|Because we don't have cable service or television in any form, my youngest son and I sometimes entertain ourselves during the long, dark, cold months of winter by watching old TV shows that were on when I was young on the Internet. There are various ways to do this and this past winter we explored them all, being as it was, a particularly long, dark, and brutally cold season. I think it is safe to say that we have watched every episode of every incarnation of Star Trek ever produced. It is interesting to see my son's reaction to shows that I used to watch. Sometimes he is amused by the primitive technology used in these TV shows. He is, after all, a child of his times, and the obviously painted background in sets and the paper mache rocks strike him as pretty funny. More interesting is his reaction to some shows on a sociological level. I have come to realize that for him, watching these old shows is almost like watching an historical documentary in which the attitudes and mores of a time before his are reflected through the dialogue and portrayal of various characters.
Our travels back in time this winter included a show my brothers and I used to adore when we were young, The Wild Wild West. I can recall that we never missed an episode of this show, which was entirely entertaining, full of clever dialogue, fun, fantastical plots and villains, and excellent action and stunt sequences. It was one of our favorite shows. It ran for 4 seasons, the first in black and white and the rest in color. It seems silly now, but the show was canceled at the height of its popularity because congress asked the network to remove it due to concerns about violence on television. This fact amazed my son, partly because he can't imagine a time when congress had that kind of power, and also because compared to what is on television now, The Wild Wild West seems like an episode of Mr Rodgers Neighborhood.
For those of you who are too young to remember the show, it was about two mythical Secret Service super agents in the old west who travel around the old west in a private railroad car fighting entertaining villains with numerous cool gadgets and a lot of fisticuffs. Think James Bond meets Dodge City on hallucinogenics. It was fun.
The opening credits were always an animated sequence with a very catchy tune. In the opening, a cool looking animated cowboy would handily and with minimal effort, thwart a bank robber, stop a guy cheating at cards, and cleverly outwit someone holding a gun on him. In the final part of the sequence a pretty woman would kiss him and then try to put a knife in his back, to which he responded by kissing her back and then punching her in the face and knocking her on her rear end. I can recall, back in the day, my brothers, who were never what might be considered misogynists and certainly never, ever would entertain the thought of violence towards women, laughing with glee at this. The first time he watched this opening sequence, my son, bless his little heart, was thoroughly shocked and appalled. His eyes got at big as saucers and all he said was, “Whoa. That is just wrong.” His reaction made me try and think back about what my own had been as a young girl, but I can't recall what it was. Did I think it was awful? Did I cringe? I like to think that I was horrified, but it is possible that I was not.
Watching the show with my boy, I was amazed how well it held up over the years. The characters were still great, the stories still intriguingly fantastical, the dialogue better than most shows on now, and the fight sequences and stunt work excellent. The Wild Wild West, like the original Star Trek of the same period, prided itself on being an equal opportunity TV show. Characters were cast with black actors and actresses with no thought to their race. In other words, the story didn't mention their race in any way. Unfortunately, this progressive attitude in no way extended to the Mexican or Chinese characters, who were portrayed in a completely stereotypical manner, which caused several amazed eyebrow raisings on the part of my son as he watched. The most appalling to him, however, was the portrayal of women. The long line of women who paraded through the 4 seasons of this show were usually beautiful, often evil, consistently stupid, and almost always weak and easily manipulated by the main character's charm and good looks. The female characters who were strong were generally totally evil. Some of them, who seemed dedicated to the main evil male character completely, were frequently turned to the side of good after being kissed once by the hero, proving that even evil women were so weak and easily swayed that they can't be trusted to stick to an evil plan .
My poor son experienced quite the revelation watching this show with me. He asked me once how I had felt about the treatment of women in the show as a young girl. I shamefully had to tell him that I had no reaction because back then, to most of us. It was just the way things were and we accepted it. This reality, given what he knows of me as his mother now, totally shocked him. How could I have not thought the portrayal of women in the show was horrible? I wish I could say that I was a young trailblazer back then, but I was not. Thank goodness for the women who were.