A Fistful of Reasons, Part II: The Trouble with Bullies

And the obsession with this episode continues…I am not exaggerating when I say that I could write a book about Fistful of Reasons. Here are just a few things that I love about this episode and why it so compelling for my own work:

  • The focus on reason and its limits
  • The conflict between the “troublemaker” (Buddy Hinton) and the troubled (Peter and Cindy)
  • The performances of (failed) masculinity by Mike, Peter, Buddy, Alice, Cindy and the performances of (failed) femininity by Carol, Alice, Mrs. Hinton
  • The failed possibilities for alliance building between Buddy and Peter

I hope to get to all of these topics in future blogs. But before I do that, I want to write about an issue that seems particularly important in light of the recent accounts of anti-gay bullying suicides: the trouble with bullies. This spring, several kids committed suicide after being taunted, verbally abused, and physically threatened. As many have argued–like Box Turtle Bulletin and Advocate–the cause of these suicides was not just harassment but anti-gay harassment that could have been prevented if the schools that these students had attended had better anti-bullying programs in place (see this for more).

These tragic cases point to the physical, emotional and psychic consequences of bullying and raise the troubling questions: Who is to blame for these suicides and who should be held responsible? What sorts of actions can we take to ensure that these tragedies stop occurring? How have our traditional strategies for dealing with bullies failed to protect our children?

In “A Fistful of Reasons,” the issue of bullying is taken up as Cindy, Peter and their parents (comically) struggle with how to solve the problem of Buddy Hinton and his bullying behavior. Buddy taunts Cindy for lisping (a gay signifier?) and threatens Peter with taunts and physical violence (calling Peter’s masculinity into question?). Here are the different ways that they try to address the problem:

  1. To stop Buddy from teasing Cindy about her lisp, Mike and Carol try to train her to talk properly. They give her a tongue twister book so she can “get over her lisp” and talk just like everybody else. Almost the whole family (Mike, Carol, Alice, Greg, Peter and Bobby) help her with the exercises in the book. At first this method doesn’t work but by the end of the episode Cindy’s lisp has magically disappeared.
  2. To stop Buddy from threatening and taunting Peter, Peter’s brothers Greg and Bobby attempt to shame Peter into fighting Buddy: “If you don’t fight him, everyone’s gonna call you a coward.” (or a sissy or a fag?)
  3. To stop Buddy from teasing Cindy and calling her a baby, Mike and Carol encourage Peter to stand up to Buddy (like a man) not by fighting him but by using “calm, cool, reason.” They reinforce this lesson (especially after it fails for Peter) by attempting to use reason themselves with Buddy’s parents.
  4. After these other methods have failed, Mike gives Peter permission to “defend himself” against Buddy. When Peter admits that he doesn’t know how to fight, Marcia and Alice give him some boxing lessons.
  5. As I discussed in another entry, Peter finally solves the problem by punching Buddy and causing him to lisp. All of the kids laugh at him and he loses his power to bully others.

Continue reading A Fistful of Reasons, Part II: The Trouble with Bullies

A Fistful of Reasons, Part I: The Title

Why did they call this Brady Bunch episode a fistful of reasons? I imagine the writer (Tam Spiva) or the producer (Sherwood Schwartz) thought it was clever. And it is, but not in the way that they probably meant it to be–as a play on words. Calling this episode a fistful of reasons is an insightful way of signifying how reason and violence are often inextricably tied.

In my first entry on this episode I wrote about how the conflict between Peter Brady and Buddy Hinton demonstrated the failure of reason to successfully mediate conflict. Throughout the episode, Peter, Mike, and Carol all attempt to appeal to reason as the way to resolve conflict and to deal with Buddy the bully. Consider Mike Brady’s fatherly advice to Peter about how to handle the Buddy situation:

Fighting isn’t the answer to anything. If it were why the biggest and the strongest would always be right. That doesn’t make any sense does it? Did you try reasoning with Buddy Hinton? Explaining to him why he shouldn’t tease Cindy? Reasoning. Calm, cool reasoning. That’s a lot better than violence. And it’s the only sensible way to settle differences.

Peter, Mike and Carol all try to reason their way out of the conflict: Peter tries to reason with Buddy. Mike tries to reason with Buddy’s dad. And Carol tries to reason with Buddy’s mom. In each case, reason is no match for violence. Peter gets a black eye. Mike gets “escorted” off of Mr. Hinton’s property. Carol barely restrains herself from mixing it up with Mrs. Hinton.
Continue reading A Fistful of Reasons, Part I: The Title

Paying Attention to Troublemaking

There are all sorts of ways to make trouble and in this blog I am interested in giving serious attention to as many of them as I can find or imagine. Here is an image of troublemaking that resonates with some of my own practices.

