Animations not just for kids anymore, as wacky, sci-fi, Back to the Future reimagining Rick and Morty no doubt reveals. The shows been heralded for it’s twisted humour, clever plots and surprising pathos, but is it really as “transgressive” as it seems?
While certainly unusual and definitely curious, Rick and Morty are not entirely transgressive; certainly and definitely not in their more gendered characterizations of Beth and Jerry.
The first two seasons build on the common trope of troubled couples and toxic relations which are emblematic of sitcom marriages. It’s a problematic representation of (cartoon) marriage, where the primary caregivers – the wives and mothers – are not only expected to expend their emotional labour extremely frequently and often without clear value or return, but will overlook problematic treatment, internalize frustration at ludicrous situations, and still, somehow, maintain the relationship largely alone. Think of Marge and Homer, or Peter and Louis Griffin; sitcom, cartoon marriages where troublesome issues are (often far too easily!) solved (and notably, never in divorce or permanent separation) Rick and Morty attempted something different and potentially transgressive through the characters of Beth and Jerry.
Beth and Jerry have quite a lot in common with their aforementioned animated archetypes. Like Marge and Homer, they are high school sweethearts who marry for the sake of an unborn child; like Peter and Louis, they are married young and without their parents’ support; and all 3 couples have what can easily be described of as toxic and often unfulfilling heteronormative relationships. The difference with Rick and Morty is that this toxicity isn’t simply a withheld secret either; many characters openly assess and challenge Beth and Jerry’s relationship and marriage. As far back as Season One, even their own daughter challenges their reasons for being/remaining together:
Summer: Yeah, thank you guys so much. It's a real treat to be raised by parents that force themselves to be together instead of being happy. ("Rixty Minutes")
This much becomes very clear when Beth and Jerry, attending an other-wordly marriage counselling resort, discover how they subconsciously view one another. The physical manifestations which emerge in this moment are anything but transgressive, rather, they reaffirm normative gendered tropes excessively coded via televised/film media: the monstrous feminine figure and masculinity in crisis.
Resignifying Beth’s character as, literally, an Alien monster (who drapes masculine figures over her like pelts) interlocks with contemporary understandings of women – specifically, of vocal and challenging women – as abject, monstrous and horrifying. Furthermore, her monster-self is destructive and devious – plotting the creation of an army and physically attacking the other couples and therapists. Not only is the monstrous feminine represented as horrifying to behold, she is threatening in her behaviour towards this (albeit alien) establishment. She actively destructs the key unit in the family structure – the married couples present at the resort – and the very hierarchy which support them – the resort itself – thereby assuming the danger behind the monstrous woman and the need for her to be controlled and maintained.
Jerry’s re-characterisation is alike to Beth’s only in it’s own abjectness. Worm-like, passive and easily shaken, Jerry exemplifies the conception of “masculinity in crisis” as a pathetic, easily subjected and emotional figure. He is easily swayed by the demands of the Beth-Monster and is later easily dominated and controlled by Jerry-in-human-form once confronted.
What becomes evident from these interactions between Monster and Crisis in this instance is the threat which dominating women pose over hierarchical systems, and that effeminized, traditionally demasculinised men – like Jerry-in-human-and-worm-form – are threatened by this very take over. Once again, I feel that I have to point to Beth-Monsters wearing of Jerry-the-Worm/Crisis like a dead (and unfortunate!) accessory. From this point, we are struck with the narrative need to reaffirm traditional masculine processes and representations in order to save the marriage unit and its supportive hierarchies. The very image of macho-masculinity which heroically comes to human-Beth and -Jerry’s aid is very much the atypical representation of heteromasculinity. Although, perhaps as significantly, it is a notably imagined representation – it is Beth’s subconsciousness which ultimately produces this imagining.
I think there is definite value in challenging the use of the word progressive or transgressive in relation to Rick and Morty; despite it’s interesting narratives and occasionally unusual narratives, the Season Three finale definitely did not live up to those monikers. For me, it was a cathartic relief to finally see a cartoon marriage break up. To witness Beth relinquish that tenuous grasp on a problematic and unfulfilling relationship – and to express this herself, throughout the third season, with both grief and joy, sorrow and celebration.
Beth and Jerry’s season long separation established Beth not only as a struggling mother or unfulfilled wife, but also as a person in herself who had experienced lost time and regret as a result of her relationship and marriage – one who could change that at her own will, and who had the autonomy and agency to do so. Beth – unlike other cartoon sitcom mother-wives – differentiates herself from the animated pack in doing so.
My relief was short lived, though, when the season ended with Beth and Jerry’s underwhelming and atypical reunion.