So Wrong with The Brady Bunch?
By Kimberly Brittingham
Brady got into serious trouble with Dad's tape recorder. He used it as
a remote eavesdropping device, tucked beneath beds and hidden in laundry
hampers, capturing closed-door confessions and seizing suburban secrets.
But by the end of twenty-two minutes, Peter had learned a lesson in respecting
the privacy of others. And, to demonstrate their faith in him, Mr. and
Mrs. Brady gifted a grateful and humbled Peter with a tape recorder of
his very own.
I was eight years old, watching this particular episode of The Brady
Bunch from one end of a plush pumpkin-colored sofa, my mother seated
on the other. She blew her cigarette smoke abruptly into the air above
her head and spat, "Oh, puh-LEEZ! What parent in their right mind
would give their kid a tape recorder after he went around the house recording
everybody's private conversations? Give me a friggin' break!"
She stood up and left the room in a huff. I heard her squeaky moccasin
soles crossing the kitchen linoleum. She would call one of her three older
siblings and bitch bitterly about one of her three younger siblings until
my stepfather came home from his job search. Then the two of them would
go to the golf club for the free buffet, "while our memberships are
still good." My younger brother and sister would plead, "But
what are we having for dinner?" Inevitably my stepfather would pull
a box of Entenmann's doughnuts out of a brown paper bag and toss it onto
the counter. "Here."
I remember running after them as they pulled on their jackets and headed
for the door. "Mom, Dad, wait. Can I spend the weekend at Elaine
Mackey's house? If you drop me off tomorrow morning, Mrs. Mackey says
she can bring me home Sunday night."
My mother's expression looked soft enough -- or indifferent enough --
that I thought she just might agree, but my stepfather intervened.
"Who do you think you're kiddin'?" he barked. "Another
weekend at a friend's house?" He approached me and thrust a thick,
square, accusatory finger in my face. "You just want to stay over
your friend's houses to get your hands on the free food." He shook
his head. "God dammit, this kid is shrewd."
Flushed with anger and humiliation, I plodded towards my room, contemplating
the meaning of "shrewd," and feeling the guilty weight of a
six-D-battery, Radio Shack tape recorder left running at the bottom of
a laundry hamper, even though there wasn't one.
When I emerged from my room the following morning, I passed my siblings
in the hall, the two of them sitting on the carpet in their superhero
"Ha, ha. Kim can't go to her girl-friennnnnd's," my brother
sing-songed. He passed the back of his hand over his forehead and mockingly
squeaked, "Please, please let me go! You never let me go anywhere!"
My three-year-old sister giggled and chimed in. "Ohhhh Kim, you're
such a Sarah Burr-hawt."
shoved her roughly onto her side and made her cry. "That's not how
you say it, stupid. It's Burr-HART, little miss baby talk!"
On weekday afternoons my mother liked to set up her ironing board in the
living room. I sat watching The Brady Bunch cross-legged on the
floor, perilously close to the T.V. screen inside its dark, hulking, waxy-wood
console. From behind me I could hear the occasional sticky hiss of the
spray-starch can, the steamy exhale of the iron, and my mother's voice,
punctuating the plot with her snide remarks. "Oh, come ON! What parents
sit up in bed at night discussing their kids' problems like that? This
show is ridiculous."
It broke my little heart. Why didn't my mother like the Bradys, this family
I so adored? She seemed to have a special hatred for Mrs. Brady, which
confounded me all the more. After all, they had so much in common. They
were both pretty, young-looking mothers with blond hair and blue eyes;
Mrs. Brady's first name was Carol, and that was my mother's middle name;
and "Hey," I realized aloud. "Mom, you and Mrs. Brady have
both been married before!"
"Shhhhh!" my mother's head snapped up in a panic. "Don't
let your brother and sister hear you say that!"
I was confused. I needed to know why.
"Because they don't know I was married before. You're old enough
to remember your aunts and uncles talking about it, but the younger ones
never have to know. Besides, it was a long time ago. I was very young.
Don't ever say a word about it again!"
Now it's true that once Mike and Carol Brady left their wedding behind
them, they never again spoke of their former spouses, ever. But I couldn't
recall Mrs. Brady hushing up her former marriage in such a wild-eyed panic.
