In 1995 the Pentagon supported an episode of the popular sitcom Home Improvement, where Tim and Jill get to drive tanks at a Marine base. This week we take a deep dive into this episode, its feminist subtext, and the DOD’s political censorship of the script, courtesy of a file from an archive in Georgetown.
Note: Due to recent technical difficulties there will be no video version or transcript of this podcast. I will endeavor to fix this in the coming weeks.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Home Improvement, it was a very successful 1990s sitcom starring Tim Allen. I quite enjoyed this show when it was on TV and even though it’s probably 20 years since I watched it I think it would stand up better than most sitcoms from that period. Home Improvement is interesting because the central character – also called Tim – is based on a character Tim Allen developed while doing stand-up comedy. There was also a meta-program or show within a show, in that Tim presents a TV show called Tool Time, where he and his sidekick talk about tools and DIY.
The running gag is that Tim tries too hard to be a man’s man, and is often quite accident-prone and clumsy, resulting in no end of amusing mishaps, broken tools, broken TV studio equipment. He is married and has three sons and the problems caused by Tim’s macho attitudes coming into conflict with his family’s needs is a constant source of drama. It is also notable for launching the TV career of one Pamela Anderson, who plays the Tool Time girl in the first couple of seasons. As you can imagine, this mostly consisted of standing around and getting hit on by Tim and his co-host Al.
Tim also has a neighbour, Wilson, whose face we never get to see because he’s always hidden behind a fence or a tree or whatever. Wilson counsels Tim and often gives him sensible advice, helping Tim to resolve whatever problem he’s caused this week. Just like the Simpsons or Family Guy, the protagonist is the dad of the family but he’s a bit of an idiot, with hilarious consequences.
So there’s quite a lot going on in this daft, rather formulaic sitcom – it’s a satire of 80s machismo, a family comedy, a parable about how to keep a marriage working, all told through this unusual postmodern, self-referential format. It’s not a groundbreaking piece of TV but it is a cut above the usual 1990s sitcom schlock. And for one episode in season 5, it became a vehicle for military propaganda, but with a strange feminist twist.
I found out about this because Matt Alford, my friend and co-researcher and co-author, recently went to the Lawrence Suid archive at Georgetown University. As we described in our book, this is an archive of material from the Pentagon’s film office, going from the 1950s through to the 1990s. Suid, the academic who was given this material by Don Baruch and later Phil Strub, has not allowed any meaningful access to this archive since journalist David Robb for his 2004 book Operation Hollywood. A few other researchers have been able to get bits and pieces out of him, but in essence this was a private archive of unique government records, insulated from Freedom of Information Act requests and journalistic investigation.
Both Matt and I have publicly criticised Suid for preventing people from accessing the archive, and for overlooking or ignoring the politically-motivated script changes enforced on entertainment products by the DOD. It appears – we’re not sure – that this pressure led to Suid opening up the archive to public scrutiny. When Matt started inquiring a few months after we published National Security Cinema he found that the archive was now open and accessible, so he recently went to Washington DC and, along with his trusted manservant, photographed thousands of pages of documents and annotated scripts. It isn’t clear if this is the same set of documents that Robb got to see, it appears some of the most incriminating and political stuff has been removed. There was a similar case with CIA files at the exact same library a couple of years ago, so I think it’s quite likely that someone – Suid, Strub, someone else? – went through these files before they were quietly made accessible to the public.
Nonetheless, there is some great material, I have about 7GB of photographs that they sent which I’ve been going through and turning into PDF files. We’re including a lot of this stuff in the next National Security Cinema book and I will be doing a few episodes based on some of these documents too. I will try my best to publish all the important files alongside the second book so everyone can access this stuff. I do also have some material from Homeland Security, the DEA, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence too, so it will be a substantially new and different book and for those of you who like documents there will be loads of those too.
Tanks for the Memories
Season 5, episode 15 of Home Improvement is called Tanks for the Memories and as that clip showed, it begins as all episodes do with an episode of Tool Time. Tim explains that all week they’ve been doing a Salute to the Troops, so this is a piece of military-sponsored entertainment referring to itself. Tim is invited – or invites himself – to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at 29 Palms, California, to drive a tank, with hilarious consequences.
The file from the Georgetown archive on Tanks for the Memories contains memos and correspondence, and a draft script for the episode with handwritten annotations from the DOD. Reading through this script and watching the episode it is largely the same as it was originally written, but there are some changes – including political changes – that are very interesting.
