Girls (Re)Run the World: Malcolm in the Middle

by Lenny Burnham

Lenny writes about episodes of TV from a variety of shows with two things in common: one, they’re all women positive in some way; and two, they’re all damn good episodes of television.

When it came time to select my first episode, my mind immediately went to Malcolm in the Middle, my all-time favorite TV show. At first I thought I’d pick a great Lois episode — she is one of the most well-written female TV characters ever (if not the absolute best) — but the more I thought about it, the more I kept going back to “Dirty Magazine.” It’s not as female driven as other episodes, to be sure, but its sharp satire makes it my choice for the inaugural column.


Episode 5.9: “Dirty Magazie”

Written by: Eric Kaplan

Directed by: Bryan Cranston

The main plot of “Dirty Magazine” kicks off with Malcolm explaining that he’s the current editor of the school’s literary magazine, The Crystal Ship. It’s established that he’s totally apathetic towards this, is only doing it to pad his college resume, and plans on just putting everything people submit into the paper.

That’s when guest character Ronnie (All That’s Lori Beth Denberg) shows up. After Malcolm reads Ronnie’s story, he’s shocked that something submitted to the school literary magazine is actually good. Lori Beth Denberg’s performance in this small but pivotal guest role is great, and the little smile of pride that Ronnie gets when Malcolm tells her that the story is fantastic gives a lot of insight into the character. Stevie asks what Ronnie’s story is about and Malcolm summarizes, “There’s this really pretty girl who, whenever she walks down the street, guys yell filthy stuff at her. So she trains herself to ignore them.”

Ronnie mutters, “The pretty part’s not important.” This moment is a perfect example of how both Eric Kaplan’s writing and Lori Beth Denberg’s acting bring Ronnie to life with very few lines. Malcolm continues:

So one day, after she’s trained herself, she’s crossing the street and this construction worker yells out, ‘hey, lady!’ She doesn’t turn around, but he’s really trying to warn her there’s a car coming. She ignores him and she gets splattered all over the pavement.

When Malcolm relates the story, we see Stevie feel the impact of it; he sadly says, “Men are pigs.” The plot of this episode could have worked if they’d just said that it was a really good story that uses filthy language. But the specificity of it being about sexual harassment adds an extra layer.

I’ve always found it fascinating — and cathartic — to witness conversations where women start talking about the street harassment they face on a regular basis in mixed company. World-views change as the men in the group are shocked and the women in the group are shocked that the men are so shocked. Those moments where men realize the extent of the challenges women face daily — and women realize the extent to which men are protected from these challenges — are incredible to witness in real life, and I love seeing this type of moment portrayed through Malcolm and Stevie’s reactions to this story.

The principal (Kurtwood Smith) confronts Malcolm about Ronnie’s story, claiming that it’s “pornography.” He points out the part of the story that says, “The construction worker yelled out ‘suck my dick.’” Malcolm tells him that what the construction workers yell is supposed to be offensive — that’s the point of the story. In a funny meta moment, the principal says the phrase “suck my dick” over and over as he complains about its tastelessness (oblivious to the larger message of the story), but, of course, since this aired on network television, we only hear “[beep] my [beep].” Then when he tells Malcolm to replace all the offensive words with asterisks, Malcolm says, “That’s just stupid. What’s the point of bleeping out words? Everyone knows what they are anyway.”

Although this episode never gets overly meta, it’s easy to guess that the writing staff came up with this episode at least in part to express their frustration with how network TV works: you can perpetuate sexist ideas all you want, as long as you don’t swear or show nudity; the actual content doesn’t matter. The principal’s simplistic approach to censorship also calls to mind how sexism and even sexual assault are casually played for laughs in many movies that are R or even PG-13, but movies where sex and sexual violence are discussed in a serious way are given harsher ratings.

In typical Malcolm fashion, even though he sees that the principal is being stupid, he doesn’t particularly want to do anything about it. Stevie suggests calling the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the school and Malcolm says, “I’m not gonna call the ACLU for Crystal Ship. Just because it’s under attack doesn’t mean it’s not lame.” But he notices Ronnie, hunched over sadly, and asks what’s wrong.

“You have people thinking you’re smart and creative all the time,” she says. “I just got excited that people would think that about me for a change. Like I said, it’s stupid.” Ronnie’s reply not only heightens the emotional stakes of the episode, but reminds us of the unfair pressures of high school, where it’s unfortunately too easy to start to feel worthless if you haven’t done something that looks good on a resume. Malcolm is surprised, and maybe even a little uncomfortable, at this outburst of emotion — so we cut to him on the phone with someone from the ACLU.

