Half-pint, the troublemaker

gilbert_lA week or so ago I mentioned that I had stumbled across a Little House on the Prairie episode called Troublemaker. Laura Ingalls (aka Half-pint) is wrongly accused of being a juvenile delinquent and is, gasp, expelled. Well, I just got it in the mail (from Netflix, of course) on Saturday and am planning to watch it today.

While I did read (and loved) all of the Little House books and I did watch the television series (well, not the last season or so when Mrs. Oleson lost her money and they all had to move away from the town. Am I remembering that right?), I was never as big of a fan of The Ingalls family as I was of the Brady Bunch. It is true that “Pa, I can’t see!” is a regular part of my lexicon and Albert and his brush with morphine addiction comes up sometimes in my conversations with STA. But, when I think back on my years (and I mean years) of intense television viewing as a kid/teenager/college student, Little House was never a big deal. Mabye it should have been.

When I came across “Troublemaker” I was immediately intrigued. Of course, Laura is the tomboy who is not afraid to speak her mind and who resists the feminine rules/regulations that are imposed on her. She is also the instigator who fights against the capitalist machinery (aka Nellie Oleson). And, she is someone who is curious about the world–a little scholar-in-training. All of these things indicate that she makes trouble and is in for some trouble. She refuses to accept her assigned status and she is willing to challenge those with power and privilege (her nemesis fluctuates between Nellie Oleson and her mom Mrs. Oleson, part of the richest and most powerful family in town). Therefore, she must be punished–occasionally or frequently–by being ridiculed, ostracized, shamed and dismissed as nothing but trouble. Looks like this episode will focus on Half-pint as the juvenile delinquent (more on this once I watch the episode).

little_house_big_woodsThis episode is not the only reason that I am intrigued by Little House on the Prairie. Last night, when I was randomly browsing some online journals (yes, I do that and I am proud of it!), I stumbled across an article in Frontiers entitled “Civilization and her Discontents: The Unsettling Nature of Ma in Little House in the Big Woods.” Who knew that there was so much to say about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her troubling relationship with Ma? Who knew that all of this could be connected to the tension between wilderness and progress/domestication and industrialization and the destabilizing of the frontier/Manifest Destiny ethos in late 1800s/early 1900s U.S? Who knew that so many feminists had written about this series of books? Well, maybe I should have known….

imagesAnd, to top it all off, Little House on the Prairie, The Musical (starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma!) is coming to the Ordway here in St. Paul this fall. The universe is trying to tell me something–I must watch (and perhaps embrace?) Little House on the Prairie! And I must reread the books series! It looks like I must also never, ever sleep again. Sigh…I mean, yawn.

Mike and Carol Brady are the worst parents in the history of the world, part II.

Brady-Bunch-from-Stuck-in-the-70s-702715Upon further consideration, I have decided that perhaps Mike and Carol Brady are not the worst parents in the history of the world. But, they are bad. The “family values” that they try to instill in the Brady 6 (does anyone else use this term to describe the Brady mafia…I mean gang…I mean darling children?) are downright disturbing if you stop and actually think critically about them. Let’s trouble the Brady family values together, shall we?

It seems to be a given that The Brady Bunch is a show that reflects and encourages traditional family values. Really? I have heard this so often that I found myself wondering, Who actually claims this? A quick google search yielded this result. The Museum of Broadcast Communication (MBC) writes:

In an era in which situation comedies emphasized how social climes were changing, The Brady Bunch was one of the few series that hearkened back to the traditional family values seen in such sitcoms as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

So, if this is the case and The Brady Bunch really does reflect traditional family values, what does that mean? According to the MBC, traditional family values include ignorance as innocence, a refusal to address changing social climes, and hypocrisy.

