Jackie Burkhart Deserved Better

That 70’s Show” was something I watched in high school and then completely forgot about until a few weeks ago, when “That 90’s Show” premiered on Netflix in January 2023. The spin-off was a success in that it attracted a large viewer base. By February, Netflix renewed the show for a second season. 

That doesn’t mean “That 90’s Show” was good. A more apt descriptor would be “promising,” or “cute.” I have to give credit to the veteran actors. Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp showed up and crushed scene after scene like they had never left the set. Though it was the appearance of the original gang that really caught my interest, particularly that of Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher.

Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher played Jackie Burkhart and Michael Kelso in “That 70’s show.” Their characters were notorious for their turbulent and ill-fated romance. The fact that Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher reconnected and married after the show ended weirds me out. It’s like I’m in the wrong universe, and Kunis should instead be married to Wilmer Valderrama or something.  

In “That 90’s Show,” their characters are married with children. Married actors playing married characters is normally very sweet and charming. This is not one of those situations. Mila Kunis herself was like, “Eh, I don’t know about that pairing.” In “That 90’s Show,” their relationship, or “second remarriage,” as Kelso explains, is a bummer because it unwrites a lot of meaningful character development.

So let’s talk about it.

Jackie Burkhart began her tenure on “That 70’s Show” as the shallow, spoiled, insecure younger girlfriend of Michael Kelso. Their coupling was tumultuous and unhealthy: she was clingy, shrill, and demanding, and in turn, he was a big dumb idiot who cheated on her all the time. Michael Kelso was a fantastic character who beautifully married unearned confidence with brash stupidity. He was not a fantastic boyfriend. 

Jackie may have been annoying, but she did not deserve constant infidelity and deceit. Though the lies didn’t just come from Michael: they also came from all of Michael’s friends, who did nothing to warn Jackie about her philandering boyfriend. Even her “best friend,” Donna Pinciotti, kept this secret from Jackie, all while Kelso was off catching a kaleidoscope of STIs from Laurie Foreman and anyone else who would touch him.

Kelso and Jackie were a bad match. Thus, viewers were pretty excited in season 5 when Jackie finally moved on from Kelso to Steven Hyde, played by Danny Masterson.

Now I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Masterson is currently on trial for some pretty heinous crimes. I’d rather not go into detail about the nature and extent of these crimes, but I’ll link the Wikipedia page for those unaware who would like to know more. I am disgusted and repulsed by Masterson’s alleged behavior, and at this time, I do not think he should return in any capacity to “That 90’s Show.” From here on out, when I refer to Steven Hyde, I only talk about the character, not the actor who portrayed him. 

Hyde and Jackie’s relationship was a hit with audiences and created new avenues for character growth. Hyde suddenly had a steady girlfriend that could bring out his vulnerabilities and even, *gasp* the tenderness that lurked beneath his sarcastic, aloof exterior. Meanwhile, Jackie would have to relinquish her materialism, superficiality, and the worst of her self-centered behavior (sometimes).

A funny example of their relationship was in the episode where the gang gets their SAT scores back. Despite insufficient preparation and a complete lack of study materials, Hyde scores well enough on the exam, which Jackie immediately interprets as their ticket to success and wealth. Hyde, in response, is like, “chill hoe,” and suggests something radical to Jackie: what if she became successful and earned money for herself? Although initially surprised and put off by the idea, Jackie seemed to come around to it. She could earn money and buy herself pretty things, and Hyde would gladly be a little remora along for the ride.

Rumor has it that Jackie and Hyde were meant to be together by the end of the show’s run, but a new writer in season 8 didn’t like the relationship and chose to split the two. This change was disappointing for a lot of viewers, myself included. It undid several seasons’ worth of character development and reduced their unique love story into a vague, disappointing frenemy situation.

It’s not Jackie’s fault the relationship ended. She poured her heart and soul into that relationship. Sadly, as much as I enjoyed watching them interact, Hyde was a bad boyfriend. Sure, he let her sit in his lap and hang out with him, but he was emotionally withdrawn to the point of callousness. To some extent, that was just who he was as a person, but given Jackie’s supreme insecurities, it would have been nice to see him show her a little consideration.

For example, at the end of season 5, Hyde sees Jackie and Kelso on a couch together and assumes they’re fooling around. Rather than talk to Jackie like a normal person, he retaliates against her by sleeping with a rando at his work. His rationale was, “I cheated on her because she cheated on me,” which is both immature and spiteful. 

In seasons five and six, Jackie’s home life is in shambles. Her father is sent to prison, and her mom ditches her for several months, choosing to travel to party cities rather than take care of her teenage daughter. Jackie is effectively abandoned by her family and reliant on the kindness of strangers. Then, in season 6, her mom finally returns from her months-long vacation, and Jackie is not thrilled to see Pam again.

Hyde recognizes that Jackie is dealing with quite a bit of inner turmoil. How can she forgive her mom, whom she still loves, for abandoning her in her time of need? And so he does what any loving partner would do: he makes dumb plans with his friends rather than be emotionally available to his girlfriend. He also talks about Pam’s hotness as if she’s not his girlfriend’s mom but just some random sexy older woman. As a woman, I can assure you that we love it when men do this. We also love when men rank our friends in order of most attractive.

