Texan Ideological Deconstruction (or, From Hank to Derrida)
I recently posted elsewhere about my love of (read: obsession with) King of the Hill, and following some positive response, thought I would put together something slightly more substantial. So here we go:
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First Level: Unity
If we begin by looking at the presentation that King of the Hill offers forward as its basic appearance, we find a sort of “back to the basics,” traditionalist, family sitcom, differentiated from others only in being a cartoon. Even the basic human competency of the father figure, Hank, sets it apart from its contemporaries (Simpsons, Family Guy) who sought to overtly undermine the traditional family structure by decentering the patriarchal power center (though ironically, these incompetent patriarchs nevertheless retain a redoubled narrative centering, most clearly in Family Guy). Prima Facie, the construction of this narrative around an all-American traditional family, and its refusal to undermine the central patriarch should point to a reactionary, even “conservative” narrative. Yet, King of the Hill is significantly more complex.
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Second Level: Dichotomy
At a deeper level of analysis, though still relatively cursory, one seems to find a principal guiding dichotomy. On the one hand we find traditionalist conservativism, epitomized most strongly in the characters of Hank and his father, on the other liberal/feminism, epitomized in Peggy, Bobby, and (with less consistency) Luanne. Watched through the lens of these two paradigms, King of the Hill appears really rather shallow and uninteresting, perhaps a meta-critique of the political climate in America, but nothing substantially more. But, I would argue, there remains a key third level, below both the traditionalism and the traditionalism v. progressivism conflict, a deconstruction of the very dichotomy presented here, and perhaps then, a deconstruction of the liberal v. conservative lens of American politics and ethics.
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Third Level: Ambiguity
The show both overtly and subtly undermines/deconstructs this principal distinction at nearly every turn. But this deconstruction can be most clearly seen by a breakdown of the principal characters.
Hank functions, as we said, as the “traditionalist.” His language and actions often reflect this perspective; he refuses to show emotion, he discourages Bobby’s attempts at non-traditional (i.e. not football or baseball) extracurriculars, and he encourages (to Peggy’s chagrin) a clear division of labor between “men’s work” and “women’s work.” Nonetheless, and most clearly at key dramatic or narrative points in the the show, Hank makes decisions directly counter to this conservative ideology. Rather than allow his friends or family to suffer, Hank overturns his own notion of the “right” or “correct” way for the world to function; at Peggy’s boggle tournament, for example, he (eventually) abandons his own desire (to check out a new lawn mower with his friends) and instead functions as a cheerleader of sorts for Peggy. More dramatically, following his close friend Bill’s mental breakdown, and cognitive split into two personalities, himself and his ex-wife, Hank dons drag in order to protect his mentally ill friend from the ridicule of his neighbors. As a Time magazine article wrote:
Hank tries to avoid both his dad’s callousness and P.C. feel-goodism while sticking to his principles of hard work in a world that rewards shortcuts.
In a similar manner, Peggy functions as a strange mix of the traditional housewife and a second wave feminist. On the one hand, it is easy to pigeonhole her as a liberal, given her obsession with women’s empowerment and similar causes. Yet, once again (and notably again at key moments) Peggy turns to the traditional family/communal structure in order to maintain her friends’ and family’s well being. Her ideological commitments only run as deep as the personal suffering of her loved ones and no further. This complexity emerges most clearly in her attempts to mediate the relationship between Bobby and Hank. On the one hand, she “plays her role” as the liberal in her interactions with Hank, encouraging him to open up to Bobby, to participate in his non-traditional (and generally “effeminate”) hobbies. Yet, she also functions as a traditionalist in relation to Bobby, often encouraging him to try sports, to participate in “boys” activities.
Luanne is similarly “contradictory,” surpassing her role as the stereotype of the “dumb, PC, liberal, white girl.” This surpassing can be seen most clearly in a subplot of the early seasons in which it is repeatedly shown that, while she is viewed as “dumb blonde” and other stereotypes, she is also the most skilled mechanic on the show, a traditionally “male” job, as well as in later seasons where it is revealed that she is a fervent evangelical Christian (even going so far as to host a Christian children’s tv show), a traditionally “conservative” religious orientation. Even her political affiliations wax and wane, supporting communism one episode and George W. Bush’s reelection the next season.
The last member of the core family, Bobby, while less dialectical than the others, also presents a starker refusal to fall into ideological traps; perhaps a motif of childhood innocence, a time before ideology, is hinted at. In a certain sense Bobby functions as a microcosm of the show itself, a direct refusal to fall into any single ideological identification, a resistance and deconstruction of what it means to be an identity. His hobbies, as we already mentioned, are not those of a traditional small town Texan boy, but he is instead obsessed with prop comedy, works as a rodeo clown, and a number of other obscure activities and jobs. He models, wears non-traditional clothing, takes women’s defense courses; as an unashamed “chubby” kid, he refuses body norms; he fails at most tasks, lacking the traditional “hard work” spirit of his father, yet still idolizes his dad as a hero; he dates Connie, a “more attractive,” more intelligent/higher achieving, girl outside of his race. He simply breaks almost every social “rule” set before him.
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The result of this constant undermining/deconstruction is that the show ends up transcending both the old “reinforce the family” sitcom of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and the more modern “liberal tv” stereotypes of the 90’s and the 00’s. It challenges the stifling traditionalism of old-school america, while simultaneously reinforcing the actual value of family and community. It openly mocks Liberal america, while reinforcing the unique non-traditional, feminist, and “liberal” values of its characters (Bobby, with his constant challenging of gender and societal norms, basically embodies this aspect of the show). Because of this constant give-and-take, its ideological dialectic, it is likely one of the least reductive shows of the last few decades. It uniquely finds a way of simultaneously challenging the restrictive and oppressive character of traditionalist value, while nonetheless drawing out the failures of liberalism which are tied to its loss of community, and perhaps even, family. Moreover, like Jacques Derrida, who argues in “The Force of Law” that every deconstruction must be in the name of an undeconstructible, every law deconstructed in the name of justice, the ethical core of King of the Hill, the placement of its greatest subversions at moments of suffering, its commitment to place real human suffering above any ideological commitment, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, marks it as one of the most ethical shows on television, and the truest enactment of deconstruction: King of the Hill offers a radically unique and powerfully ethical Texan Ideological Deconstruction.
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Note: I am not alone in my assertion of King of the Hill‘s greatness, in 2007, Time Magazine ranked King of the Hill as one of the 100 Best Shows of all Time.