Unlike All in the Family or even Julia, The Brady Bunch tried to steer clear of the political and social issues of the day. Rarely were non-white characters introduced into the series. Women’s liberation and gender equality were boiled down to brother-sister in-fighting. The counterculture of the 1960s was represented in random minor characters portrayed as buffoons–or in Greg trying to impress a girl with hippie jargon.The representation of childhood in the series as a time of blissful innocence was in marked contrast to what was happening off camera. Many of the boys and girls playing the Brady children dated each other secretly, making out in their trailers or in the doghouse of the Brady’s pet, Tiger. Oldest boy Barry Williams attempted to date Florence Henderson and filmed at least one episode while high on marijuana. All these incidents (as well as Robert Reed’s homosexuality) occurred behind closed doors, coming to light only a decade after the series originally aired.

Mimi Marinucci, who has written an excellent article, “Television, Generation X, and Third-wave Feminism: A Contextual Analysis of the Brady Bunch,” offers one more family value to the list: sexism repackaged as equality. She writes: “Because the sexist messages of The Brady Bunch were often hidden beneath an egalitarian facade, however, our dismissive attitude left us vulnerable to the show’s subtly sexist subtext” (512). Marinucci’s analysis of the show (and Gen X’s/3rd wave feminists’ irony and sarcasm) is helpful in providing a deeper look at The Brady Bunch that includes more than the simplistic notion that the Bradys ignored social issues and presented family life as wholesome, white, and insular (which is the charge that the MBC is leveling against it).

Here is my take on all of this: The family values that Mike and Carol live by are not merely bad because they are hopelessly naive, outdated or disingenuous. They are bad because they help foster a world view that is unjust. They encourage kids to gang up on each other or at least look the other way when the kids are “othering” each other. They equate truth telling and honesty with tattling and squealing. They discourage personal achievement and individuality by teaching kids that being good at something leads to selfishness, becoming too-full-of-yourself, and disloyalty. And, most troubling for me, they have created a family that demands conformity, uniformity, and togetherness and that shames and ostracizes any family member that dares to think different/ly (an Apple family this is not).  It is because of their promotion of these family values that Mike and Carol are bad (as in not good, not just, not morally/ethically responsible) parents.

Now, don’t worry, I have much more to say about these values and the Bradys. Look for future entries on the joys of conformity and group think (Jan, the only child), how getting along is more important than ensuring that everyone is treated justly (Kitty Carry-All is missing), why being the star only leads to a big head and sisters and brothers who don’t like you (Juliet is the Sun), and how privacy and the desire for a “room of one’s own” smacks of disloyalty (Jan, the only child). Okay, this is too much fun. I love critically dissecting the Bradys (almost as much as I love watching the show).

The trouble with Alice

brady1A couple of years ago, STA and I had a great conversation on a long car trip about Carol and Alice. Why were both of these women necessary? What was their relationship like? What exactly did Carol Brady do during the day when Alice was cooking and cleaning and going to the butcher? Was Alice considered a member of the family? When did she ever get a break? Did they really need her with Carol around? Was she ever going to marry Sam?

I remember watching the two different episodes in which Alice feels like she isn’t needed or wanted anymore and decides that she has to leave. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from the first season, Alice feels that she has been replaced by new Mom, Carol. And in Goodbye, Alice, Hello from the fourth season, Alice thinks that the kids don’t like her and don’t want her around anymore. Instead of telling the family that she feels unwanted, she makes up some lame excuse about an Aunt in Sacramento/Seattle who is sick (in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and an Uncle who has a great business opportunity for her (in Goodbye, Alice, Hello). I remember thinking, wow, aren’t you just a little too sensitive. Nobody said you weren’t needed. And who cares if the kids like you or not?

Now watching them again with a deeper critical awareness of feminism, the difficulties of caregiving and domestic work, and the politics of family and kinship configurations, I see these episodes very differently. Alice is not being too sensitive. She is not overreacting. She does not need to get over herself (I am sure at some point my younger self must have thought that she should do just that). No, Alice’s reaction and response to thinking and feeling that she was no longer needed was justified. It doesn’t demonstrate that she is overly sensitive and too invested in a family that isn’t hers. Instead, it reflects the tenuous and very difficult position she occupies as the paid caregiver who functions unofficially and invisibly as the Bradys’ other mother.

