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.

Now in the episode Buddy’s threatening behavior is not that threatening. Sure he punches Peter but the black eye that Peter gets doesn’t seem to cause him any pain and is easily dealt with by Alice; she gives Peter Tiger’s steak dinner to put on his eye and soon enough Peter is fine. Cindy seems sad, but only right after she is teased by Buddy (the episode opens with her tour de force crying performance complete with the burying of her head in her hands, the flinging of herself on the bed and the ever so dramatic wiping away of the tears to hide her pain from her parents). So, if there is some evidence of pain and trauma, it is quickly smoothed over in 23 (yes 23) minutes.

But, even though it is the Brady Bunch and it is a 23 minute sitcom and it takes place in 1970, the strategies that the Brady family comes up with for dealing with bullies are instructive for us as we think about how we (parents, children, communities, concerned citizens) handle the problem of bullies. The strategies that they came up with aren’t so different from our own. Maybe that is why we have such a problem and why so many kids are being left with no choice but to take their own lives.

Take the strategy for dealing with Cindy and her lisp. Mike and Carol’s solution: get rid of the lisp. Get rid of that thing that marks you as different and makes you a target for teasing. Now, this seems fine if it is a speech impediment (or does it? For more on why this is a problem, see this or this) but what if we read the lisp as a signifier of being gay. Should we be encouraging those who are taunted and harassed to assimilate, to get rid of their differences, to hide their sexuality? Is the best solution to just fit in? What tragic consequences might that produce? Furthermore, is there something significant about the fact that the girl (Cindy) is encouraged to resolve the situation by making herself less of a problem and by turning into what others expect of her while the boy (Peter) is encouraged to stand out and up to the problem by bravely distinguishing himself from others?

What about the strategy of shame as Greg and Bobby try to convince Peter to suck it up and fight Buddy like a man? Sure Greg and Bobby are trying to be helpful by encouraging Peter to do something about the threat instead of just sitting back and letting it happen. But, the result of their strategy is that the blame and the responsibility for the bullying and its harmful results is placed squarely on the shoulders of the bullied. In other words, if you are bullied and you don’t do anything about it, it’s your fault. You should have stood up yourself. You should have learned how to deal with conflict; it’s a part of growing up and living in the “real” world. Scan the comment section of many online articles about the anti-gay bullying phenomenon and you can find evidence of this line of reasoning.

These popular strategies place the burden of dealing with a bully on the bullied. Change yourself. Stand up for yourself. Just deal with it. Even calm, cool reasoning requires that the bullied suck it up (put those feelings of rage, fear and hurt aside) and reach out to the bully. But, why do most (or all?) of our strategies for confronting and addressing the bullying problem require that the bullied and not the bully be responsible for solving the problem? And, even more troubling, why don’t our solutions hold more people/institutions/communities accountable for the problem?

In a “Fistful of Reasons,” the problem starts out as one between Cindy and Buddy. Then it becomes a problem between Peter and Buddy. Then it becomes a problem between the Brady parents and the Hinton parents. But, the solution ultimately resides in Peter. He alone must deal with the bully. There is not one point in this episode when anyone stops to think about what the school could do about Buddy’s behavior or about protecting or empowering Cindy or Peter. There is not one point in this episode when anyone stops to think about why this might be a problem for the community and what they should do about it. There is not one point in this episode when anyone stops to think about what institutional strategies are necessary for dealing with the specific forms that bullying takes (based on hatred of sissies, of gays, of non-normative, lisping bodies).

Of course, the Brady Bunch is just a show from the 1970s. And, of course, the episode, “A Fistful of Reasons” must resolve the problem in 23 minutes. So, why should we look to it to address these issues of bullying? It seems to me that the Brady Bunch, for good or bad, does an effective job (sometimes frighteningly so) of reflecting and tapping into the values that many of us implicitly or explicitly live by. It does this in ways that don’t register to us as we sit passively in front of the television. Here is where troublemaking comes in again: Even as we watch and enjoy the glorious, retro-cheesiness that is the Brady Bunch, we should never stop thinking critically about the messages it is sending us or the guidance it is giving us.