LEST YE BE JUDGED
Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
We all know what Clintonism is: the unacknowledged appropriation and successful electoral exploitation of our ideas. Well, now it's spreading. Into the culture at large. The days of conservative exclusion from the culture are over. These days, the conservative sensibility is more likely to be raided, or sampled, by ideologically coy or closeted crypto-cons -- by cultural Clintonists. It's getting so you can't even turn on the television anymore without being exposed to ideological larceny.
Take Mike Judge. The creator of MTV's Beavis and Butt-head is no conservative. But you would never know it from King of the Hill, Judge's second animated sitcom. King of the Hill, which airs on Fox following The Simpsons Sunday night, is pixel-perfect conservative satire. Really. The series could be summarized as an affectionate look at the daily ups and downs of Phil Gramm voters. On second thought, the series is more entertaining than that, but the point is, how on earth did something this right-wing ever get on prime time, episodic, network television?
Mike Judge is not looking to join the club; in fact, fearing initiation, he declined to be interviewed for this article. But if he's going to steal our ideology, then he's asking for it -- a conservative reappraisal. And, yes, that includes Beavis and Butt-head, the two midget imbeciles who set off a conservative pop-culture scare three or four years back. But first, the Hills.
The Hill family -- dad Hank, mom Peg, and son Bobby -- live in fictional Arlen, Texas, a plain-vanilla, middleclass suburb. The aerial pan of the opening credits swoops over platform pools on postage-stamp lots. Folks relax out back on concrete slab patios, not decks. Boys play baseball, not soccer. Men who work hard and play by the rules swill cold ones, pat their spare tires, and tinker under the hoods of their pickups. Everyone anglicizes Spanish words. Characters like Hank's marble-mouthed buddy Boomhauer say things like, "I tell you what, man," before they tell you what.
I tell you what, man -- the Hill family is traditional. Father Hank is the primary breadwinner, selling "propane and propane accessories." Wife Peg helps out, in a traditionally feminine occupation, as a substitute teacher (her specialty is Spanish, which she too manglicizes, in a running joke). And tubby pre-teen Bobby is an achingly childlike child. Unlike the precociously worldly-wise sitcom wisenheimers of Roseanne or Married with Children, he is an innocent, a dependent who remains emotionally dependent.
Bobby loves his father and craves his approval. He is even a little scared of his dad, a grouch like his workingclass precursors Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone. Anger is the one feeling Hank Hill believes in sharing: "Instead of letting it out, try holding it in," he advises his crying, broken-hearted niece in one episode. "Every time you have a feeling, just stick it into a little pit inside your stomach and never let it out."
But for once, a little fear of an authoritarian father is not equated with dysfunction. Bobby exhibits the filial reverence that disappeared from sitcom families in that September long ago when Mike Brady showed up at his drafting table with a divine new perm.
Hank and Peg have sex-specific hair and sex-specific roles in the family. Hank disciplines. Peg comforts. Hank stokes his son's aggressive and competitive fires. Peg emphasizes participation. When Peg tells Bobby on the way to a Little League game, "Don't you worry, son, you just do your best," Hank demands "better than your best . . . 110 percent for that winning edge."
The Hills are the kind of middleAmerican family that Hollywood has made sport of for a generation -- from the Bunkers in the '70s through the Bundys in the '90s -- for their reactionary politics and lowbrow tastes. It's not that Hollywood hates Middle America. It's more like Hollywood patronizes Middle America. Even when it's rooting for working-class families like the Simpsons or the Conners, it can't help pitying them. Homer Simpson is ultimately a loser. And when Roseanne wasn't combating the outmoded prejudices of her own class, she and Dan were stoically coping with wage stagnation, downsizing, and the export of skilled jobs to low-wage states -- helpless victims of off-screen corporate elites, a shadowy overclass straight out of Dick Gephardt's imagination.