The bullying of Frank Burns in M*A*S*H

You tell 'em, Ferret-Face.

I’d guess that the army folks in M*A*S*H were, if anything, less sexist and racist than the army was back in the '50s or even the '70s.

I’m not so sure. Although the cross dressing was a ploy to get back to Toledo, the clearly straight Klinger still had a personal enthusiasm for it. I think the writers of the show were quite aware of the concept of a straight cross dresser. The reactions of other characters was based on 1950s military prejudices.

One place I worked had a district manager whom no one liked: mean, played favorites, was always trying to chop labor below the minimum needed, was cheap as hell and his arrival would make morale go from happy to “can I go home early?” in no time flat. He got nicknamed Ferret-Face. He apparently found out, stomped in and yelled “who’s calling me Ferret-Face and for how long?”

I was a kid when the show started and grew up with it. MASH had a real arc where it became much more “politically correct” for its time than when it started out. Thw Winchester character for one, much less cartoonishly evil and incompetent than Frank Burns. Then there was Houlihan who started out almost as bad as Burns but had a redemption arc to the point she was a whole different person. BJ was nicer and arguably more moral a person than Trapper was. Colonel Potter was loving and faithful to his wife, unlike Colonel Blake. Hawkeye went from a wisecracking (but goodhearted) ne’er-do-well to a preachy joykill toward the end.

And on the subject of homophobia, MASH did an episode in season 2 called “George,” which was about a gay soldier. Only Frank Burns was shown to have a problem with him. The other three doctors, Hawkeye, Trapper, and Blake, have accepting, live-and-let-live attitudes toward homosexuality. That’s really a much greater ratio than would probably have been the case in the 1950s.

“George” is really a pretty progressive episode. George is not portrayed with any of the stereotypical mannerisms that were often used to depict gay people on 70s TV, and there are none of the familiar “sissy” jokes–except from Frank, who is clearly shown to be in the wrong.

Does anyone remember when Alan Alda sort of replayed his character of a former army doctor (although not Hawkeye) on some episodes of the show ER?

FWIW, MASH is still one of the best television shows around - nothing on the networks today comes close to it. They’re either cookie-cutter sitcoms with the same story lines and almost entirely predictable punchlines, or unrealistic drama/soap operas. MASH is still the one on at our house every night, watching during the commercial breaks on Jeopardy (hey, Jeopardy has to come first:) ), then in it’s entirety the second half hour. No, it’s not politically correct, but in some ways, it’s important for that reason - it teaches, if one is willing to learn. TV should be challenging, because so many develop their life views from it. I’ve seen all the episodes probably hundreds of times, there are still episodes that pull my gut, especially the episode where Blake dies, and the final episode.

That would be accurate for the time. The framework of the time did not differentiate between cross dressing and homosexuality. Indeed, the concept of homosexuality was usually described as “a female personality in a male body” – what we’d call transgender today.

As the years passed, Alan Alda got more involved in writing, directing, and even producing the series. Hawkeye morphed from a womanizing frat-boy to an ultra-liberal (and, presumably, feminist).

If I recall correctly, they toned down the sexcapades in the later seasons. Potter and Honeycutt were faithful to their wives. Winchester would never dream of dating someone who wasn’t a fellow Boston Brahmin (except in that one episode where it was a plot point). I think Alda convinced himself that Hawkeye’s relationships were egalitarian and non-exploitative (although he was still a doctor and a captain, and they were still nurses and lieutenants, so a modern feminist might still disapprove).

Reading Alda’s wikipedia page, this caught my eye:

As a result, the 11 years of MASH* are generally split into two eras: the Larry Gelbart/Gene Reynolds “comedy” years (1972–1977), and the Alan Alda “dramatic” years (1977–1983).[ citation needed ] Alda disagreed with this assessment. In a 2016 interview he stated, “I don’t like to write political messages. I don’t like plays that have political messages. I do not think I am responsible for that.”[17]

Boy, did he fail spectacularly!

Radar, put a mask on!

Actually, there was a time when cross-dressing was a real part of the gay community, albeit, more a lesbian thing, than a gay male thing.

There was a time in the US when most better restaurants wouldn’t serve women in the evenings if they came in without a man escorting them. You might have a group of three women and one man, and that was OK, but three women alone was OK only at lunch. Don’t ask me why-- it was just how things were done.

You’ll see scenes in movies from the 30s and 40s with women characters scheming to get men to escort them somewhere just because they want to go some place. (There’s such a scene I can think of off-hand in The Awful Truth.)

Anyway, one of two of a lesbian couple would cross-dress if she could do so convincingly, so she and her partner could go out in the evening.

Winchester definitely had more depth as a character than Burns did, and it worked. But I don’t think they could have suddenly - or even gradually - “redeemed” Frank Burns in any believable way. They did that with Houlihan, and IMO it didn’t work. Toward the final seasons, everyone became One Big Happy Family, and that took a lot of the edge away.

Well, maybe. But if MASH started to get preachy when Alda began writing and directing more episodes, it also began to get deeper and more complex; it evolved from a “wacky hijinks” sitcom with fairly one-dimensional characters, into what we’d now call a dramedy. All the replacement characters - Maj. Winchester, Col. Potter, B.J. Hunnicutt - were far more rounded and deveolped than their originals, while the remaining ones were fleshed out; they could be antagonists to the POV characters, as Winchester and Maj. Houlihan were, but they were also capable of carrying a storyline on their own. Even secondary characters like Father Mulcahy and Nurse Kellye got deepened.

Frank Burns’ problem wasn’t that he was malevolent; it was that he was annoying. He’d been Flanderized into such an obnoxious jerk that he couldn’t be rounded or redeemed into a sympathetic one.

I think of Frank Burns as a Wile E. Coyote type of character. Smug, arrogant, and over confident.

You’re right, and I never really thought about it that way. When they made the “enemy” the war and the clueless bureaucracy (instead of characters like Burns), they paved the way for “Scrubs.”

As I recall, it was one of the first instances of a show where we commented that it appeared to have been written/directed/produced by, starring, and also apparently FOR one participant! :wink:

So, would you call Hawkeye a Mary Sue character?

I don’t think that Hawkeye fits the usual definition of a Mary Sue, even in the later seasons when Alda had more creative control over the show. Mary Sues are just impossibly perfect, and Hawkeye was always depicted as flawed; it was more that the character changed to become more idealistic and empathetic (but also preachier).

While “later Hawkeye” more closely hewed to Alda’s own moral sense, I don’t think he was portrayed as utterly competent or perfect, which is what a Mary Sue usually is.

Maybe a whisker of sympathy, at times, but IIRC Frank kept bringing it on himself by pulling rank to add an unnecessary amount of military rigor to everything. And he’s not even the commander, it’s not his place to do that! So he needed constant reminding to stay in his lane.