Skip to main content

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 its 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.

Comments

  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.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Insightful comments! Looking at it now, it's hard to believe this show was so polarizing. But I like what you said about it being Utopian; it's something I never thought about before.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! And yes, once you see the show through the lens of a utopian fantasy based on today's world, it's pretty mind blowing.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.
When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra:  Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because t…

Even walls fall down

Memories rushing in, like waves crashin' on the beach.
I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her / I'm a bad boy, for breakin' her heart
Young and selfish, unhappy and escaping to a brighter, better place, self-preservation conquers regret, self-loathing replaced by a tentative confidence. A perfect song, this was on constant rotation during those years, both on MTV and inside my head.
I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you'll be the girl at the high school dance
Summer '95, outside, evening air, then-girlfriend, me, and 25,000 other voices, singing every word at the tops of our lungs, as if our very existence depended on it.
Sometimes you're happy / sometimes you cry / half of me is ocean / half of me is sky
'96, then-girlfriend is now ex-girlfriend, but hearing this then-new song helps me remember, and appreciate, a heart so big it could crush this town.
The waiting is the hardest part
Must've included this song on every mixtape I …

It Came From the '90s: The Harrowing, Heartbreaking Excellence of Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

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

Sheryl Lee is extremely talented, and should've become a massive star. She has one of the most evocatively expressive faces in all of cinema and television. Her bedroom eyes are especially hypnotic, as is her smile. Few actresses have ever been better at portraying both seductively blissed-out melancholia and pure, absolute terror. These are the two emotional states she toggles between most as Laura Palmer in David Lynch's brutal, powerful, disturbing film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). For my money, Lee is responsible for one of the finest performances in the annals of horror cinema. It's an astonishing tour-de-force, the kind of acting that haunts you forever.

A prequel to the original Twin Peaks televisions series—which chronicled the search for Laura Palmer's killer—Fire Walk With Me explores just how fucked up Laura's life was before her …

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

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

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun in…

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

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

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world d…

Catwomen: Michelle Pfeiffer

Ranking my top five Catwoman performances in film and television.

Click here for the previous entry in the Catwomen rankings.

1. Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns (1992)



As a young girl, I was completely obsessed with Catwoman. When I heard that Tim was making the film and Catwoman had already been cast, I was devastated," says Pfeiffer. “At the time, it was Annette Bening. Then she became pregnant. The rest is history. I remember telling Tim halfway through the script that I'd do the film, that's how excited I was.
That's Michelle Pfeiffer, discussing her momentous turn as Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992), from a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.


It's important to remember, we were this close to never having Michelle’s transcendent performance. Annette Benning was cast and about to begin filming when she found out she was pregnant. After she dropped out, Pfeiffer squeezed into the black latex and the rest is cinematic/pop culture history.


T…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.
Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen

Revisiting and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

If you're looking to understand the full depth and breadth of Michelle Pfeiffer's excellence on the silver screen, you could be forgiven for skipping her second film, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. In terms of Essential Pfeiffer, it's far from it. Still, it's always worth exploring her earliest work, before she became Michelle Pfeiffer, Movie Star, in order to catch glimpses of her unique talents, just beginning to manifest at such a young age.


The best way to describe this movie is “very much of its time”, with all that entails. It’s intermittently funny but sometimes the slapstick style is groan-worthy. Pfeiffer plays Cordelia, fiancĂ© to the bumbling idiot-savant grandson of the famed detective Charlie Chan (who is played by the Russian actor Peter Ustinov—remember, “very much of its time”). Together, Baby Pfeiffer and future hubby literally stumble and careen th…

Michelle Pfeiffer at 60: Still White Gold, Still the Best

Hard to believe it, but Michelle Pfeiffer will turn sixty on April 29th.

Not as hard to believe, I'm an enormous Michelle Pfeiffer fan, or pfan, if you will. I've written extensively about her work, and I will likely continue to do so until someone pries the keyboard out of my cold, dead hands.


Pfeiffer turning sixty feels momentous. Obviously, we could go on for days about how she doesn't look sixty, about how she's managed to retain her stunning, otherworldly, jaw-dropping good looks all these years. Certainly, when I first discovered her in the mid- to late-1980s as an adolescent, it was her captivating eyes and pouty lips that first made me sit up and say, "Whoa!" After all this time, she's still solid White Gold. Always has been, always will be.


Reducing Michelle Pfeiffer to her looks, however, is never a wise decision. She's so much more than just quite possibly the world's most pretty face. She's a true artist, an extremely talented, o…

It Came From the '90s: Polly Jean Meets Ze Monsta

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

In 1995, Polly Jean Harvey released her third studio album, and first proper solo outing, To Bring You My Love. It received near-universal praise and, while Harvey was already a star, helped elevate her into even greater worldwide stardom. This exceptional album retained elements of the awesomely heavy alt-blues rock sound of Dry and Rid of Me while adding more musical and lyrical textures to the mix. Its songs are about desire and loss, with many of them loaded with Biblical references and imagery. The album felt like a major artistic statement from Harvey at the time and hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years.

During the '95 tour supporting the album, Harvey elevated her live act to new heights as well. She exploded out of her shell, unleashing a new style, charisma, and electricity to her performances that only broadened her appeal. For proof, surf You…