Ideas for research projects come in all shapes and forms. It could be a class, conversation, or for summer scholar Emily Smith ’15, watching a TV Land rerun.
Smith, who is researching the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983), first discovered the show as a high school student. “I was channel surfing, and when I came across it, I heard my mom say, ‘Oh, I used to love this show!’ So, I patiently sat and watched a couple episodes and realized that I was fond of it as well. Now here we are,” says Smith.
A bit of related of Denisonia: The theme song for the TV series, “Suicide is Painless,” debuted in the film version of M*A*S*H, and was sung during the scene in which Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski attempts suicide after struggling with his sexual orientation.
The role of Painless, the M*A*S*H dentist, was played by John Schuck, a 1962 Denison graduate who majored in theatre and has gone on to have a prolific and celebrated career on stage, screen and television. It was Schuck’s film debut.
However, after a couple of years, the English literature and theatre double major realized that it was more than a TV show following a team of doctors and support staff stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. It was a cultural artifact of the 20th century — an entry into the time period and the important issues at hand.
“I think that the media we produce as a culture says a lot about the kinds of ideas and sorts of dialogues that happen in a distinct time period,” says Smith, who researched the connections between plays and political events during the American Revolution last summer as a Summer Scholar.
While many social and political topics are covered in the M*A*S*H franchise (which, in addition to the Larry Gelbart TV series, includes the original 1968 Richard Hooker book and the 1970 Robert Altman movie), Smith found that some of the most intriguing issues broached in all three M*A*S*H portrayals relate to gender dynamics and their evolution.
“My working thesis is that the characters in M*A*S*H aren’t wholly military or civilian because they’re in the medical corps. Because they’re in this weird liminal space, they are able to express gender differently. Sometimes that results in things that are against mainstream culture,” says Smith, who does most of her research in the Writing Center, located on the fourth floor of Barney-Davis Hall.
She argues this point through a case study of three main characters on the television show: Hawkeye Pierce (the unstable male protagonist who hates and fears the war, played by Alan Alda); Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (a head nurse fighting to be recognized for her brains and not her beauty, played by Loretta Swit); and Maxwell Klinger (a corporal who cross-dresses in hopes of being discharged, played by Jamie Farr). All cases stretch gender expectations, and Smith has made it her job, alongside advisor Dr. Brenda Boyle of the English Department, to think about what this means.
Not only is this research unique because few other individuals have studied M*A*S*H in an academic setting, but the lessons Smith learns and writes about continue to carry weight today.
“It’s interesting [to see] how many issues from several decades ago still haven’t been addressed. For instance, there was one memoir I read this summer about a female Iraq war vet. She was in combat instead of being a nurse like Hot Lips, but a lot of the gender issues she talks about are alarmingly similar to how women were treated during the Korea and Vietnam wars,” says Smith. “There is still a lot of progress to be made.”