It’s a sweet, understated transition, although Malcolm is still hesitant. He assures the lawyer that he doesn’t want to do anything, he just wants information. The lawyer, however, is outraged and immediately ready to sue the school. This level of action scares Malcolm off; he refuses to give the name of his school, quickly hanging up. But since he was calling from the school’s pay phone (this was 2004, and Malcolm is not from a wealthy family), the ACLU lawyer is able to use caller ID. The principal announces that the ACLU is suing and the school district’s lawyers have given him a choice: publish the story or cancel all extracurricular activities. The principal picks the latter option and lets everyone know it’s all Malcolm’s fault.

Around the dinner table, Malcolm finds out that the principal called his mom to tell her what he did. Malcolm tells her, “You always said there are principles you can’t give up, no matter what people do to you. And I’m as surprised as anyone, but I think that’s what I’m doing.” This is a rare, truly nice moment from Malcolm — which is immediately undercut by Lois smiling smugly at him and asking, “What’s her name?” When Malcolm asks who she means, Lois says, “The girl you’re trying to impress. Hope she’s cute.”When Malcolm insists this isn’t about a girl, Reese points out that a girl wrote the story.

This moment not only shows that everyone in his family doubts Malcolm’s integrity, but also points out the permeating sexist idea in drama that it’s not normal for a guy to do something for a girl unless she’s a love interest. Malcolm is rightfully annoyed by their assumption and insists that isn’t what this is about, pointing out that Ronnie is a lesbian. It’s interesting that this line of dialogue comes up 15 minutes into the 22 minute episode. Usually when a sitcom has a one-off gay character, they’re introduced as the gay character, and the episode proceeds to have gay jokes throughout. Here it’s just a fact about Ronnie that Malcolm seems to have always known but didn’t see as the only aspect of her identity. Malcolm attempts to explain the actual ethical reasons why he’s defending Ronnie:

I’m just trying to help her. She doesn’t deserve this. She went to all the trouble to express something in a way that’s actually good and now she’s being silenced by a bunch of stupid, arbitrary people for stupid, arbitrary reasons and I just think that’s wrong!

In a line that is satirically perfect — because of just how many stupid patriarchal values it encapsulates — Hal simply replies, “Son, you don’t want to come on that strong. That might be what turned her gay in the first place.” Then Hal and the rest of the family go back to eating their dinner, not seeing any point in discussing it further. It’s a simple scene, but incredibly resonant in the way it captures caring about something and being faced with complete dismissiveness.

In the next scene, Malcolm goes into the principal’s office and they inform him that they have a solution. They ask him to sign a letter that says Ronnie’s story never met the standards of The Crystal Ship. If he does, everyone gets their clubs back. We get to see that Malcolm was serious in the previous scene when he spoke about taking a stand and helping Ronnie– he immediately refuses and reminds the principal that he’s not the only one affected by this. That’s when we see Ronnie, defeatedly standing in the corner. She tells Malcolm that he can sign it. “I just want field hockey back,” she says sadly.

Malcolm in the Middle endings tend to either be absolutely devastating or have some small win that comes with a much bigger loss. But this episode ending is a rare moment of absolute triumph for Malcolm. He sees the principal and informs him that he signed the statement and hands it over. The principal notices some other pages attached to the statement and asks what they are.

“I put that letter on the back of my new, independent literary magazine,” Malcolm tells him. “We’re distributing it 20 miles outside school property, as required by law. It’s called Absolutely Filthy Smut. It’s a catchy title. People seem interested.” Cut to dozens of students reading copies.

Bringing the story back to what this whole fight was about in the first place, we catch the reaction of one male student who’s just finished reading Ronnie’s story. He somberly says, “Man, from now on, I’m gonna ask a girl’s permission before I say ‘nice rack.” This is not just a funny line, but really brings home how thoroughly Malcolm and Ronnie have accomplished their mission. They not only beat the school’s censorship, but her story is actually having an impact. It’s an inspiring ending to a great episode.

Lenny watches an amount of TV that has been described as “impressive” and “a problem.” If you have suggestions for future columns in this series, whether they’re specific episodes you recommend or a broader request, please tweet them @lennyburnham. 

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