Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Kelly Bundy and the Alternative Family Ideal

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Very few television series in the 1990s were as polarizing as Married...with Children. People either loved it or they loathed it. TV critics and good upstanding Catholic families like mine fell into the latter category. Soon after it debuted during my first year of junior high in 1987 (not quite the '90s, but on the brink), my parents made it clear that we would not be watching. I believe the words they used were "vulgar," "unfunny," and, one of their perennial favorites, "risque." Of course, this meant it immediately took on a prurient appeal for me. Parents can never win, honestly.

Kelly Bundy—the talented Christina Applegate, who never gets enough credit for elevating the blonde airhead trope into an art form—only further piqued my interest. She was like the girls in school with the absurdly voluminous hair and ridiculously short skirts who dated older guys that drove Trans Ams and listened to Megadeath. These girls seemed dangerous and completely out of my league. They smoked! They probably drank and went past first base! They certainly wouldn't have been as impressed with my epic comic book collection as I was. Kelly was so much more approachable, though. After all, she wasn't real and couldn't reject me. Inside the warped mind of a thirteen or fourteen year old, this meant I had a chance.

There was very little television I was discouraged from watching. Even adult-oriented sitcoms like Taxi and WKRP in Cincinnati were allowed in our house, and I'm grateful for that because those shows introduced me to adult themes and concerns that resonate with me even more today. So it's likely that Kelly's scandalously short hemlines and playful promiscuity played a big part in the 'rents' distaste for Married...with Children. What parent wants his or her kid to fall for a wild child like Kelly Bundy? Conversely, what adolescent doesn't want to fall for a Kelly Bundy type? Again, parents just can't win.

Is it any surprise my parents weren't keen on my watching this show?
They didn't need to worry though, or at least not as much as they did. As the decade matured so did Kelly's wardrobe and even her self-awareness, plus my tastes changed. Nonetheless the crush remained, and she certainly earned her place in my personal '90s Hall of Fame. I still carry the remnants of a crush for Christina today. I'm only human, after all.

Other aspects of the show made parents uncomfortable also: Al's wanton and leering demeanor, Peg's nagging, Bud's amorality, and the overall sleaze factor the show wallowed in. The gender politics of the show were confusingly contradictory at best, defiantly retrograde at worst.

But it was also knowingly winking at us through its trashy aesthetic. They knew they were tweaking audiences who couldn't see this for what it was: satire. I only discovered this as the '90s wore on—by high school and college my viewing choices were my own to make, so I checked in on the Bundys now and then. While I could usually take the show or leave it, I at least appreciated the occasionally smart social commentary it slipped in between the litany of dirty jokes. As Judy Kutulas notes in The Sitcom Reader (2nd Ed.), Married...with Children represented one of the first "Gen X response(s) to the happy family ideal" of the Boomer generation. Whether critics or naysayers wanted to believe it or not, the Bundys' dysfunctional family dynamic reflected what a lot of Gen X kids' homes were like.

Portrait of an American family in the 1990s, sweat stains and all.
A year or two ago, I stumbled on some other profound commentary about both the show and the '90s, but this time from an unlikely source: YouTube. A discussion thread had started in the comments of a music video regarding various '90s trends and topics. This commenter weighed in with a thoughtful and ferocious skewering of Boomers and their disdain for '90s products like Married...with Children. The poet-philosopher-troll basically said that Boomers turned their noses up at shows like this, taking a false moral high ground built on the backs of Gen Xers. Twenty years later, eloquent poster continued, Married...with Children looks more like an impossible Utopian dream every day—a single-income family in a decent house raising two kids on a shoe salesman's salary.

Wow. This comment made me feel like Kelly in that first screenshot up top—my mind was blown and I needed a minute to make sense of what I'd just read. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed this person got it mostly right. Today, with it's basic premise so far out of reach for most Americans, the show plays like an elaborate fantasy or science fiction story. The bickering, flawed, and often moronic Bundy clan, always just scrapping by, still lived better than you do now, I'd wager.

Whether we remember Married...with Children today for its prescient commentary on socio-economic shifts in American culture over the last two decades or simply for the stone-cold foxiness of Kelly Bundy, we'll probably never see the likes of it again. Whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know. I'll leave that for the online commentariat to debate.


  1. "Twenty years later, eloquent poster continued, Married...with Children looks more like an impossible Utopian dream every day—a single-income family in a decent house raising two kids on a shoe salesman's salary."
    Wow, you are so right. I never realized this. The TV show Roseanne is same. Think about it, not only are they living in a nice house and supporting multiple children, they are also married. So many families today and in the 90s were divorced or single parents.