Few characters defined the sitcom archetype of the bad mother quite like Peg Bundy. A signature program of the then-fledgling Fox network, “Married . . . With Children,” along with its channel sibling “The Simpsons” and ABC’s “Roseanne,” became part of a new wave of shows tackling the working-class nuclear family and its discontents with caustic humor in the late 1980s through the 1990s.
“The Simpsons,” of course, is still trundling along and breaking records, and “Roseanne” was recently revived, although its star was fired after her much-publicized racism on Twitter. A 1989 article in the Chicago Tribune claimed Peg was “such a hopeless homemaker she makes Roseanne Barr look like Betty Crocker” — although in these twisted times we’re living in, Peg just might start looking like the comparative domestic goddess. “Married . . . With Children,” which ran for an impressive 258 episodes in 11 seasons, from 1987 to 1997, hasn’t yet been brought back in the reboot mania. But in the wake of the “Roseanne” scandal — with the subsequent, Barr-free spinoff, “The Conners,” coming Tuesday — Peg Bundy, with her acid tongue and commitment to glamour in the face of adversity, has proved to be the true queen of the ’90s working-class sitcom.
Originally, “Married . . . With Children” creators Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt wanted none other than Barr to play Peg. But Katey Sagal, in her defining performance, gave Peg an appealing spark — her sashay and propensity for smirking at her own jokes were the perfect counterpoint to Ed O’Neill’s perpetually sighing and grimacing sad-sack physicality as Al, surely one of television’s most put-upon men.
On a superficial level alone, Peg differentiates herself from Roseanne: Her style, with that iconic, comically huge red bouffant, was a unique hodgepodge of ’60s housewife frippery and tacky, more-is-more ’80s color palettes. Sagal helped come up with Peg’s distinctive look, likening it to that of a former cocktail waitress. It’s easy to write off Peg’s form-fitting outfits and laziness as white trash cliche — and many viewers did just that — but Peg deserves much more. Her image and her pithy quotes mirror the way many millennial women have been feeling lately. Peg, lounging on the couch, smiling while watching talk shows discussing the awfulness of men in absurd terms — the TV blaring lines like “Men: Herd ’em up, kill ’em all,” as she laughs — is akin to a certain type of feminine frustration that has found full flower on social media.
In recent years, there have been many arguments centered on idea of the “bad woman,” from Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist,” to the think-piece-generating behaviors of “Girls,” to the reconsideration of Tonya Harding’s longtime status as a national punchline, to the exasperating reclamation of the phrase “Nasty Woman.” Peg fits comfortably in this category, and her bon mots would lend themselves to memes. “Let’s clear up a few misconceptions: There are two things Peggy Bundy doesn’t do. Number 1: Cook, clean, sew, vacuum, iron and parent. And number 2: Exercise,” she declares in a Season 4 episode. Her refusal to partake in traditionally feminine activities becomes comic by virtue of her boldness, by the brazen way she throws “parent” in there, just for good measure. Of course, she’s wearing a leopard-print leotard as she speaks her truth. Peg might not be someone to emulate, but her potential bad influence is what makes her so fun to watch.
Peg is pure id, unafraid to be horny. The sexual dynamic between her and her husband plays as a funhouse mirror on conventional sitcom heterosexuality, with Peg as the sexual aggressor, and Al as a disgusted pawn. The dynamic is furthered by their respective occupations — Al, the ladies shoe salesman, spends his days kneeling before women for a pittance, while as a “homemaker” (in name only), Peg lies on the couch as if it were a throne, smoking cigarettes, eating bonbons and watching TV. There’s an undercurrent of despair running through every episode. Surely, “Married . . . With Children” was one of the darkest sitcoms of its time. Yet Peg has an irrepressible confidence that’s admirable, given that her life is lacking in stability and material comforts.
“Emotional labor” — the sociological idea of managing one’s feelings and expressions as an unspoken workplace requirement, especially for women — has recently filtered into broader feminist conversations. Peg laughs in the face of emotional labor required of homemakers and paid employees alike (and even taunts Al by threatening to go “on strike”). In a time where we are inundated with stories of sexism, Peg’s refusal to do anything that cramps her style, while not exactly practical or realistic, feels like a satisfying middle finger to patriarchal convention.
Bickering couples have always been a television staple, and Peg’s delivery has roots in Alice Kramden’s sarcastic sparring in “The Honeymooners.” Peg’s simultaneous embrace and rejection of housewife convention still feels fresh. In the Chicago Tribune article, Sagal described her character affectionately, saying, “She makes the most of what’s going on and has a thrilling time.” The so-called thrills of the Bundys’ lives might seem few and far between, but against all odds, Peg is able to make her own fun. Does Peg dream of running off with a handsome, wealthy man and having all of her needs taken care of? Sure, and she’s not afraid to tell Al as much (“I should be up in heaven having sex with a young Elvis,” she tells him in the show’s final season), but within the parameters of her drab life, Peg finds charm. She dresses sexily for herself (Al sure as hell doesn’t care much) and her profound laziness is a perverse form of self-care.
“Married . . . With Children” is all wrapped up in the trimmings of ’80s and ’90s trash, but the bleak laughs it finds in the life of the white working class are all too relevant, given how often this demographic is invoked in discussions of our problematic political moment (for the record, Peg probably never voted in her life). The show doesn’t necessarily endorse its characters’ actions, but it presents the desperation of so many Americans with a dash of much-needed gallows humor. In embracing being too much, when on the surface she has so little, Peg becomes a leopard-print-clad, big-haired icon of subversive femininity.