I’m still live-tweeting the Brady Bunch

Last night @room34 and I live-tweeted two more Brady Bunch episodes:

Vote for Brady (11)
The Voice of Christmas (12)

Here are some things that were particularly striking (in 2 episodes that weren’t that memorable):

Feminism in “Vote for Brady”

Just a few episodes ago, in “A Clubhouse is Not a Home,” the battle of sexes between Mike/Greg/Peter/Bobby and Carol/Marcia/Jan/Cindy (where does Alice fit into this?) explicitly drew upon feminist language and idea(l)s. In “A Vote for Brady,” the conflict between Greg and Marcia has nothing to do with their gender representations. Greg doesn’t make any claims about being more qualified because he is a boy and Marcia doesn’t argue for equality because she’s a girl. It’s as if all of the conflict and feminist rabble-rousing from “A clubhouse is not a home,” which aired on Oct 31, 1969 (less than two months before “Vote for Brady” aired on Dec 12, 1969), never happened. I’m not really surprised, but I still think it’s worth noting how and when the Brady girls ignore/invoke feminist ideals. Ignoring the feminist ideals of equality, women’s rights and deserving to have and do everything that boys can that she spouted two months earlier, Carol (somewhat passively) encourages Marcia to give up and let Greg win the election:

Religion in the Brady Bunch

In “The Voice of Christmas,” Carol is planning to sing at church on Christmas Day. Everyone is devastated (yes, it’s Brady drama of the highest order!) when she loses her voice. As I was watching the episode I was struck by how rarely church is mentioned on the Brady Bunch. I tweeted:

I’m pretty sure this is the only episode in which they go to church. This makes me curious about how religion gets represented in sitcoms (in the 70s and now). The Bradys are considered by many to be a “family values” family. How does religion fit/fail to fit into their world view and daily practices? In what other ways do they represent their faith or spirituality (my BA is in religion and I’m really interested in how religion gets represented in pop culture and gets constrained by limited/narrow/rigid understandings of faith and spirituality in the family values rhetoric of the Christian right)? I think I might have to make a special note of the Brady’s expressions of faith. For example, do they ever pray before bed? Interesting to note: Cindy is particularly upset by Carol’s inability to sing. Who does she turn to? Santa Claus (not God…no tear-filled prayers for her). I’m pretty sure none of the kids say any prayers for Mom to get her voice back. 

Nellie Oleson: A Troublemaking Bitch

Right now, I’m reading Alison Arngrim’s memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. I randomly came across it on my public library e-catalog and decided it might be fun to read. It came out 2 summers ago, around the same time that another Little House memoir I want to read was published: The Wilder Life. It’s fun to read some of the behind-the-scenes details about mean-girl Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) or Alison Arngrim’s BFF, Melissa Gilbert. But, what really struck me about the book was how Arngrim used it to not only humanize Nellie, but to argue for the value of being a bitch. In reflecting on why she came to love Nellie, she writes:

She transformed me from a shy, abused little girl afraid of her own shadow to the in-your-face, outspoken, world-traveling, politically active, big-mouthed bitch I am today. She taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring, and determined, and, yes, to be down-right sneaky when I needed to be.

Her valuing of bitchiness might be partly a gimmick for selling books, but I was surprised to see how it was informed by her experiences of being bullied and abused (by her brother) and by a critique of gender conformity (she repeatedly discusses her disdain for strict gender rules/roles and mentions her awareness of/connections to transgender folks, like Christine Jorgensen).

Reading this book makes me want to rethink my assessment of half-pint as the only virtuous troublemaker on Little House. Is there room to imagine Nellie Oleson as a troublemaker who challenges the system? Hmmm….maybe if we imagine her role as excessive parody (not sure if I buy it). Now, I want to go back and watch the troublemaker episode again and view it from the anti-hero’s (Nellie’s) perspective.

The Battle of the Sexes, Brady Bunch Style

Last night, STA and I live-tweeted 2 more episodes of The Brady Bunch, Season 1. Here are the tweets archived on Storify:

A Clubhouse is not a Home (6)
Kitty Karry-all is Missing (7)

Both were memorable episodes, introducing some themes that will be repeated again and again…and again throughout all five seasons. For example, the Kitty Carry-all episode is a great illustration of how easily and cruelly the kids turn on each other and how effectively they regulate and discipline each other. As I live-tweet the series, this is one theme that I’m particularly interested in tracking, especially how it relates to the particular brand of family values that the Brady’s practice and promote.

Another important theme is the repeated reference to feminism and feminist principles. “A Clubhouse is not a Home” is the first explicit reference to feminism. They mention the need for equality,


the right to fair treatment for girls/women

and the girls even protest their unequal treatment with picket signs.


