I saw another really interesting M*A*S*H episode that tied in perfectly to our recent discussions about a guy who wrote to inform us we’ve got it all wrong: women are more picky about men’s appearances than men are about women’s. In “Hey, Look Me Over“, Hawkeye is complaining about his inability to get a date with any of the nurses.
The problem is, the person he’s complaining to is one of the nurses. In fact, she’s the one nurse who’d be perfectly happy to go on a date with him, despite watching his sad attempts to seduce all the others with tired lines. Kellye actually thinks it’s cute. But she’s a short, plump, Chinese-Hawaiian woman and the nurses Hawkeye hits on are white, tall, slim and traditionally cute. There’s a scene in which he asks what she thinks of a new come-on line he’s just made up. “It would work on me,” she says with a smile. “Thanks, that’s great, I’ll try it,” he says, and leaves. Rather than look forlorn, she stares at his retreating form like he’s so crazy she just can’t fathom what she sees in him.
Later, she finishes a task for him so he can go dancing. When she catches up with him at the officer’s club he’s still striking out with all the nurses. She gets up the nerve to ask him to dance, and they do – for thirty very fun seconds. Then the fast music switches to slow and all the dancing couples snuggle close. Hawkeye avoids eye contact with Kellye, stuffs his hands in his pockets and offers to buy her a drink. She’s hurt, but they sit down and start talking. Or rather, she starts talking. He starts scouting the room for nurses to hit on while not listening to her.
Hawkeye is oblivious to her interest. Because she doesn’t attract him, she doesn’t exist. Well, maybe as a colleague or buddy, but not as a potential date. Like many guys, Hawkeye imagines only he knows the sting of rejection because only he does the asking. What he doesn’t understand is that one of the great male privileges is the freedom to reject potential dates by simply not asking. He doesn’t have to worry about how to let a nice person down gently or be firm enough to get rid of someone who’s not nice. When he’s surrounded by unattractive women, he can reject them all cleanly and guiltlessly by simply ignoring them and/or treating them like asexual buddies. This is why Hawkeye’s complaints – and those of our commenter – are so ironic: as awful as it is to ask and be told “no”, it’s equally painful to just not be asked at all.
Kellye handles the situation beautifully. She confronts Hawkeye the next morning for treating her so differently from how he treats the other nurses. He apologizes and says it’s just that he never saw her “that way.” Fair enough, but she points out the reason he doesn’t see her that way is because she’s “not five-foot-nine and slinky with long blond hair with a perfect little nose that would fit in a bottle cap.” She goes on to describe in detail how terrific her personality is, and the things she’s achieved and what an interesting range of hobbies she has. He’s never gotten to know any of that because he was so busy avoiding her “like Typhoid Mary” and making damn sure he didn’t have to dance with his arms around her. Houlihan interrupts before they can resolve the argument.
A while later, Hawkeye walks in unnoticed on Kellye comforting a soldier as he dies. Seeing her compassion, he realizes she’s right: he didn’t just avoid dating her. He avoided getting to know her. We’re never told precisely why, but I think it’s because he sensed she might be interested in him and rather than become friends and risk an awkward rejection, he prefers to throw the whole potential friendship out to avoid potential discomfort. A gutless way of handling things (one I’ve been guilty of myself).
That evening, he shows up at her tent in a tux with flowers and an apology – only to find Kellye’s spending the night with a visiting lieutenant who wasn’t blind to her attractions. The episode ends on another evening, with Hawkeye asking Kellye to dance cheek to cheek on a slow tune.
That’s all she really wanted. She didn’t need Hawkeye’s affections. She didn’t need to avoid rejection. She didn’t need someone to reassure her she’s just as pretty as the other nurses – she knew she was great anyway. Hawkeye had set up a sort of Cold War in which his rejection of her was a constant, daily event, hammered in every time he carefully arranged distance between them. Now the rejection has happened openly, a quick sting gotten out of the way, and they can move past it to mutual appreciation and friendship.
It’s not uncommon for heterosexual men (especially young men, and boys) to imagine themselves the only ones who take risks in relationships when they’re (often still) the only ones who put themselves in a position to hear the word “no.” It’s so easy not to notice the ways women have always done their own version of asking, in the only ways we were allowed – the hinting, the extensive and complicated flirtation rituals, the thankless caretaking, the enduring of activities we don’t enjoy just to be close to someone we find attractive, and in some cases even the support provided after each breakup with the latest more attractive girl who dumped him.
Dating is hell for everybody. Rejection comes in many forms, and as much as hearing “no” hurts, women are in the undesirable position of logically being able to infer “no” almost any time a man fails to ask them out. It may sound ridiculous, but that’s what you get with a cultural system in which one gender effectively shops for partners from the other. A better system would allow those of either gender who like asking to do the asking and those who prefer being asked to sit and wait hopefully. I think a lot of men, if they were honest with themselves, would prefer waiting to be asked. There’s nothing wrong with either role. At the end of the day, maybe the big lesson of the episode is never to miss out on a friendship because you’re even more afraid of rejecting than you are of rejection. And don’t get so busy trying to send out “not interested” vibes that you cause more pain than a simple “no” could ever inflict.
The episode, by the way, was written by story editor Karen Hall and Alan Alda in secret over several months and presented as a surprise to actress Kellye Nakahara, who was with the show from the beginning eleven years before but had never been featured in an episode.