About 7 years ago I spent a month at my family’s farm in Upper Michigan with my mom. We went hiking a lot, exploring as many different trails as we could find. One day we decided to hike a trail to a waterfall. It was a hidden trail–hard to find and full of ticks. As we neared the end of the path, I noticed that there wasn’t one big stream that rushed over the rocks to create a waterfall, but a number of small streams. The water in the streams was moving fast and you could see how each little stream was eroding the ground that separated it from the others. As I studied the streams, I kept thinking about how they were slowly, patiently and persistently wearing away the ground.

Years later as I developed my own theories about troublemaking (how it works, what it does), I was reminded of that image of the streams and the waterfall. Troublemaking can be intense and provocative. It can anger or alienate us. Troublemakers can challenge us in intense and violent ways. Their methods can be confrontational and immediate. But troublemakers can also be patient and persistent. They can dedicate themselves to always thinking, always challenging, always asking questions. Never stopping. And, through this persistent process, they can unsettle the ground that fixes us in limited understandings of the world.

Bullies, Lisping Babies and Timid Chickens: Peter Brady and the Limits of Reason

OR How Peter Brady Single-handedly Defeated Jurgen Habermas and his theory of communicative rationality

Making trouble and being in trouble are usually thought of as bad things—as things that we want to get out of as soon as possible. Smoothing over trouble and getting out of trouble becomes the goal. But, how do (and should) we resolve trouble? How do we get rid of it? And, how do we make sure that we deal with trouble in ways that don’t do harm to ourselves or others? What happens when trouble comes in the form of a violent bully? How do we resolve that situation? And, is resolution the best response?

So, for over 10 years now I have wanted to write about an episode of the Brady Bunch called “A Fistful of Reasons”.  If you haven’t seen it, you should. It is from the second season, which may be the best season of the series—“Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?” “The Liberation of Marcia Brady.” Need I say more?

It all started when I was in graduate school taking a class on Hermeneutics at School of Theology at Claremont. We were discussing Jurgen Habermas and his idea of communicative rationality. Simply (maybe too simply?) put, Habermas believes that we can resolve our conflicts and come to agreement by engaging in rational dialogue with each other. This dialogue involves the practicing of a certain set of rational and reasonable rules that we use as we talk with each other. In other words, our differences of opinion and conflicts with each other are smoothed over when we use “calm, cool reason.”

Habermas’ idea sounds great: using reason and being reasonable allows us to engage with others without resorting to violence, right? But, what happens when all of our appeals to reason and our attempts at rational conversations with others don’t seem to work? What happens when those with whom we come into conflict don’t want to talk or resolve differences but want to impose their own ideas onto us in violent ways? How do we get those people to listen to us? How do we reason with them? Enter Peter Brady and the Brady Bunch episode, “A Fistful of Reasons.”

Continue reading Bullies, Lisping Babies and Timid Chickens: Peter Brady and the Limits of Reason

What is Troublemaking?

Troublemaking is an approach to looking at and acting in the world.
Troublemaking is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of practices.
Troublemaking is thinking critically all the time.
Troublemaking is the willingness to challenge the status quo.
Troublemaking is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced.
Troublemaking is not only destructive but productive.
Troublemaking is asking questions and being curious.
Troublemaking is about pushing at the limits of our most sure ways of knowing.

Troublemaking is dangerous.
Troublemaking is creative.
Troublemaking is virtuous.
Troublemaking is needed.

Over the past few years I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the value of troublemaking for individuals and communities who are engaged in ethical, political, personal, theoretical projects of social transformation. I have studied it, written about it and taught it in undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Minnesota.

Troublemaking (as a wide range of practices, an attitude, a virtue) is a compelling way to organize my feminist and queer thinking about the world. When I reflect on what moves me (as a writer, as a scholar, as a thinker, as a critic, as a person), I am perpetually drawn to the idea of troublemaking.

Before saying anything more, I must admit that my thinking about troublemaking is inspired by Judith Butler (Yes, I am a big fan who has read almost everything she has ever written). I first read Gender Trouble as a graduate student in Claremont, California in 1996. And, like many others, I was deeply moved and changed forever. But, what moved me about her work were not simply her ideas about troubling gender or about performativity. What moved me about her work was the attention and value she gave to troublemaking as an important way of living.

In the preface to Gender Trouble, she writes, “…trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it” (vii).

  • But, what would it mean to embrace trouble? To develop strategies for making it and being in it in ways that could produce compelling and potentially transformative ideas and actions?
  • What would it mean to take troublemaking seriously—as an important way of living life? As an object/subject of analysis? As a virtue that guides our moral and ethical practices?
  • What would it mean to encourage the troublemaker and troublemaking within us—to listen to the voice that tells us that something isn’t right and that demands that we challenge the ideas that are being forced upon us? To refuse to merely accept what we are told without question or careful consideration? To perpetually ask why things are the way that are and who benefits from them being so? And, most importantly, always to think and reflect on our lives and our actions and relationships to others?