M*A*S*H: Inga

I’ve been watching M*A*S*H on Netflix, and you can probably expect at least one more article on the show in the future. But for now, I want to talk about an episode called “Inga” with the assumption you’re at least passingly familiar with M*A*S*H. If you’re not, check the Wikipedia article to get the idea.

The story: a Swedish female surgeon (Mariette Hartley) is coming to visit the 4077th. Before he even meets her, Hawkeye begins planning a romantic interlude with her. She arrives and eagerly agrees to his invitation to meet him in his tent that evening. When she gets there, she doesn’t react to the wine and romantic music the way he hoped: she really just wants to talk medicine and see what they can learn from each other. He gives up on the attempted tryst and discusses medicine with her.

All’s well until the next day, when he’s operating on a young man and admits he has to make a compromise that will permanently reduce the man’s mobility because the 4077th doesn’t have the equipment or time to do better. She says she knows a technique that will do the trick in just an hour. Everyone drops what they’re doing to watch her demonstration of the technique, which works. Hawkeye stands in the background, seething with resentment.

Over lunch, Charles, B.J. and Margaret ask him what bothered him about the incident; after all, they’ve had doctors come in and share new techniques before. Sometimes Hawkeye has been the doctor to share a new technique with another unit. What’s the big deal in this case? Well, Hawkeye explains, it’s the way she did it. She could’ve been more “considerate.” She could’ve done it more “quietly.” She could’ve shown more “concern for my feelings.”

Here we have it: the trifecta of requirements our culture has for women interfacing with men but not for men dealing with women. Hawkeye was actually okay with being shown up by a woman, he just expected her to do it in a womanly fashion: quietly, with consideration for his fragile ego. He refuses to see a problem with this (he loves women, after all), so Margaret takes him outside and explains she’s tired of seeing him chase after her nurses. Oh, sure, he loves women – when they’re not his equals.

He accuses her of being jealous of the women he chases: the standard comeback whenever women complain about not being treated equally.

Upon further reflection, Hawkeye goes to Inga’s tent and apologizes. She accepts, says she’s been reconsidering his romantic advances last night and starts kissing him. She leads him to the bed and slowly starts pushing him down on his back, beneath her. He snaps, “When you dance, who leads?” Thus ending the very tryst he was hoping for.

It’s only after Inga shows up the insufferable Charles in surgery and Charles takes it as badly as Hawkeye did that Hawkeye realizes just how he’s been behaving. He tells Charles most of what Margaret told him the other day. Then he goes to see Inga again and finds her crying and wondering what was she supposed to do? Let Charles cut a boy open unnecessarily when she knew better? Hawkeye assures her she did exactly what she was supposed to do: “What I would have done.” They make amends, she promises somewhat jokingly to “try not to scare you”, and then she teaches him a Swedish dance, for which he has to let her lead.

I love how this episode digs up a fairly subtle problem and exposes it to the light. The thing is, Hawkeye really does like and respect women. Even when he disliked Margaret personally, he respected and deferred to her as the excellent head nurse she is. He often defends her and the other nurses when doctors don’t give them proper respect. But despite all this, deep down he expects the women he treats so well to in turn know their place as his valued, revered, beloved helpmates, not his equal, and he isn’t even aware of this. Why would he be, when it’s never been challenged before now? I found one website which says this episode was based on something that really happened to Alan Alda and bothered him until he realized it would make a good story. It certainly has that poignant ring of truth that usually comes from a personal experience rather than theory.

The episode is a great story to relate when you’re trying to explain the distinction between loving, respecting, admiring, even worshiping women, and seeing women as equals. Seeing us not as this “other” to be evaluated differently and separately, but as fellow humans who happen to have a different bodily function or two. As Margaret explains when she takes Hawkeye outside, women have thoughts and dreams just like men, and they also screw up from time and time and have to pull themselves back together. Margaret would know; what she wants more than anything in life is to advance all the way up to the rank of general, and nothing she can do will ever make it happen because the army, like Hawkeye, can’t handle the idea of women as men’s equals. Or superiors.

