Art in all varieties has at its best provided a vision offering us an alternative to the status quo and its bland conventional wisdom. A prophet is often without honor in her own country, so counter visions tend to briefly illuminate the possibilities and then fade away. Or perhaps they enter a period of dormancy, to reveal themselves at a later time: the past is often prologue. Not so long ago, there was a television show like that.
In February 1983, an unprecedented television audience watched the last episode of the comedy-drama, MASH. Over 105 million Americans tuned in to find out what would happen to the cast of characters who had become familiar over the previous decade, and who had in that time visited millions of American homes. The exploits of the 4077th MASH unit, and the family-like bonds its characters developed over the course of the series, had attracted a following that made the show among the most-watched of the 1970s and early 1980s.
By the time of MASH’s finale, two characters, surgeon Hawkeye Pierce and chief nurse Margaret Houlihan, had achieved particular prominence. While Hawkeye chose to retreat to the backwaters of Crabapple Cove following the war, Margaret faced the challenge of a crossroads in her life. During the course of the series, her character had grown considerably, on an arc from a martinet dependent upon males for her identity and her emotional needs to the independent woman who would choose her career path and personal relationships. As the years went by, while receiving little credit for her medical skills, she challenged the male doctors more often, and she developed a feminine bond with her nurses. Her character’s development followed the addition of female writers to the show, and reflected the changing identity for women in American culture.
With the war ending and the MASH unit about to be scattered to their respective lives, the 4077th held a final gathering—a Last Supper, as it were. Contrary to her colleagues’ expectations, Margaret announced her decision to strike out on her own career choice of working in a stateside hospital, rather than continuing to climb the Army ladder as the father whom she admired would have wished. She also expressed her heartfelt appreciation to her nurses, acknowledging her debt to them for both her personal and professional growth. Margaret’s choice reflected the wider identity—and sisterhood—that American women had achieved for themselves in the 1970s. For the future, it hinted at a change for American society, although along what course remained unclear. But, it seems likely that Margaret’s self-assurance and her choice of a healing profession, as a nurse, were signposts on the road to that social change.
A constructive femininist assertiveness and an identity embracing healing: it sounds like a prescription for our current ailing spirit in politics.