Wow. I’m not sure what they’re doing with feminism in this episode (well, I think I know, but…)


I want to revisit Mimi Marinucci’s great article on the Brady Bunch, “Television, Generation X, and Third Wave Feminism: A Contextual Analysis of the Brady Bunch” in order to put their mention of feminism in this episode into the larger context of the entire series and its relationship to 1970s culture. Briefly, here’s Marinucci’s summary of the episode:

In a very early episode, the Brady girls demand equal access to the Brady boys’ clubhouse (‘‘A Clubhouse Is Not a Home’’). When Mike and the boys exclude them, Carol decides that the girls should begin building a clubhouse of their own. The point, however, is not actually to build a clubhouse, but to do such a poor job that Mike and the boys will take pity and build it for them. The scheme works, and Mike sends the girls to fetch lemonade while he and the boys get to work.

What she seems to be getting at with her description is that, even as The Brady Bunch draws upon feminist principles/slogans, it does so in a way that undercuts them. The girls will try anything to get access to their own space; they’ll spout “feminist principles” that they don’t really believe in or understand or pretend to be incompetent in order to trick the boys into doing the work for them. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmm…not sure, yet.

Is Marcia Brady guilty of acting badly* or badly acting or both?

*Thanks to STA for pointing out this witty reversal. Originally I had titled this post, “Is Marcia Brady guilty of hubris or bad acting or both?”

293.mccormick.maureen.lc.101308Do you remember the episode of The Brady Bunch where Marcia is cast, against her will, as Juliet in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet? She auditions for the role of the nurse but does such a “good” job that the drama teacher wants her to be Juliet. When she tells her family that she just doesn’t think that she is “the Juliet type” they hatch a scheme to convince her that she is worthy of the part. They repeatedly tell her she is pretty and smart and talented. Creepy moment alert: Greg even tells her that she is “a real groovy chick…for a sister, that is.” The plan works, but too well. Marcia becomes full of herself and begins to think that she is better than everyone else. When she argues with her parents about changing Shakespeare’s words, Mike remarks: “First the part’s a little too big for her. Now I think maybe she’s a little bit too big for the part.” Woah….Mr. Brady is deep. After she causes more trouble (yes, this is the word that is used to describe her actions)–like ridiculing her Romeo and talking back to the drama teacher–Carol decides that drastic measures must be taken. Without consulting Marcia (or even having any serious or lengthy conversation with her about why she was causing/being trouble), Carol and the drama teacher kick Marcia out of the play. Bad acting alert: Although it would be very easy to argue that Maureen McCormick’s acting is terrible throughout this episode, the piece de resistance comes at 22 minutes and 24 seconds when Carol reveals to Marcia that her name isn’t in the final program. Wow!

51KKRXXJW2L._SS500_There is much that I could write about this episode (such as: Alice revealing that she went to an all girls school and performed–in drag!–as Julius Caesar). Well, I might just have to write about that later. But, in this post, I want to think about Marcia’s behavior, the Brady family’s scheme to build up her self-esteem and the troubling consequences of that scheme. And, I want to think about of this in relation to virtue ethics, moral education and Mike’s and Carol’s continued efforts to earn “the worst parents in the history of the world” award.

Nice. So, Marcia doesn’t want to be Juliet. Instead, she is happy to be cast as the nurse. Or, is she? According to Mike and Carol, she really wants to be the star, the beautiful and noble Juliet; she just doesn’t have enough self-esteem. She can’t see herself the way others do: as a “real groovy chick.”

Mike: You look beautiful and noble to me.
Carol: The trouble is, you don’t think you are.
Mike: That’s right. It’s your belief in yourself that counts, you know. You are what you think you are.
Marcia: You mean, if I think I’m beautiful and noble than I will be beautiful and noble.
Mike: That’s right. If you believe it, everybody will believe it too!

Ah ha! The trouble is that Marcia has a low opinion of herself (of course it couldn’t be that she actually wanted the role of the nurse–a pivotal and interesting, yet less glamorous role). What she needs, according to Mike and Carol is “the power of positive thinking!” That will get rid of her troubles! But when she starts thinking positively, more–and perhaps more serious–trouble is the result. She begins not only to believe in herself but to believe that she is the best; she is noble with an elevated status that makes her better than everyone else. She demonstrates this through shameful acts of hubris (and yes,  she acts badly…and badly acts).

But, what really has caused this hubris? Here is a series of related questions that trouble me:

  • Is her hubris the result of an excessive display of pride/a deficient display of humility?
  • Or, is it the necessary (and logical) result of the Brady family’s approach to building up her self-esteem?
  • If there are some bad actions (and bad acting too!) in this episode, who is doing them? Is it really Marcia, who is following the advice of her parents to truly believe that she is noble and beautiful?
  • Or is it Mike who encourages her to be beautiful and noble but equates that with being a star and thinking (too) highly of herself and fails to give her any substantial definitions of beauty that are counter to societal standards? (Standards that are often driven by capitalism and our role as consumers. And that discourage girls from ever thinking that they are beautiful enough. After all, if you think you are beautiful, you wouldn’t ever need to buy any products right?)
  • Or Carol who promotes a decidedly superficial vision of “the power of positive thinking” that is not connected to any underlying ethic or understanding of how our positive (and negative) thinking has real just and/or unjust effects on others.

