Cotton Hill has to be one of the most detestable and hilarious TV characters in history. Dude is chauvinistic as hell, abusive to any and everyone, and maybe worst (best?) of all, a terrible father and husband. As an avid King Of The Hill fan, I loved the shit out of Cotton and how his relationship with Hank shaped his son’s emotional distance from his own family.
It gave the show a huge part of its humor; not to mention that it was relatable as hell to me. Now my father didn’t “kill fiddy men”; he wasn’t abusive or violent, in fact he was the complete opposite of what Cotton is. What my dad lacked in abuse towards me he more than made up for in emotional distance, which probably speaks to his generation’s thoughts of masculinity and strength. Not to mention the fact that his Samoan upbringing instilled in him the sense that you should never show weakness of any kind, since strength is synonymous with Polynesian culture, and weakness is, well, not. Like, at all.
Throughout the show, Hank’s realization that his father’s emotional neglect has affected his own relationship with his family is equal parts sad and hilarious. In the pilot episode, Hank’s wife Peggy tries to get him to tell their son Bobby that he loves him.
Peggy: I want you to tell Bobby that your love for him is unconditional
Hank: I can’t say that! I can’t! You know how I was raised. What my father’s like.
Cut to Hank as a child with a scraped knee. Cotton berates him, tells him about how his shins were blown off in World War 2, and to stop crying about his knee. Amazing.
Without going into too much detail about the mundanities of my childhood, my dad, God rest his soul, wasn’t always the best person to run to for my trivial problems growing up. Being the pillar of strength that he was, he deferred every question I had about my emotional awareness or lack thereof to my mother. Maybe it’s easy to see why. Women have always been seen as the ones who are better equipped to handle and deal with problems of the heart, while men are…just not.
But for an only child who lost his mother at a young age, having an emotionally distant father can take its toll, mostly unseen or not made aware of until years later. The constant doubt about yourself and your worth, whether any of what your feeling matters, the struggle to come to terms with who or what you are. Shit is hard.
Now as a man, I think especially as a Samoan man, we’re taught that to show or have any emotion is weakness. Very generalized, I know. Nowadays that is an outmoded way of thinking, what with the advent of the internet and our access to information about stunted emotional growth and what it does to ourselves. But like all of my dad’s generation, he didn’t have the advantage of Google. He came from humble beginnings under strict parentage from a renowned pastor on a tiny island in the South Pacific.
In our culture, actually most cultures, men are looked at as pillars of strength, who protect and provide for their households and communities. But what happens if that man cannot allow himself to feel vulnerable enough to know that doing it yourself doesn’t mean doing it alone? What doesn’t get examined enough in my culture is the toll that puts on a man who may be ill-equipped to handle the burdens that come from being the man of a Polynesian house.
As much as I’d try to get my dad to open up, I knew it was virtually impossible because of the barriers our culture dictates men to have from the jump. Sometimes we’re too set in our ways to even consider changing. Sometimes our cultural influences make it difficult for us to examine what strength means.
So without being able to turn to my dad, I found other avenues to get these feelings off. In a past life, I used to rap. Writing has provided an outlet. On that same island my dad grew up on, I met some of the greatest people ever, who became like brothers to me. Not to mention my surviving family who have held me down from the beginning. Being surrounded by love that is free of judgement and full of understanding did wonders for me. And through the drunk conversations and musings about life we used to have, if there was one thing I learned it was this: Allowing yourself the room to be vulnerable is its own form of strength.
I used to fear that I would become just like my father or worse, Hank, in that regard. Me not knowing how to address the same questions that my own future children would have. Or being uncomfortable with their eventual curiosity of the world around them. It used to worry me to think that I would ever do that to my kids, but then an amazing thing happened: Cotton Hill died.
That’s probably a little too morbid to be funny but bear with me. Cotton made almost everyone’s life a nightmare whenever he came around, so his death was inevitable and a little satisfying for those who wanted to see him get his comeuppance, even from something as permanent as death. However, the saddest part of Cotton’s death was his refusal to say that he loved Hank, even after all of the bullshit Hank had endured because of him.
The thing is, in the most Cotton way imaginable, he taught Hank the importance of being there for his family, and what it means to be a father to his son, even if that boy ain’t right. I know that it’s unfair and easy to pin all of this on my relationship with my dad, just like Hank did with Cotton. My dad wasn’t a perfect man but he was a good man and even greater father. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s to never let myself or the people I love think their emotions make them weak or having none makes them strong. Surround yourself with love, inside and out, because strength is relative. Wingo man.
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