“I’m going to bounce you off the walls,” he howled at her.
“I’d like to see you try,” she snarled back.
Is this a scene of domestic abuse? An uncomfortable account of violence? No, I’m afraid, it’s not. It’s simply Sam “Mayday” Malone courting Diane Chambers in the last episode of Season one of Cheers.
Talk about unhealthy mating rituals.
Katie and I started watching Cheers last week. Why? Great question. We’ve watched Parks and Rec and The Office 10 billion times. We were thirsty for a mindless comedy. And both of us have ancient memories of watching the show with our parents as kids. So, cheers.
The very first episode opens with a stranger walking into the bar. This stranger approaches Coach in search of advice. Coach tries to help. The problem is this: The white man’s son is dating a Black person. The punchline is this: Interracial dating is too big of an issue for Coach to handle. Racism sure is funny. Well, it was funny in 1982. How do I know this? The live studio audience howled with laughter at this joke. And Cheers went on to become one of the most popular sitcoms of its era.
I watched with an open mouth as, in the first episode of Season 2, Sam “Mayday” Malone kicked Diane’s apartment door down so he could come in and, presumably, have sex with her. The audience laughed and laughed as Sam tried to coerce Diane into bed. I couldn’t believe it.
And I don’t mean I couldn’t believe it in some sort of offended, moralizing way. I can believe it. It was just so strange to be taken back to 1982 when racism and domestic abuse were funny punchlines on a major network television show. A show that I watched religiously as a kid. I loved it when NBC played reruns of Cheers. I sat in front of on an old, black-and-white TV set and laughed at Norm’s complaints long before the twitterverse was a thing. Before Australia was on fire. The good ol’ days when live studio audiences laughed at a man threatening to bounce a woman off the walls because she wouldn’t sleep with him. Or two white people lamented interracial dating. Funny stuff, America.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to understand texts within the context in which they were created.
I was a History minor. Took lots of History classes at The University of Minnesota. A wise old professor often said, during his lectures in British History, that, in interpreting that past, it is important not to impose contemporary values on ancient peoples. I think this is true. It’s too easy to skewer people from the past by assuming some sort of moral high ground because your ethics aren’t their ethics. Still, I’ve also been a student of critical historiography. A critical historiographer would pay attention to power dynamics, unjust narratives, and the ways that texts reflect how certain values or beliefs allow some people to hurt other people. And I think racism hurts people. And I think men bouncing women off the walls hurts people. So it is possible to both understand Cheers as text that emerged from a particular moment as well as cringe at some of the values espoused by lovable, violent, and dashingly handsome Sam “Mayday” Malone.
Dashingly handsome? That’s what the other characters on the show say about Sammy. But I gotta tell you. The guy has a grotesque forest of white chest hair bursting from his shirts like too many nose hairs on a hot summer’s day. And he’s sweating profusely in almost every scene. Sammy comes off like a maniac to me. And the beautiful Diane Chambers? She has crooked teeth, often quotes dead British authors, and is dressed like a chamber maid. But that’s just me imposing my contemporary views of beauty on some ancient people.
I’ll also admit this. I still cackle at Norm’s constant muttering about his awful wife Vera. Really makes me laugh. And Carla’s uncouth, Danny-Devito-esque ramblings get me to chuckle, too. That part of the show still works for me.
So sue me. I was born of an ancient people, I guess. An America that celebrated racism and sexism. I think America still celebrates those things. But I also think people are smart enough to learn how to reflect on the narratives and values that contextualize how they move through the world. I’m pretty serious about learning how not to hurt other people. And the narratives that shape me – stories born out of my childhood, my culture, and my experience in the world – are a huge part of who I am. Lots of these things came to me through tv. Ultimately, that’s why I chose to be an English major so many years ago. Seemed important to understand the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are. Stuart Hall said something like that. He also said something like this: We need to keep retelling old stories in different ways until we aren’t hurting each other. Or ourselves. Australia burns. People choke on the air. People shoot each other. People of Color continue to die and suffer in this country. Hurting each other?
Yikes, that got dark. I was just writing about Cheers.
Winter break is coming to an end. This break, for whatever reason, made me think about being an undergraduate. 1999 or 2000 or 2001 seem like a long time ago. But I remember relishing the month I got off during winter break. Playing Madden ’00 in the loft in my dad’s house. Sleeping in. Being lazy. Recovering from British History or working at Subway or breaking up with my girlfriend or whatever ancient anxieties stirred in my kishkas.
I don’t get to be as lazy these days. There’s two boys to raise. Bills to pay. A tenure-track to honor. Adulthood up the wazoo. But I did get to be a little lazy this break. Even found time to watch Cheers.
This winter break, like the winter breaks of yore, is now over. It’s back to work. But work isn’t trying to get an “A” in British History or making sandwiches at Subway. It’s designing and studying ways to keep people from hurting other people. That’s worthy work, I think. I’m grateful to have the chance to do it.
My job as an educator and a scholar of education can be described as this: I try to make sure people don’t bounce other people off of walls.