It’s also great for explaining to someone how you can behave in a sexist manner without having sexist intent. Hawkeye is fully capable of seeing women as equals, he just hasn’t had the life experience or the cultural programming that would have taught him to do so. He can’t be blamed for his ignorance. It’s when the ignorance is stripped away and he understands what he’s doing that he becomes responsible for choosing to fight his programming. By making that choice, he proves himself a decent human being. By calling another man on the same behavior and admitting to both Margaret and Inga that he was wrong, he takes an important first step toward becoming a full-fledged ally to women.


  1. says

    Man. I grew up on MASH and knew it was progressive, but that still impresses me.

    More props to Alan Alda: he was the main voice in Free To Be You and Me’s “William Wants a Doll,” which was awesome, too.

    (*cough* Aaaand also he once carried my grandmother’s luggage for her when he saw her struggling with it in an airport, in what seems to have been genuinely a nice thing to do and not a Nice Guy Act of Chivalry.)

  2. says

    Nick, it really was. If you ever get a chance to see it, it’s season 7, episode 17, with Mariette Hartley guest starring.

    Reb, Alda has been a feminist activist, so your parenthetical doesn’t surprise me. 😀

  3. SunlessNick says

    Alda has been a feminist activist

    I’ve heard that before (I haven’t seen much of Alan Alda beyond Mash, so it’s hearsay to me) – but I think that comes across in his performance.

    Comparing him to the original Starbuck, both chased after women, and were frequently unethical when it came to flirting/dating, but even as a kid I remember a difference in how they came across – like with Hawkeye this was a flaw in an otherwise good guy, and with Starbuck he “was” just a good guy regardless. Maybe it’s wiahful memory, or maybe it’s an impression that Alda wanted to create.

  4. says

    Nick, MASH started out a light comedy that played on the sexism of the ’50s in a sort of “Thank God that’s over and retro and now we can laugh about it” way. A few seasons in, it became more substantial (though IMO it got funnier, too) and we got some character development and serious issues along with the jokes. From what I’m reading online, this was largely because of Alda’s growing control behind the camera (he directs and writes more, becomes a creative consultant, etc.).

    In the early seasons, Hawkeye was a lot like Starbuck to me – he was flawed in ways that offended me, and the scripts were pushing me to root for him all the same. In later seasons, they acknowledged his flaws, let him be supportive to friends (his relationship with Radar especially fascinates me, as Radar always wants to know how to be more like Hawkeye and Hawkeye encourages him to be himself instead, which is beautiful), etc. *Now* I see him as a very insecure guy who can be a jackass, but who can also be a real friend and is always a brilliant doctor.

    Also, in later seasons, Hawkeye is NOT unethical in his pursuit of women. He just asks them if they want to meet him somewhere and [insert innuendo/double entendre here], and they always turn him down. I think what they’re going for is that his reputation precedes him, which is realistic in a camp like that – and it would be fascinating if they stated flat out that it’s his past sexual behavior come back to haunt him, because TV so rarely acknowledges that mistreating women can come back to bite a man on the ass.

  5. MaggieCat says

    A few seasons in, it became more substantial (though IMO it got funnier, too) and we got some character development and serious issues along with the jokes. From what I’m reading online, this was largely because of Alda’s growing control behind the camera (he directs and writes more, becomes a creative consultant, etc.).

    A lot of it was also due to the networks starting to trust the show a little more, from what I’ve heard. Larry Gelbart talks quite a bit about M*A*S*H in his memoir (Laughing Matters, and it’s both hilarious and a really interesting picture of the entertainment industry from a writer’s perspective about moving from radio shows to TV, feature film, and Broadway). Apparently when they first started the show the network didn’t believe that television audiences were sophisticated enough to follow more than one, maybe two, storyline(s) told in a linear fashion and it shows in the first season or so where you know, it’s funny, but still largely two dimensional compared to what it became. Not to downplay Alda’s involvement at all or anything because he certainly had a big impact, but that initial shift was due to network interference. Or really the lack thereof, since the people who adapted it always intended to keep the multiple threads style the movie had but they weren’t allowed to.

