck on the absence of a father in the new baby's life, and was unable to appreciate the importance the newborn Brown had in Murphy's life.

In any event, Dan Quayle was obsessing about fathers and children, and so could perhaps be excused for missing the underlying point of Murphy's motherhood. However, Mrs. Dan, Marilyn Quayle, might have been sneaking a peek at the teevee screen when CBS aired that classic season-ending, ratings-bonanza episode of Murphy Brown where Murph actually has the damn baby. At the Republican convention Marilyn spoke about the "essential nature of women," and echoed Murphy, sitting up in her hospital bed at the end of another profitable teevee season, holding her baby in her arms and singing "you make me feel like a natural woman." Essential nature, indeed. The viewer is left to decide on their own whether Murphy influenced Marilyn or vice versa.

What is dangerous about the Quayles, from the perspective of the entertainment industry, is that they suggest that a sitcom warrants our critical attention. Granted, the level of critical thinking practiced by Dan and Marilyn is pretty rudimentary, but in positing Murphy Brown as relevant, Dan and the missus are perilously close to those members of the "cultural elite" who hang out in universities, wasting taxpayers' money studying "TV Families: Three Generations of Packaged Dreams." What is worse, the Quayles take their opinions straight to the masses. No ivory tower for old Dan; he goes right on the evil Teevee itself to trumpet his message of shattered family values.

And in this Dan Quayle is right, and so is Pat Buchanan, for there most certainly is a cultural war going on. Has been for years. Where Dan and Pat go wrong is in their assumption that Hollywood and the "liberal media" are on the other side. This is nonsense. If Murphy Brown were really anti-family values, her sitcom might look something like a John Waters movie circa Pink Flamingos: just imagine Murphy chowing down on the baby's placenta while Eldon made a sandwich of baby poo and saliva. (Although, now that I think about it, a case can also be made that a certain type of family values are at work even in John Waters' early work.) The world of Murphy Brown is a world where imaginary choices are touted as the real thing, where an independent woman finds her essential nature in bearing a child, where controversy is exploited for the ratings it engenders. It is a world remarkably like the world of a presidential election in the United States in 1992: mock choices and "natural women," with one eye always cocked on the latest polls.

No one wants to question the notion of family values. Everyone just wants to prove they have them, whatever they are. The Republicans believe in family values. The Democrats respond by saying the Republicans don't really believe in family values; if you want a true "big tent" come to the Democrats, who know what family really is. Meanwhile, on teevee, Murphy Brown finds her true self in the wonders of childbirth. These people are all cavorting in the same playground, and a playground is what it is, a place where everyone has "fun" and no one questions whether or not a playground is appropriate.

It is indeed a tangled web of which we speak, where Dan Quayle is mocked for critiquing popular culture, where said culture is nowhere near as dangerous to Dan and his cohorts as they would suggest, and where any real and legitimate discussion of the values promoted by Murphy Brown and their ultimate similarity to the "family values" of the Republican and Democratic parties is almost entirely missing. Quayle gets pilloried for attempting what cultural studies scholars attempt every day: critiquing contemporary culture. That his "critique" is wrongheaded is not news; that he dares to critique at all is the issue. The uproar over the importance of culture overshadows the very real similarities between the world views of Murphy Brown and the mainstream political parties in the United States. The Republicans attack Hillary for being anti-family, Hillary touts her own work in behalf of children, while Murphy Brown sings "Natural Woman" to her baby, echoing Marilyn Quayle's bizarre notions from the Republican convention. The Republicans and the Democrats fight for votes, CBS fights for ratings, but it's all part of the selling of the mainstream.

Thus, we shouldn't be too surprised to discover that Dan Quayle did promo spots for Murphy Brown. Seems Dan was giving an interview to a local teevee station in L.A. that had just begun showing Murphy Brown reruns. After the interview was over, Dan agreed to tape a couple of spots advertising the reruns of his "favorite show ... NOT!" For a few seconds, the symbiotic relationship between the "liberal media" and Dan Quayle was laid bare; then Dan went back to stumping on family values, and Murphy Brown writers went back to creating ever more tart putdowns of the Veep for the ratings-bonanza season opener for 1992.

Postscript:Murphy Brown did indeed take on Dan Quayle in the 1992-3 season opener. Midway through a special hour-long episode that had until that time dealt mainly in standard sitcom humor revolving around a new baby in the house, Dan Quayle appeared on Murphy-the-character's teevee screen as we, the viewing audience, watched Murphy-the-program on our teevee screens. Quayle once more spouted the sacrilegious remarks about "Murphy Brown." Murphy-the-character tried to avoid the ensuing controversy, while reporters (actually actors) camped out at her house and George Bush (actually George Bush) made a Murphy joke on Murphy-the-character's teevee. Murphy-the-character finally went on her own fictional teevee show, "FYI," to respond to the Vice-President's "real" remarks, capping her speech by introducing some "real," not-quite-traditional families ("real" people, not actors). The following day, the "real" Associated Press sent the text of the "fictional" Murphy's speech across their newswire for subsequent quoting in papers across the country. Though Dan Quayle was ridiculed for "confusing" fiction and reality, "Murphy Brown" won kudos for doing the same.

The ratings were very good. Sponsors paid $310,000 for one 30-second spot. Dan Quayle watched the program at long last, and stated afterwards that it was "basically another Hollywood contribution" to Bill Clinton's campaign. Dan was right once again.