For a time, my mother's annoyance with The Bradys did rub off on me. I
was at an age when I still viewed my mother as wise and all-knowing, intimidating
in stature and awesome in age. I was wondrously impressed that she'd been
alive to witness the introduction of television itself! And I wanted
this superhuman figure to approve of me, like me, even love me -- so I
emulated her. My face contorted with disbelief when Peter defended Cindy's
lisp before the relentlessly teasing Buddy Hinton. After all, the scenario
was so unrealistic. My mother and I both thought it ludicrous when the
Brady kids banded together to win a talent contest; we clucked our tongues
in irritation when they united to scare away a potential buyer for the
Brady house. I snorted at the absurdity of Marcia's bulbous, swollen "football
nose" and Peter's bookish "twin" Arthur. I grew annoyed
with all those gingerly knocks on Dad's study door. After all, how many
Dads had a study, anyway?
wasn't true enough and the hatred didn't last. Deep down, I wanted to
be a Brady. I wanted siblings who, for as much as they relished teasing
me, would stand by me when the going got tough. I wanted parents who took
an active part in my welfare. I wanted to know I could go to my parents
when I was troubled -- with the timid, respectful poking of my head into
their bedroom and a soft "Mom? Dad?" -- and not only get their
undivided attention, but some tender background music, too.
My mother perpetually ironed my stepfather's interview shirts while I
watched the Brady kids each take responsibility for breaking Mom's favorite
vase. They were trying to protect Peter from getting grounded so his weekend
camping trip could go off without a hitch. Suspecting Peter's true guilt,
his parents put him in charge of doling out punishments for his siblings
who'd "confessed." Mr. and Mrs. Brady were gratified but unsurprised
when Peter's conscience won out and he admitted he broke the vase.
Suddenly my mother stopped ironing and lit a cigarette. Shaking out the
flame of her match, she enlightened me -- informing me carefully, succinctly,
and in no uncertain terms, that "Real families don't act that way."
I turned and looked over my shoulder.
"You mean, our family doesn't act that way."
My mother's eyes glossed over with a disconcerting vacancy. No, my parents
never furrowed their brows over coffee, brainstorming together to end
nightmares and calm neuroses. I have a therapist now who gets paid to
These days, I can't pass up a lucky stumble onto a Brady rerun. There's
something about those familiar segue melodies, and the shallow rattle
of the flimsy Danish-modern front door slamming behind a briefcase-bearing
Mike Brady, that feels like home to me. Funny, I never saw a box of Entenmann's
doughnuts under Mike's arm, although he did occasionally come home bearing
tickets to Hawaii. Maybe I'm sensing my mother's voice -- bitter and critical,
weaving itself between the oft-repeated lines and haunting the well-known
plots -- mocking a sense of home.
The Bradys obviously irked my mom, and I'm sure she resented my devotion
to them. I can imagine Carol Brady cocking her head understandingly to
one side, pleading to my mother from beyond the blue glow of the television:
"Please don't hate us because we're functional."
It's true that no family can be Brady Bunch-perfect, and real-life
problems are not solved in tidy half-hour episodes. And sure, I acknowledge
that The Brady Bunch was occasionally far-fetched and silly. Even
Robert Reed, who played the Brady patriarch, was known to object so emphatically
to the absurdity of certain episodes that he'd allegedly stalk off the
set. But was the show all that worthy of my mother's ire? What's so terrible
about The Brady Bunch? More specifically, what's wrong with being
happy and well adjusted? Does the fact that the Bradys were a carefully
scripted, make-believe family necessarily mean they had it wrong?
I have to wonder if society scoffs at the ideal of the Bradys because
collectively, we're so accepting of dysfunction in the home. Some of us
were taught that a harmonious nuclear family is a fairy tale. I think
that's a tragically sad and cynical point of view.
Can negative ninnies like my mother, who raise their families in dark,
sneering realms of impossibility, be taught to embrace the possible? I
was made to feel naïve and foolhardy for believing in The Brady
Bunch. But when I look at the abundant flow of love and respect in
my adult life, I know I'm no fool. A healthy dose of self-generated idealism
has served me well. I refuse to accept that contentment has necessary
limits. I refuse to foster chaos under my own roof. I reject the yammering
of miserable people who criticize healthier examples of living -- whether
real, or as imagined by Sherwood Schwartz.
Maybe they should look to Molly Weber, the quiet, mousy classmate Marcia
Brady took under her wing. Molly didn't believe in anything more for herself
than a drab and dateless life, but Marcia showered Molly in that endless
Brady optimism. And Marcia didn't mislead Molly -- oh, no. Molly learned
that her life could be just as charmed as a Brady's, but she would have
to do the work. Molly willingly went through the rigors of balancing books
on her head, snagging her hair on curlers and hiking her skirts above
the knee. She came to believe in a unique set of possibilities for herself,
and worked towards them. Before the semester drew to a close, Molly had
become a hot ticket -- a '70s teen dream.
Regardless of its glossy television veneer, Molly's story holds a universal
truth. If we all believed in better lives for ourselves and took the appropriate
action, every last one of us could go to the senior banquet on an astronaut's
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