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.