Trouble strikes when Tim gets home and tells his wife Jill that he’s going to California to drive a tank, and unsurprisingly his wife wants to go along and have a go on the tanks as well. And who wouldn’t? Driving a tank sounds like a huge amount of fun, and no one gets in the way of a tank, except maybe Chinese protestors. So this leads to a little argument between Tim and Jill, and it emerges that Jill grew up on military bases and always wanted to drive tanks, but couldn’t because she’s a woman.
This sets up a nice dynamic for the rest of the episode – when Tim and Jill arrive in California – filmed at the real 29 Palms Combat Center – the Marines give them a little test. Tim and Jill have to drive their tanks through a slalom course laid out with flags and while Jill proves highly adept, as per usual Tim is reckless and ends up losing control of the tank and ploughing through a nearby golf course, destroying some golf buggies in the process. When Tim returns home, dejected at having been shown up by his wife, Wilson tells him that he should compliment his wife on her tank driving, that marriage isn’t a competition and so on. This leads to Tim and Jill resolving their fight, and to Tim having more respect for his wife.
Thus, Tanks for the Memories is a little bit of recruitment propaganda and promotion for the military, but also a feminist tale of a women proving both her husband and her father wrong and showing she’s just as good a tank driver – if not better – than both of them. So far, so 1990s.
Then there’s the military attitude towards Jill. At the time this episode was made women were not allowed to drive tanks. Since then the policy has changed – which I’m all in favour of. I think some women should be allowed to drive tanks, just not the women who drive in my local supermarket car park. They’re dangerous enough in a Fiat Punto, I dread to think what they’d be like in an M1 Abrams.
So what did the military change in this script? Some were little changes for accuracy, for example the original script has the M1A1 tank priced at $2.9 million, which was changed to $4.3 million. For some reason they also changed the names of the Marine Corps officers at the base who instruct Tim and Jill. Staff Sgts Foresty and Veneman became Sgt Schlikenmayer and Cpl Amburg.
You will notice in this clip that they kept in the line where Col McDougal, who we met at the start of the episode, says that a lot of people think that the policy preventing women from driving tanks is wrong. Notice, he doesn’t say that he agrees with them, or that they’re right, simply that a lot of people think that. It’s also McDougal who lets Jill drive a tank when she complains about not being allowed to.
So Tim and Jill set off to the start of the tank driving slalom course and as they arrive Tim is still mocking Jill. In the original script he makes a crack about them putting Jill’s tank ahead of his, to give her a head-start for the race, before McDougal corrects him and say it isn’t a race. In the final episode this was changed – not by the Pentagon, it seems – to Tim joking that she should have a more petite tank because she’s a girl, and Jill giving a sassy put-down in response.
Regardless of why this was changed, it does touch on this idea that has surrounded women in the military, that they somehow need positive discrimination or to live up to lesser standards, because they’re only women, after all. This is especially absurd when it comes to something like tank driving, because women being a bit smaller and physically not quite as strong has no bearing on their ability to drive. So I think this was most likely changed by the writers to be more in keeping with the feministic narrative they were going for in this episode, rather than for military propaganda purposes.
Another change is that the writers removed part of this sequence where they’re on the driving course. Jill starts off well and in Tim’s effort to catch her up he points his tank’s turret at her, to try to intimidate her. Strangely, there’s no annotation from the military about this so they apparently had no problem with Tim doing that. Also, a tank turret is a good bit of phallic imagery, again in keeping with the political subtext of the episode. So I’m really not sure why they removed that little bit – I suspect it was because of later discussions with the military after this script was annotated.
After Jill successfully completes the course and Tim drives off onto the golf course and destroys the golf buggies – a very satisfying moment – they go to the mess hall for lunch. Jill comments on how they’re getting chipped beef on toast and how she hasn’t had that since she was a child. In the original script it is Col McDougal who says ‘and you probably just finished digesting it’ but in the episode it is Tim who gets this line. Again, there’s no annotation on the script but this strikes me as the sort of thing the military would change, not wanting their own officer slagging off the food.
McDougal does get a line about Jill not only being a better tank driver than Tim, but she’s also funnier. They sit down, and McDougal introduces them to a friend of his, Col Hall. Hall makes a little joke at Tim’s expense, and praises Jill on her driving. In the original script he also says, “Jill, the way you handled that vehicle makes me think all our tanks drivers should be women.”