I’ve spent the last few weeks rewatching clips of “That 70’s Show” and ruminating too much on the nature of the characters and the show. “That 70’s Show” was hilarious, nostalgic, and even heart-warming, but it was far from perfect. Namely, it suffered from a lot of what I like to refer to as “early 2000’s sexism.” Aka, that weird period in the early 2000s where women had to prove they were cool (and attractive) enough to hang with the boys. 

Gillian Flynn wrote her famous “Cool Girl” monologue after watching “There’s Something About Mary” and realizing that the very cool female lead, Mary, was written by male writers to be a cool girl. Flynn could have easily been watching Donna Pinciotti on “That 70’s Show.”

The main problem with “That 70’s Show” wasn’t just that it seemed to hold Jackie’s character in contempt but often didn’t know what to do with its female characters. In some ways, Jackie and Donna were allowed to be interesting and subversive. For example, in the first season, Donna often took the lead in her and Eric’s relationship, which set her apart from other female leads on different sitcoms. Nerdstalgic had some interesting things to say about her character, and I’m curious to hear what they think about the show’s treatment of Jackie Burkhart. 

For now, here is what I think. Movies and TV shows love the idea of a spoiled rich girl. She’s an easy target for ridicule and, in some cases, a way for juvenile writers to enact their mean-spirited, childish fantasies. Are you upset that Christy Stevens didn’t go out with you even though you’re a super nice guy who pretended to be her friend? Well then, 20 years later, when you’re a writer for a TV show, you can create a spoiled, mean girl character named Christy who gets publicly humiliated by the much cooler, better main characters. Or your Christy could be constantly insulted by the cool main characters, and it’s not mean because she’s annoying and deserves it. She exists for a few simple purposes: to display enough crappy behavior to deserve her cruel comeuppance. 

Even though, in real life, having privilege doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person. Nor does enjoying pretty things mean that they’re shallow. And being popular in high school shouldn’t immediately mean that someone is an evil psychopath who delights in the misery of others. Sometimes, the pretty popular girl is just that: a pretty person who’s popular. Sometimes that girl is so popular in the first place because she’s nice and makes other people feel good about themselves.

I fully believe that people like Jackie Burkhart exist. Attractive people who are blind to their own privilege. That doesn’t mean they’re incapable of growth or humanity. Those people sometimes need encouragement to reach their full potential and become better versions of themselves. A little empathy and patience can go a long way in changing someone.

In “That 70’s Show,” we see glimmers of this when Jackie and Hyde are a couple. She can act in ways that are kind and considerate to Hyde. Even though she wants him to be a successful corporate drone so as to guarantee their financial future, it’s still clear that she cares about his happiness and well-being. However, her being self-centered isn’t an unhelpful attribute. In many ways, her selfishness allows her to stick up for herself and be honest in ways that women aren’t necessarily encouraged to do so. 

Jackie Burkhart was a feminine character who wanted love, but was not willing to compromise her self-respect. At the end of season 5, she famously says, “I had to ask myself a really hard question: Who do I love the most? The person I love most is me. I love me most. Look, if I could run across the beach into my own arms, I would.”

It’s wildly self-centered but also baller. Wouldn’t it be nice if more women loved themselves as much as Jackie Burkhart?

Jackie ending season 8 paired with Fez wasn’t the worst decision. She wanted someone to dote on her, and he was willing to do some doting. But that’s less fun to watch, and the relationship doesn’t challenge her like her relationship with Hyde did. Normally I’d also include some criticism about how a woman shouldn’t have to end up with a man to be complete, but Jackie Burkhart was a special case. She already loved herself; she just needed a guy who could keep up.

Pairing her with Fez wasn’t a terrible choice, but I wish the show had stuck with its original intention of having her and Hyde stay together. However, I wish the show had been more willing to break these characters out of their established molds. 

Although it’s easy to criticize the 8th season for its drastic changes, some of that trouble had already been gearing up in the 7th season. The show didn’t seem to know what to do with its characters and reacted by having a lot of them, particularly Jackie, regress back to earlier season behaviors. This kind of writing is typical for a lot of sitcoms. If there’s a standard formula that works and the audience responds positively to it, then you don’t always want to mess with it. But sometimes, when you serve your audience the same thing over and over again, it loses its flavor.

Jackie Burkhart deserved to be taken seriously. She deserved to be in a relationship that would bring out her best qualities. She deserved to be loved by someone who respected her. She deserved the opportunity to grow. 

And she deserved better than to marry the guy who couldn’t remember to wash his hands before they fooled around.

This moment from the show will forever haunt my dreams

One thought on “Jackie Burkhart Deserved Better

  1. – LOL Kunis dated Macaulay Culkin for years… Wilmer has a questionable dating history…
    – Fun fact, Mila Kunis lied about her age to get the role!
    – Although Jackie was annoying at times, I think she was treated so poorly by the men in her life.
    – Part of me thinks, the male-female dynamic was scripted to fit the time of the show “the 70’s”, but who knows honestly. Donna’s independence would probably be “radical” for the time.
    – I didn’t watch the later seasons, so I am surprised she ended up with Fez. Seems like a sloppy ending.


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