Click! Hot Lips Houlihan Made Me a Feminist

In the early 1980s I was a suburban girl growing up outside Miami and I knew few mothers who worked. My own mother had quit the nursing job she loved to become a stay-at-home mom, though she still sought hospital news from my doctor dad. The closest I had come to seeing her at work was the much-joked-about time when she brought out her nurse’s kit to remove stitches from the family dog.

Perhaps this mysterious past life of my mother’s was why I so loved the TV show M*A*S*H, and one character in particular: The sometimes-uptight but uber-competent head nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit.

I had a hazy understanding that Houlihan was admired because she was “hot” (hence the nickname), whatever that meant. Beyond that, it went entirely over my head that Houlihan was the butt of many jokes and advances, some of them related to her rather passionate love life. What I saw was that, as doctor protagonists were Saving Lives, Houlihan was also doing Important Work. The doctors relied on her during a crisis, and she was there–swiftly handing them their tools, in charge of the other nurses, making critical decisions. She was a significant player.

One night, watching a rerun of the original film on TV, I gawked in horror as Houlian–whom I saw as the program’s true hero–was humiliated by her peers. In a scene I will never forget, Houlihan (played in the film by Sally Kellerman) headed for the women’s showers, while Hawkeye and his sidekick went to work. They set up their lawn chairs, poured their cocktails and rallied a group of fellow voyeurs. Then, when they were good and ready, one of their cronies hacked away the long cord that had been rigged to the shower structure, and the whole thing fell apart until Houlihan’s bewildered face was seen and her piercing scream was heard. She was seen naked–full-frontal–before she quickly ducked behind a bench for cover. The doctors cheered loudly and raised their glasses in a toast while she slithered backwards, naked, along the shower floor, her face streaked with tears. They shot each other jaunty looks.

What I saw made me gasp. They needed her to assist them in the operating room. They depended on her to keep the other nurses in line. Although I knew she wasn’t their equal, I thought that they respected her for her work. How could they do this to her? Why would they humiliate her for their own amusement? That Hawkeye–sad-eyed and otherwise sensitive–could have enjoyed this “prank” stunned me all the more.

Perhaps my naivete made the message even more astonishing. A woman’s body–and her shame–were supposed to be available to Hawkeye and the doctors for their casual viewing pleasure. Somehow, I realized America, the audience–me–were also supposed to laugh at her, as her power was trivialized and she was reduced to their “hot” object. No matter how strong a character she was, or how well her career went, her sexuality overrode any respect accorded her. Her dignity as Head Nurse could be undone in a moment by the exposure of her body.

It was a small moment, but a striking one.  It stunned me to receive this news, sinking in on levels I didn’t yet understand.

It was years before I would be in college, devouring my Intro to Women’s Studies texts that finally said all the things I had suspected and taught me terms such as “patriarchal privilege,” “the male gaze” and “objectification.” But in that moment I just knew something was just very, very wrong, and that what I had seen was anything but funny. There was injustice between the sexes, injustice that could be casually portrayed, and I was supposed to laugh along. Something was very wrong with this picture.

This post is a part of a week-long blog carnival in honor of Feminist Coming Out Day.

Image of M*A*S*H cast, Hot Lips Houlihan at right.


  1. This scene has always bothered me, but I should point out that this is from the movie and not the television show. In the first few seasons of the show, her character was ridiculed in the same way. However, the actress and the show began to change her persona into a more fully developed person. She became Margaret and not just "Hot Lips".
    I am a fan of the show, but recognize that it has its moments where it reeks of male privilege… I have always felt that the show never gave her character full attention and in general struggled with showing female characters more respect.

  2. That Hawkeye–sad-eyed and otherwise sensitive–could have enjoyed this “prank” …

    I so hear what you are saying. The hardest part of sexism is that it is so accepted, even by so called 'sensitive' guys. In fact MASH (even though I'd loved it) is in many ways all about what is so wrong with patriarchy. Hawkeye ends up having a major break down due to his inability to deal with his emotions and what he'd done on the bus. He also leaves in the last episode, alone, still trying to deal with everything. That's what's happening in society. They aren't coping. For all that they make fools of women, the last laugh is on them.