I suppose you know where I am going with this. Yes, Marcia does act badly. And yes, she does badly act. But, it is Mike and Carol who really act badly in this episode. The moral education that they offer to Marcia (and by extension, to us) is just plain bad. Marcia is encouraged to think positively about herself, but she is never given any guidance about how exactly to do that. Mike and Carol want her to build up her character, to make it (and her) more beautiful and noble. They don’t, however, give her any guidance on how to make her character virtuous. That is, they give her no strategies/skills/advice for what kinds of actions she should engage in.  And they fail to support their advice with any underlying moral vision or ethical system that could guide (or temper or foster) that positive thinking.

When Carol Brady praises Marcia’s new found belief in herself (at the beginning of Marcia’s diva period) as “the power of positive thinking,” she is referencing a very watered-down, overly simplified, faithless, pop psychology version of Norman Vincent Peale’s wildly popular self-help book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Carol’s advice seems to fit this equation: Power of Positive Thinking – ethical vision or virtue ethics = Marcia-as-major-diva.

While I was searching for an image of Marcia to use for this post, I came across an entry entitled, “The Hubris of Marcia Brady” on The Brady Bunch Blog. For a different take on Marcia, check it out.

Michael Jackson, the 1970s version (pre-MTV, pre-surgery, pre-loss of hope, pre-spectacle)

So I am a little late (as usual) in commenting on the very sad death of Michael Jackson a couple of weeks ago. I never expected to write anything about it. What could I say about this that hasn’t already been said? What could his death/his tragic decline have to do with making and staying in trouble? Not much when you think about trouble as a positive, virtuous and potentially transformative attitude or set of practices. But, I do see a connection between Michael Jackson’s increasingly disturbing behavior and one common (and primarily negative) way of understanding trouble. For lack of a more clever way of putting it, Michael Jackson was troubled (in a worried, disturbed state) and his behavior/lifestyle/body/what he seemed to represent was troubling (worrisome, problematic, not quite right) to us.

There are all sorts of ways in which Jackson remains troubling to many of us–his family life, his behavior, his body–all raise questions for us: Just how many plastic surgeries can one body have? What kind of father could he possibly be? Why won’t he ever grow up? But, these questions don’t get at why I am (and have been for a while) troubled by Michael Jackson. For me, the most troubling set of questions revolve around this: What happened? What happened to him, and, more importantly, what has happened to us? What was lost when Michael went from a talented dancer and musician to a MTV spectacle and tabloid freak? And, what does this loss signify?

In their reflection on Jackson, k-punk laments the disturbing shift in Jackson (as musician, as person, as body, as image) from Off the Wall to Thriller. Jackson the wide-eyed, youthful, hopeful, happy, exuberant body in motion in the throes of disco-era Off the Wall becomes transformed (or distorted?) into the living dead, hyper-commodity, MTV staple, tabloid spectacle brought on by the enormous success of Thriller. While k-punk is disturbed by the juxtaposition of the images of Off-the-Wall Michael with Thriller Michael, there is an earlier image of Michael that has haunted me for several years now.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.
spoken: I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

In 1974 Jackson appeared on the ABC television special, Free to be…you and me. Singing with Roberta Flack on “When We Grow Up,” Jackson is sweet and funny and, most importantly, full of life and hope. For me, this song captures the (perhaps naive) hope and promise that some (but definitely not all) 1970s social justice movements against racism and sexism often exuded. When I watch Free to be…you and me I am always amazed at its hopeful and anti-cynical belief that anything was possible, that the freedom to be and love and do what you want was waiting for all of us if we just worked together as “Brothers and Sisters.”

Many may argue that this belief in the possibilities of a better (read: more just, more “free”) world is too naive and uncritical. Indeed, the hope represented in this special and in Jackson’s song with Flack do seem a bit too pollyannaish and ignore-ant (yes, I just made up my own word: to ignore + to be unaware = ignore-ant) of the real things that get in the way of a better present and future. But, is this the only way to think of hope and possibility? Can we be hopeful and troubled/troubling/willing to trouble at the same time? For me, one of the real tragedies that Jackson’s shift from 1974 Michael (the year I was born) to 2009 Michael is the replacement of all hope and possibility with ironic distance and cynicism. Is it really an either/or situation here? Must we either have uncritical and naive hope or realistic and thoughtful cynicism? Can’t we be both hopeful and critical, aware of injustice but still willing to believe that better futures are possible? And, is the progression of our lives (much like Jackson’s) a gradual move from hopefulness to hopelessness, from innocence to bitterness or freakishness?

What other visions of hope can we imagine/express/believe in? The prophetic pragmatism and tragic-comic hope of Cornel West or the visionary pragmatism of Patricia Hill Collins are good places to start…