    I agree that it got a hell of a lot funnier once they were allowed to do the heavier stories rather than be the traditional goofy sitcom all the time– it takes the darkness to make the light shine and the same applies in writing. And I think it’s ultimately more effective in a larger social context as well– if you think television should have an impact beyond entertainment– since in my experience people are a hell of a lot more likely to perhaps actually think about the serious portions if they can still see the light at the end of the tunnel and aren’t being talked down to with all the subtlety of an after school special. (Unfortunately the later seasons sometimes veered over that line, but there was an impressive streak of seasons in the middle there where M*A*S*H hit the sweet spot.) (Sorry, this is one of those shows where I find how it’s put together fascinating. Or maybe it’s because I just watched Norman Rockwell is Bleeding again so I’m even more predisposed than usual to analyze the efficacy of dramatic/comedic juxtaposition.)

    I’m also suddenly very annoyed that in 20+ years of watching this show in reruns, I don’t recall ever seeing this episode. Sure, show “Run For the Money” 12,000 times, but not this one.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Maggie, thanks for all that history. It IS really fascinating.

    I’m finding I don’t remember any specific elements from when I watched the show in re-runs, but I DO remember certain elements that I filed away in my brain. One of the elements I remember is the idea of a man – and I was pretty sure it was Hawkeye – being turned off by a woman hitting on him, so I think I did see this one in syndication.

    I was really frustrated by the lack of attention MASH got in a “History of Television” class I took at UCLA as a film school pre-req. I think the prof mentioned that it tackled social issues, but he spent way more time on WKRP. Which is also a brilliant show, but unfortunately didn’t influence future TV the way MASH did. I think MASH had a lot to do with the future existence of unlikeable protagonists and shows where there’s no single character whose POV we’re supposed to see everything through. It’s not that those things were never done before MASH, it’s that they had never been proven successful by being done on a show that ran strong as long as MASH did.

  7. MaggieCat says

    Heh, so I pulled out the book I mentioned above to re-read the chapter about M*A*S*H, and I had completely forgotten that the preface to the book was written by Alan Alda. Synchronicity!

    I think MASH had a lot to do with the future existence of unlikeable protagonists and shows where there’s no single character whose POV we’re supposed to see everything through. It’s not that those things were never done before MASH, it’s that they had never been proven successful by being done on a show that ran strong as long as MASH did.

    Something that I noticed before but then forgot about because it’s only recently that I got addicted to so many British television shows: when Gelbart was helping develop the show and writing the pilot, he’d been living in London for nearly 9 years. Which is really interesting when compared to so many of the other landmark American shows of that era that were based on series originally produced by the BBC. He talks about being exposed to a lot of television that understands that telling “adult” stories doesn’t have to mean risque, but mature, and the resistance of network and ad executives to trying to produce thought provoking shows when they’re going to try and sell you laundry detergent in a few minutes.

    That’s really one of the things that stands out to me about M*A*S*H and is one of my problems with a lot of shows but comedies in particular; that the characters wind up living in a perpetual adolescence of suspended development and aren’t allowed to learn no matter how many times you show them that their prejudices are bad. Since I’ve already said that I think it’s more effective to do those things in comedy, it ends up making me sad that so many shows aren’t willing to take the opportunity to do something more interesting than fill time between commercials.

    I have vague memories of watching WKRP but by the simple fact of having a much shorter run and being hard to find now it’s not going to resonate as widely. Of course I’ve also wondered before if the shift to comedies with a single-camera setup and a laugh track attrition was due to a generation growing up on M*A*S*H reruns, so maybe I’m overthinking.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, that’s exactly why I was puzzled when the guy spent more time on ‘KRP than on MASH. I would’ve expected just the opposite.

    MASH has a few eps without laugh tracks, and they pack a whole lot more punch than the ones with it. I had actually thought it didn’t have a laugh track at all until I started watching on DVD, so I think you’re right that it would’ve influenced a generation of people to think laugh tracks suck.

    Sophisticated, intelligent people need laundry detergent, too. What the execs are really concerned about is whether their advertisers can make a commercial that won’t insult the intelligence of that audience. It’s tricky to make a commercial that appeals both to smart people who want to make informed choices and people who want to buy something based on its mascot. So studios want to assure advertisers they will only be dealing with the lowest common denominator.