In almost every episode Alice is represented as the loving (often laughable, arguably queer) housekeeper who is more than a maid; she is an honorary family member. She goes on all of their trips–even their honeymoon! Never mind that she goes along to work (watch the kids, fetch the water for the campsite, walk Tiger the dog). But, even as the Brady family seems to think of her as part of the family, this is not really the case. She is just the hired help.

While Carol might consider her a friend and a confidante, she is not above pulling rank with Alice and demanding that she do something (like in Goodbye, Alice, Hello, when she forces Alice to tell her who broke the lamp. The implied message is that Alice better tell Carol or she will be fired). And while Mike may act as if he respects and values her loyal service, he jokingly links her position as servant/maid with slavery and then laments the fact that he can no longer force her to do his bidding because of Abraham Lincoln. What about the kids? Sure they love her and think of her as a friend (and as comic relief), but they also make sure she knows who has the power in the family (like when Cindy’s secret admirer comes over for their “date.” As she walks by Alice in the kitchen, Cindy commands her to bring them some refreshments).

Alice’s position as a part of the family is tenuous because she is being paid to be there. She is not an equal member. She is an employee with 8 bosses. If she makes a mistake or disobeys the rules, she won’t be reprimanded or given a time out, she will be fired. She will lose her livelihood and her benefits and her living quarters (which, true to form, are right off of the kitchen). Alice’s position is also tenuous because she has no real claim on any of the family members. Sure she has taken care of Bobby his whole life, but if she is fired she can’t demand to be allowed to have a relationship with him. She has been a mother to the kids (and a sexless wife/secretary to Mike) but she has no rights or legal claim to that position. Lucky for her that she is white and a legal citizen of the U.S. Otherwise her position as domestic worker would be even more tenuous. For more on this, see here and here.

Alice’s position is difficult because the kind of work she is doing–cooking, cleaning, drying off tears, counseling heartbroken Marcia, building up Jan’s self-esteem, contending with Greg’s often failed performances of (hyper) masculinity—is not really considered work. Taking care of others is invisible work that is done by individuals (mostly women) who are invisible as workers. Folding the sheets and watching the kids? That’s not work, that’s just what women do while men go to the office and design powder puff buildings for BeeBee Gallini.

Feminist theorists have written a lot (and I mean a lot!) about the undervaluing of “women’s” caregiving as work. But, this isn’t just a problem for housewives who aren’t appreciated for all that they do around the house. This is a problem for the invisible nannies, maids, domestic workers, and servants that actually get paid to do the housework (see this article for a discussion of the moral dilemma that nannies create for femnists). Could the fact that Alice not only recognized but felt (on a daily basis) her tenuous and undervalued position as (secondary in status but primary in actual care) caregiver to the Brady kids and Mike been the reason she reacted so strongly and dramatically in both episodes?

There is (yet) another approach to take on this issue of Alice and her trouble (that is, her tenuous position). While Alice is officially only the paid housekeeper, she is effectively (but without recognition) a second mother to the Brady kids. The trouble with being the second mother is that people just don’t have two mothers. That scenario is not part of the happy heterosexual and patriarchal nuclear family with its one father, one mother and multiple kids. So, her role as a primary caregiver who mothers the children must remain unrecognized (in J Butler speak it is unintelligible within dominant discourse).

