With the continuing battle over transgender people in the military; One famous crossdressing television character has been repeatedly memed by people debating the issue, Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger from Toledo, OH.
I am not going to debate the issue of the transgender ban. I think it’s pretty unanimous where we all stand. I am a daughter of two Army Sargents and good friends with a handful of transgender people who have served in the military. It is clearly a transphobic policy that needs to be overturned.
What I want to focus on are these questions: Was Klinger a positive transgender character? Should we consider Klinger a transgender character?
Let me start with some personal background. I love MASH! I grew up with MASH. It was on all the time. When I started watching it, it was on all three networks with new episodes coming on every week. I loved all the characters. The one character on the show that I was linked to by fate was Klinger. The fact that the actor’s name, Jamie Farr, is similar to mine did not escape my attention or my classmates’ either. I was teased about being a crossdresser, because of our names. Even with the teasing, I love Klinger. I rooted for him to finally get a discharge from the Army that he desperately wanted.
How did Klinger come to be? According to Jamie Farr, it was inspired by a prank that comedian Lenny Bruce did when he was in the Coast Guard. The writer thought it would be funny to have a soldier trying to get out of the Army by wearing dresses all the time. So, it was not really the most progressive motivation to create the character.
First episode Klinger appeared in was the fourth episode of the series called ”Chief Surgeon Who”. He is first seen on guard duty stopping a visiting general. The General recognized him as the guy who is trying to get out of the Army by wearing dresses. The General challenge Klinger by telling him, ”You need to do better than that!” To which Klinger calls The General ”Mary” and skips away. It’s been recounted numerous times that this scene had to be reshot. The director told Jamie Farr to play the character as stereotypically gay. It’s not too surprising since this episode has a handful of homophobic moments. Fortunately, the producers reshot the scene using Jamie Farr’s suggestion of playing Klinger as a straight guy in a dress.
Klinger is in one more scene in the episode. He intentionally goes out of the way to confront The General. This time, he is completely naked. Hawkeye and Trapper looks dismayed and suggests to Klinger to put on a dress or at least a slip. This last scene shows how much of a nonfactor his crossdressing is to the rest of the camp.
In the third season, Klinger gets married to his high school sweetheart in the episode ”Springtime”. When we first see Klinger, he is wearing a ”Gone With The Wind” inspired dress reading poetry in a field. When Klinger finds out his girlfriend accepted his proposal, he skips through the field to find Col. Blake. Since it’s reasonable to suspect that Klinger would desert the Army if he goes stateside to get married, Col. Blake sets up a ham radio connection. Klinger wears a white wedding gown to get married in. When Major Houlihan complains about it, Klinger asked, ”Jealous?”
I feel this episode shows that even though he is wearing dresses to get out of the Army. He has fully embraced wearing women’s clothes. Going so far to actually getting married en femme. This episode makes the case that Klinger is transgender.
In Season 5 episode Bug Out, Klinger admitted to Col. Potter that he have been collecting women’s clothes before he even joined the Army.
In Season 6, Klinger gets a letter from his wife wanting a divorce. Nobody in the camp believes him, because they think it’s another fake sob story to get a discharge. To which, Klinger rips off his dress in front of everybody, he tells them, ”The dress is a lie. The divorce is the truth.” Klinger almost goes AWOL. When he comes back to camp, he tells Col. Potter, ”Under all these feathers and laces beat a heart of a real man.” At the end of the episode, Klinger is back in a dress drinking with his friends. He emphasized repeatedly, in this episode, that he is a man. He still wears dresses. Even though, everybody knows it’s a stunt. It’s obvious, he feels more comfortable in women’s clothes than he does wearing the uniform.
By Season 8, they unceremoniously had Klinger stop wearing dresses. However, you did see him in nightgowns and fur coats. Which seems to indicate that he stops wearing dresses to get out of the Army, but still had women accessories that he wears.