    There’s a reason why smart people don’t watch commercials so much, and it’s not that we’re snobs. I don’t enjoy doing product research and reading labels for everything I buy, but commercials don’t tell me anything useful about the products – they just flash and gimmick at me. When a commercial actually addresses everything I look for in the type of product it’s selling, you can’t imagine how thrilled I am to be able to go in and buy it without any further thought. And I probably have more disposable income than a lot of the audience they spend all their time targeting.

    I don’t think I’m unique, either.

  9. MaggieCat says

    Maybe the professor was making up for the fact that everybody talks about M*A*S*H and forgets WKRP, which he really loved or something. Not that I’ve ever done something like that.

    Smart people may need laundry soap as much as everyone else, but they may not want to hear a pitch for it 20 seconds after they’ve heard that Col. Blake’s plane was shot down when he was finally on his way home. Tends to put a damper on the “buy, buy, buy!” impulse, regardless of the content or lack thereof in a given ad. Although that would be a lovely place for a “call your family” centered phone ad, or something like that old coffee commercial where the college kid sneaks home for Christmas as a surprise.

    You’d think that they might have put someone in place to say, watch the commercials that were going to air during a certain show after they know what the episode’s about to avoid unfortunate coincidences since I know that I’ve seen commercials that seemed particularly crass given the content of whatever I was watching and had a psychological backlash when it wouldn’t have caused a blip any other time, but that seems to make too much sense. I’d get it if they were local ads, but they never are. (Like one I just saw a few weeks ago– an ep of Grey’s Anatomy about a kid who had lain down in wet cement and was being crushed and dehydrated as it dried where the first lighthearted commercial of one break had… a guy trapped in a chunk of cement where his friend used the huge amount of cargo space in his wonderful gas guzzling SUV to take him to the hospital. Ooh, gonna be a tough crowd for that one.)

    They could at least bookend the blocks with ads for their own thematically similar shows that they seem to be so fond of running all the damn time! Am I the only person who has such a big problem with whiplash caused by cognitive dissonance? More information and less fluff would be helpful too, but since I don’t trust advertisers much even when they do (see also: infomercials) I’d just be grateful if they could make things flow a bit better. Lousy editing makes me grumpy.

  10. says

    That’s a great dissection of this episode that I seem to have missed. I love this serial on so many levels, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way until you pointed it out. It will be a pleasure re-watching them again with a different perspective.

    ps – found you via Blog Her ads. I’m the ‘Mail Harry to the Moon’ link :)

  11. Death Worm says

    I think storylines like this are important because they show that prejudice and discrimination aren’t just the characteristics of mustache-twirling villains: they are flaws that all “normal” people have. When people think that only “bad guys” are sexist (or racist, or classist, or whatever), they don’t examine their own privilege. Instead, they’re convinced that because they’re Nice People, it’s something they don’t have to worry about. That’s why conversations in which people are asked to examine their privilege often hit a brick wall – you end up with people who think (for example) they can’t possibly be racist because they aren’t a member of the KKK.

  12. says

    MaggieCat, what you’re suggesting would require effort. I’m pretty sure laziness is at the base of 90% of what we complain about here. It would take effort to sell products to anyone BUT the world’s most mind-bogglingly susceptible demographic. It would take effort to convince advertisers to change how things have been done for 10, 20, 50 years. Even though the profits from the effort could be staggering, so many people have their entire JOBS invested in keeping the status quo that I suspect this is the first brick wall you hit in trying to suggest a change for the better. As per usual with humans.

    Rashmi, glad you liked it. Your blog looks good!

    CL, the more I think about it, the more pleasantly shocked I am. MASH rules when it comes to “special” episodes, like someone dying or going home. They make it so bittersweet – like real life – and then allow the characters to come to terms with it in a way most shows skip over. But this was such a simple story, I wasn’t expecting big things. It didn’t even feel like an issue story. It’s just TV at its best.

    Death Worm, exactly! We all suffer from privilege. It’s embarrassing and painful to realize you’ve been exercising privilege you weren’t even aware of, but it happens, and the thing to do is learn and improve and move on. Rather than get defensive, which is what most people do. And I’m so glad it’s what Hawkeye did at first, so we could see him move through it and survive and be a better person for it.


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