The military annotation changes ‘all our tank drivers’ to ‘some’ and a note in the margin reads, “Politicizes issue and is out of character for Hall. Writers will change.” We’ve literally only just been introduced to Hall a minute earlier, so it isn’t ‘out of character’ but they’re right, it does politicise the issue. This is the difference between McDougal saying earlier that a lot of people think the no-women-drivers policy is wrong, without offering his own opinion, and Hall saying the policy is so wrong that all the drivers should be women. In the end, this line was removed from the script entirely.
One other bit of dialogue that got the chop is when Jill and Tim get home, still arguing about everything. Tim goes out to the yard to talk to Wilson, and comes back in and apologises to Jill and tells her he’s proud of her. She explains that growing up on military bases meant her father kept showing her off, telling everyone how proud he was of her. But any time she showed an interest in hand to hand combat, jumping out of a plane, driving a tank, he told her it was not ‘ladylike’.
For some reason the military wanted them to change the reference to hand to hand combat to shooting a rifle – presumably even the DOD don’t like the idea of women punching each other. Or punching men, for that matter. Jill goes on to explain how important it was for her to be able to prove her dad wrong. In the end this entire section was scrapped in favour of Tim telling the boys how well Jill did, and everything works out in the end.
Is this a feminist narrative?
After watching this episode I wondered whether it is a feminist narrative. In broad brush terms of course it is – a women shows that she’s better than her husband at something and eventually wins his respect. Moreover, she shows she’s better than him at something usually outside of the ‘female domain’ and very much in the ‘male domain’.
However, a stronger feminist critique of this episode would likely highlight how she’s still trying to win the approval of men, and is ultimately still submissive in her marriage. They might also point out that the political dimension of the tank-driver issue was removed from the script, as was her backstory about her father and her childhood. Thus, while she did prove her father wrong, that isn’t articulated in the episode – only in the original script – thus her underlying feelings of inadequacy brought on by her father’s sexist behaviour remain implicit.
I am not a feminist so I’m not necessarily making that argument, simply presenting it for your consideration. A lot comes down to the distinction between incremental change and revolutionary change. A moderate feminist would likely applaud how the Jill character achieves a small change in the mind of her husband and that she ends up with more respect than at the start of the episode. Small things can make a difference, particularly on an individual scale, on a personal basis. A more radical or revolutionary feminist would likely be unhappy with anything short of an overthrow of the patriarchal world order and a declaration that all tank drivers will now be women.
Obviously, the Pentagon wants to recruit from the widest range of people it can get – for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, it makes them look like a more progressive institution which helps keep even genuinely left-wing politicians on board. For another, you need a range of spies for different intelligence purposes depending on where you are operating and who the target is. A white guy from North Carolina isn’t going to find it especially easy to infiltrate a gang of Pakistani jihadis. And it helps the numbers of troops up – which is harder if you limit yourself by gender or race or any other factor besides whether the person is mentally and physically up to the job.
As such, I’m sure that they saw this episode of Home Improvement as a good piece of recruitment PR for them. Like I say, driving tanks is fun and while the show made it clear that at that time women weren’t allowed to drive tanks, or at least not in combat, the door to possible change was left wide open despite the Pentagon’s political censorship of the script. The Marine Corps now even has women leading tank platoons, let alone just driving the vehicles, so quite a lot has changed in the 20 years since this episode came out. I am not saying this episode was a critical event in helping that change, more that it represents a particular moment in time.
I think that nowadays some of the things the Pentagon weren’t happy with in the 1990s might be more acceptable to them, especially Jill’s backstory about her father and her interest in hand to hand combat. Today you have women at many levels of the military – the last three secretaries of the Air Force, for example, have been women. Also, the climate in entertainment has changed, the notion of women being interested in hands-on physical violence is not so taboo. We now have female action stars cutting class and kicking ass, though obviously the genre is still very much male-led.
So I do recommend watching Tanks for the Memories, it’s only about 20 minutes long and it’s an enjoyable example of a bit of politically-themed entertainment that also functions as recruitment propaganda. After all, there’s enough state-sponsored schlock out there, I’d prefer to spend my time on the good stuff. And if you want to learn a bit more, download the file from the Georgetown archive.