What I Learned From “Overboard”

As the man behind sitcoms like The Odd Couple, Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley, Garry Marshall taught us that all we need to laugh are two people, hashing out their differences in an apartment. But while he was working to bring that Honeymooners formula to a new generation, he apparently didn’t have the time to properly convey his feelings that women are insipid. Because that is the defining message of the second act of his career, as a director of romantic comedies. From Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride to Raising Helen, Marshall has glorified in telling females that getting a husband should be their top priority (and that being a prostitute is a viable way of achieving that goal).

But none of his movies are as brazenly sexist as his hit 1987 romp Overboard. The story of a Oregonian handyman (Kurt Russell) who gets fired by an impossibly spoiled rich lady (Goldie Hawn) and then mind-fucks her into being his slave when she gets amnesia, this is the purest distillation of Marshall’s anti-woman agenda. So, what did I learn from it?

1. Rich people are stupid monsters.

In Overboard‘s opening scenes, Marshall does everything he can to make us hate Hawn’s character, Joanna Stayton. She wears opulent dresses and absurd hairstyles; she bitches out her manservant (Roddy MacDowall!) for serving her the wrong kind of caviar; she refuses to talk to Russell’s aw-shucks everyman Dean Proffitt like he’s an actual person. Of course, this kind of cartoonish villainy is necessary – without it, audiences just might not take Dean’s side when he, you know, kidnaps and rapes her and stuff.

2. Hospitals are super lax.

After falling off her yacht and being rescued by a fishing boat, Joanna’s in fine physical health, but is suffering from amnesia. Dean sees her picture on the local news, hatches his vengeful scheme, and shows up at the hospital to take Joanna “home.” After a doctor and the hospital security guard (played by old-school “Family Feud” host Ray Combs) sympathize with Dean about just how bitchy Joanna is, they ask him for proof that she is indeed his wife, “Annie.” Dean tells them about a birthmark he noticed while working for Joanna, and after making her lift up her gown in full view of everybody to verify this, the hospital staff is satisfied that this smirking, unconcerned man is telling the truth.

3. Women best have kids.

Early in the movie, Joanna has a conversation with her even stupider and richer mother (played by Katherine “Mona” Helmond). In it, Joanna shares that her husband Grant wants to have a kid, and the movie’s disdain for women first rears its ugly head. “Darling,” her mother responds, “if you have a baby, then you won’t be the baby anymore.” By establishing right away that childless women are spoiled brats, Overboard posits that Dean isn’t just teaching Joanna a lesson by making her take care of his unruly brood – he’s putting her in her place.

4. Women best do grueling housework.

Once Dean convinces Joanna that she’s actually Annie, he puts her to work. She scrubs his tarpaper shack, plucks and boils chickens, and tends to his quartet of hellion sons (one who incessantly impersonates Pee Wee Herman, to the point where you think he suffered a head injury too). When she has trouble waking up in the morning, Dean throws her in a tub of freezing water. She becomes more accepting of this ritual as the movie progresses, and by the end, she craves it. It’s a clear case of Stockholm syndrome, but Marshall would have us believe the opposite – that a successful woman had found her true calling as a homemaker.

5. Women in the ’80s would’ve put up with a ton of Kurt Russell’s shit.

So if everything I’ve written about Overboard is true, how could it have been a big hit with the female audience it was targeting? Because it’s shrewdly casted. Both actors are in top form here – Russell has the lovable, blue-collar hunk act down pat, and Hawn has a blast playing the marvelously campy Joanna. Their chemistry is the only reason why anyone could accept Dean’s twisted crimes as anything resembling normal human behavior. “He could kidnap me any day,” I imagine every baby boomer lady saying in ’87. If Steve Buscemi played Dean, I think it might’ve gone differently (e.g. “Kill him, Goldie! Stab him in the face! KILL HIM!”).


  1. My wife likes the movie even more than me. Ridiculous plot, yup. Sexist? If the movie were taken seriously, another yes. But we enjoy it because it is done in fun and is filmed in beautiful Noyo Harbor and Fort Bragg and the surrounding Mendocino Coast so relax, drink a North Coast Red Seal Ale, enjoy the movie, and quit worrying about over-analyzing the plot.


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