Monday, October 16, 2017

Marcia Brady: Trailblazer

We don’t discuss current events in this blog, except when they have some relation to the shows covered here. I have always ascertained that classic TV – even those series that are deemed the most simplistic by our ‘sophisticated’ modern standards, can do more than just provide 30 or 60 minutes of entertaining diversion. They teach us something about the times in which they were made – and might even teach us something about the times we live in now.

Case in point: you may have heard the news that the Boy Scouts are opening their membership to girls.

Ten years ago that announcement would have generated prominent national headlines and days of cable news debates. Today, with our culture undergoing so many seismic shifts away from bedrock standards once taken for granted, it’s a development that barely registers more than a collective shrug, even from those who can’t make sense of the world anymore.

Of course when I heard the news, my thoughts went to a season two episode of The Brady Bunch that tackled this very issue. 

“The Liberation of Marcia Brady” opens with Marcia and her friends answering questions about the women’s liberation movement from a TV reporter. “If we’re all supposed to be created equal, I guess that means girls as well as boys,” Marcia says, a sentiment that makes perfect sense then and now. Then she talks about how her brothers put her down sometimes just because she’s a girl – “and it’s not fair!” 

When the interview airs, the reaction of said brothers is about what you’d expect. Greg’s review: “First time my sister gets on TV and she sounds like a kook.” 

Marcia, determined to take a stand, shows up at Greg’s ‘Frontier Scouts’ meeting and asks to join. 

Everyone there is stunned, including Mike Brady, one of the troop’s leaders. Surely this can’t actually happen, but when the Frontier Scout handbook is reviewed no one can find a rule refusing membership to girls: “I’m afraid we just always assumed it was for boys.”

Greg wants to show her how silly she looks, so he sets out to join Marcia’s club, the Sunflower Girls – but he’s one year too old, so Peter is coerced into the job. The boys expect Marcia to be appalled, but instead she’s delighted: “Peter, at least you see my point,” she says. 

That sets up the episode’s most memorable scene, in which Sunflower Girl Peter tries to sell cookies door-to-door. Meanwhile, Marcia struggles mightily but just manages to meet the Frontier Scout field initiation requirements, from making fire to following a marked trail through the woods. 

But when it’s time for the initiation, Marcia decides not to go through with the ceremony. “I just wanted to prove I could do it,” she tells her dad, before asking Mom if the new fashion magazines came in.

“The Liberation of Marcia Brady” aired just six months after Mary Richards first walked into the WJM newsroom. It’s one of the show’s better episodes, I think, providing some still-funny moments and a look at how the early stages of feminism and the women’s movement were being discussed in the average American household. Barriers were being shattered everywhere on TV, just as they were in the real world. 

Times have indeed changed in the 46 years since this episode; so much so, in fact, that a modern audience might mistake the message for one more prominent in the times we live in now – that everyone should be allowed to do everything on their terms, regardless of any preexisting criterion.

Marcia’s contention was that women should have the same opportunities if they have the requisite skills. She used the Frontier Scouts to prove that point. Someone watching the episode today might think the episode argues that girls can and should be Boy Scouts, especially in light of that organization’s new policy change.

To me that suggests becoming a Girl Scout is a consolation prize for not being able to be a Boy Scout. I don’t think that’s true, and neither do the Girl Scouts, who released a statement to that effect.

The phrase ‘separate but equal’ has been forever tainted by its association with school segregation in the 1960s, where no such equality existed. But here, if equal truly means equal, it should not be discarded altogether.

Yes, Marcia can be a Frontier Scout, but that was never her preference. As a Sunflower Girl she can spend time with her friends and talk about topics they have in common. We’re all like this. We seek out the company of like-minded groups with similar backgrounds and interests, through a church or a community organization or even on Facebook. There is nothing wrong with this, though the culture is now sending a different message. 

We live in perplexing times. Occasionally, we can lean on the simplicity and sincerity of television shows from the past to help navigate them safely. 


  1. It's funny you should mention this episode in light of what a book of mine, TELEVISION COMEDY SERIES, states about it. After giving a brief summary, it states in brackets: This episode is not run by many stations due to its stereotyping of women.
    I didn't remember this episode at the time that I first saw this book, so I wondered what kind of strange things must've happened in it. Then I saw it again and remembered about Marcia with a group of boy scouts (in a way). Aside from this book, I've never heard of a BRADY BUNCH episode being "banned" like this.

    1. That's bizarre- but nothing like this surprises me anymore.