In the later years of the show, they were expanding and deepening their main characters. Even minor characters like Nurse Kellye got her own episode. Considering, it was the late 70’s and early 80’s. MASH was a popular mainstream TV show. If they explicitly made Klinger a serious crossdresser or a transitioning transgender woman, it would have been too controversial for the times. Seeing Klinger wearing Army fatigues seems like a betrayal to the character. Klinger never backs down from a challenge, as he demonstrated in his very first episode. He abandoned other schemes to get out of the Army, but always kept coming back to wearing dresses. He has demonstrated some affinity for women’s clothes. Even though, it is not mentioned in the show. It wouldn’t be surprising that he was underdressing while wearing the fatigues.
How did it end for Klinger? In the series finale, he gets married to a woman that he first met in the previous episode. Klinger tells Soon-Lee that he used to wear dresses to get out of the Army. She responded, ”Oh good. I always want to see you in one.” (How awesome is that!) The reason Klinger mentioned that is because he admitted that he still have these dresses. He wanted to give Soon-Lee the wedding dress he wore when he got married the first time. As a way to tell her that he wants to marry her.
After the wedding, BJ have Klinger autograph a picture of him in a dress. Klinger looks at the picture longingly and say ”I was always a sucker for crinolines.”
It wasn’t the intentions of the writers and producers of MASH to create an iconic and relatable transgender character. Klinger exhibited all the things a crossdresser would do. Including, purging his feminine clothes. With an understanding wife like Soon-Lee, it’s not difficult to imagine that after the war. Klinger will wear dresses around the house, at costume parties, and any other excuse he could come up with to wear his feathers and lace.
Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger served his country honorably and heroically. He looked fabulous doing it.
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Your article is really cool, I think Klinger was one of the first Crossdressing or Trans characters that I saw as a kid. Thanks, Jaime for all your hard work and thoughtful views on this article. 🙂
Jaime, I saw Mask-the movie on R&R in Sidney in 1970. By the time the tv series began in 1972, I had returned, finished college, and was preparing for grad school and the job market. In those years, I knew that I had a fascination with avant-garde clothing. Men’s high heel shoes were in style along with hip-huggers and bell bottoms. Look at “The Monkeys” and you see the styles we actually wore. I remember buying women’s slacks, high heel boots, and bikini underwear. While the underwear was invisible to most, no one seemed to even know that the slacks… Read more »
Falecia, tho I was born at the end of the seventies, by the time I was teen aged I owned a lot of the androgynous style of clothing from that time period. I remember a couple of my friends encouraging me to dress more normally, but I liked what I had. To me it seems like society took a step backwards. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to “reclaim” the label tranny as ours and not something to be shied away from.
Hi Jaime! Great article on Max Klinger. I don’t know who was my favorite character….him or Frank Burns. Now, in my experiences with the Military…..cross dressers like Max would not have been tolerated period. I think we all know that MASH was based on some truth but the characters were definitely not to Army Specifications. I was an officer in the 1st Cavalry and the treatment young men received was abysmal. Literally destroying them as people for life. I had to adjudicate these cases as a Medical Officer and the rules were very clear…albeit very Draconian. Yes they did create… Read more »
“There was only on catch and that was Catch-22 which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded…all he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy if he asked to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy… Read more »
I think that klinger is a good example of a crossdressing character. and mash was a progressive show for its time. though klinger was played for laughs, he wasn’t played in a way that was demeaning or foolish. I kinda wonder if Jaimie Farr picked up the habit in real life at all. 🙂
Thanks for a very interesting article Jaime!
I, too, loved the show and continue to re-watch the series which airs on TVLand channel and often on AMC Sunday mornings. I thought Klinger was a funny character but it had no impact on me as far as crossdressing. I was, though, teased too, my own character was quite ‘girly’ to many people, although I did a lot of hard work as a guy. My late mother knew it too and often told people she had wished I had been a girl. If she could see me now!
I remember seeing Klinger on tv as a young kid. I asked my mom what the deal was and she told me, “He dresses like that because he wants out of the army.”
Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see Corporal Klinger. I’m not Lebanese but I have some Mediterranean heritage. Isn’t that funny? Maybe I dress like this because I want out too.
Great article Jamie. I found your analysis both entertaining and insightful. Well done, thank you for sharing it with us!