  3. The early episodes of the "M*A*S*H" TV series were very similar to the film on which it was based in terms of their sexism and their tendency to relegate the role of "Hot Lips" to a laughingstock and the target of Hawkeye and Trapper John's ridicule, along with her married boyfriend, the incompetent surgeon Frank Burns. In that way, like the film, they reflected the early social-revolutionary sensibilities of the '60s and '70s–a social revolution in which everything was seemingly being questioned except the role of women, who were still expected to play the part of sex objects and servants. (How many women belonging to leftist movements of that time tell stories of having to make the coffee and run the copying machine while the men planned the strategy?) Only later, as Alan Alda took a greater role in shaping the series, did his own feminist sensibilities start to seep into the show, not only through him but through more female involvement. In some cases that sensibility became a little preachy and perhaps far ahead of the early 1950s in which the story was set, but it did make "M*A*S*H" a deeper show with more sympathy toward the situation of women in war. The nurse characters in general became more than just hot bodies for the surgeons to lust after; Hawkeye became less of a lech; and Trapper left Korea and was replaced as Hawkeye's partner in crime by B.J., a family man who didn't chase nurses at all.

    The departure of the Frank Burns character also enabled the transformation of his ex-lover's character from "Hot Lips" into Margaret, a strong, no-nonsense professional with a fully dimensional set of competencies, anxieties and personal demons who actually became friends with Hawkeye (and, for one night, a lover). Through the course of the series she married and divorced, fell in and out of love, dealt with challenges to her authority as head nurse, and wrestled with the need to please her father vs. doing what made her happy. She went from a figure of fun to one the viewer could relate to, and despite the occasional lapses into obvious didactics, the series was better for it.

  4. Last night, I watched a show which people are comparing to MASH, Combat Hospital.

    Sexism was explored throughout the pilot. When she arrives in Kandahar, Rebecca Kincaid is a trained surgeon, expecting to jump in and get to work.

    But she instead finds herself pushed aside in favor of male colleague Bobby Trang—which is ironic considering it is a war zone and there is no time to spare. The US Millitary does not treat women fairly!

    Trang, having quickly become her work buddy, is visibly shocked and hurt. He expected they’d be working together. He is also uncomfortable with being the ‘top dog’ once they landed and got to base. He is figuring out that he is getting treated better because he is a guy.

    And it also shows the women soliders running a ‘outreach clinic’ for the women of Afghanistan in their off hours, however unofficially, and exploring the ethics of illicitly using suplies on non-soliders. I hope it delves deeper into this storyline. Does each group of women learn from each other? Or is it going to be a ‘the forces are enlightened’ one-dimensional and outdated approach? What will happen if the US soliders doing this are caught, even if it is for a humanitarian cause?

    It cetainly beats reality TV!

  5. Iliana Echo says:

    I agree with what everyone else is saying. The movie (and the first few seasons of the TV show) didn’t handle those issues very well. (Season 2’s Operation Noselift was so poorly done I wrote this just to deal with the issues they’d skirted.) As the show went on, they got better at letting her become a more three-dimensional and yes, feminist, character.

    • Iliana Echo says:

      There’s one episode in particular I remember, (I think it was called “Hot Lips is Back in Town”) where she decides that the best way to help the doctors would be for the nurses to become a triage team, and she will train them all in three days. The doctors are skeptical, but then a batch of wounded come in, and after checking the nurses’ work the first few times, Potter declares that he is satisfied with their work and turns it over to them. Later in the same episode, a General she knows offers her a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and a position on his private staff and then tells her that his private nurses are essentially his concubines, leading to one of her best moments where she angrily tells him she doesn’t need to and will not “sleep her way to the top.”

  6. Aaron Carine says:

    I like the film, but yeah, that scene was pretty awful. It shocked me even when I first saw the film, and that time(1981) was less enlightened than now.

  7. I did some googling to see if there were others who also felt that this entire situation was sexist and it objectified women. I’m no feminist either, so I know if I’m a little offended by something like this, it’s pretty deep. I tried justifying this by thinking “this was set from the 70s and that’s how it was… ridiculous things like that. Anyway, I never watched the show until I saw the movie and I like the comedic relief otherwise.

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