But, wait, the trouble is even worse than not being recognized. The happy heterosexual family as the ideal (and natural) kinship configuration is predicated on the belief that 1 dad, 1 mom, many kids is the only healthy and proper way in which to raise kids. So, any indication that other configurations could work (or, horror of horrors, might actually be better for the kids) must, at all costs, be concealed. For this reason, Alice’s role as another mother (and a successful one at that) must not only go unrecognized (and unvalued), it must also be undercut. Alice might do the majority of caring for the children, but she cannot be understood (or represented within the show) as a mother. There is only room for one mother in the Brady household and that mother is happy heterosexual, Mrs. Carol Brady. Maybe that is why Alice is so sensitive. She’s not fooling herself, she knows that she isn’t really a mother to the Bradys and that the love she receives as a caregiver will only last as long as her paycheck does. Or, maybe that is why Alice is represented as having such a dramatic (and selfish) overreaction in the episodes. When she thinks that the kids don’t like her anymore, she doesn’t tough it out like a “real” mother would (I mean, how many times have your kids told you that they hate you. I stopped counting a long time ago). Instead, she runs away. See, the show seems to be reminding us, she isn’t a real mother. Real mothers tough it out. Real mothers don’t leave.

I would have liked to see them (the producers and writers of the show, the kids, Mike and Carol) recognize and represent Alice as another mother. What kind of radical kinship configuration could this have allowed for? The Brady Bunch was already breaking ground by focusing on a “blended” family and subtly injecting the storylines with second wave feminism. Why not queer it up a little too?

Mike and Carol Brady are the worst parents in the history of the world, part I.

mike-and-carol-brady-the-brady-bunch-4785540-364-4622For my birthday, I received The Brady Bunch Seasons 1, 3, and 4 (I already had Season 2). Originally I was thinking that I didn’t need the 5th season. The whole jumping the shark with Oliver thing, you know. But, after going on TVLand and looking over the episodes (Marcia vs. Greg in the driving test, The Bradys go to the amusement park, Bobby kisses Millicent), I decided I need to get it at some point. Right now I want to focus on making my way through the first 4 seasons. And I plan to write A LOT about the Bradys in the next few weeks.

Now back to the subject of this particular blog: Mike and Carol Brady are the worst parents in the history of the world. Is that a little too harsh? Perhaps, but the more I watch the show, the more umbrage I take with their parenting choices and the more I realize just who is actually doing the parenting in the family: Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby and Cindy. That’s right, the kids parent each other (I have a lot to say about this in connection to Foucault and disciplinary power in future entries).

On the surface, Mike and Carol seem like the perfect parents (okay, maybe not, but it seems like they are supposed to represent the best parents ever). They are beautiful, kind, loving. They hardly ever yell or fight. They do *fun* things with the kids–like taking them on boat cruises, camping, and to Hawaii or acting in films about the Pilgrims or dancing in Hoe Downs with them. Yee Haw! These parents will do anything for their kids…they even take them (and Alice and Tiger and Fluffy) on their honeymoon. Despite all of this evidence in support of Mike and Carol as parents of the year, I can’t shake the feeling that the advice they give is just plain bad (or at least more often bad than good).

So, how and why are Mike and Carol the worst parents in the world? Bad advice. Crazy behavior. Inappropriate comments. And more. Much, much more. As I make my way through the first 4 (and maybe the 5th too!) seasons, I plan to offer a series of entries in which I catalog the countless ways in which Mike and Carol Brady fail to live up to the standard of perfect sitcom parents. Now what, you may ask, does this series of entries have to do with trouble and troublemaking? Maybe I am trying to trouble the representation of family values as the perfect heterosexual/nuclear family with their perfect moral lessons and their pretty family that always loves each other and gets along and resolves their issues in 23 minutes or less. And maybe I am trying to unsettle the idea that parents (especially ones as “beautiful” as Mike and Carol) always have all of the right answers.

Exhibit A: Here is the first among many examples of how Mike and Carol Brady are the worst parents in the history of the world. I am confident that the evidence requires no explanation (okay, I will give an explanation in another entry about Alice and her tenuous position in the family as the housekeeper):

See here at 3:52. In “Alice doesn’t live here anymore” Alice decides to leave because she thinks she is no longer needed. As Mike and Carol are talking it over, Carol mentions how she really wishes Alice wouldn’t leave. Mike says, “Well, we can’t make her stay. Abraham Lincoln put a stop to that.” Really? STA and I both couldn’t believe our ears when Mr. Mike-Father-of-the-year-Brady uttered this gem.

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