Sunday, August 31, 2014

Through An Introvert's Lens: The Brady Bunch

For the previous installment, go here.

"Why even bother?" you might wonder.  When you think of media portrayal of introverts, could a less likely example come to mind?

Sometimes you find introversion, and treatment of introverts, in unexpected places.  And sometimes the examination of lack of introversion can be just as revealing.

First, here's the story.  Six kids, two parents, and a housekeeper, blended together through marriage in 1969, on a sitcom that would last five years.  While Mike and Carol Brady occupied a more central role in the earlier seasons, in later seasons, they would frequently be supporting players to the kids: Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, and Cindy.  Most episodes were surprisingly grounded in real life situations, such as school elections, fundraisers, football games, romantic rivals, school plays, and learning to drive.  That is, when they weren't about cursed Tiki statues, unlikely celebrity cameos, or being a professional pop band.

The Brady kids were together.  Like... always together.  Always in the same place, doing things... together.  They got along freakishly well for six teens and pre-teens who were not all blood relatives, forced to live in a tight space.  As a result, their personalities could sometimes blur... together.  Sure Greg could be unctuous and Marcia could be vain, and Cindy could... do whatever Cindy did.  But their interactions were often infused with a relentless upbeat chirpiness, not exactly what one associates with introversion.

So were there any introverts on The Brady Bunch?  Did the show support any introverted concepts or beliefs?  Let's take a look.

Did The Brady Bunch Have Any Introverts?  Wellll... Maybe, Kinda, Sort of

Again, introverts, in general, tend to have the following traits:
  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention
Does any of that apply to The Brady Bunch characters?

Let's start with the most obvious Brady: Jan, the "neurotic" one.  Jan was quieter than Marcia at least, liked to draw (in one episode anyway), and worried about seemingly deep issues like lack of individuality or identity.  That said, television sketches and the Brady Bunch movies have blown her insecurities waaay out of proportion, turning her into someone mentally imbalanced and unstable.  In truth, the canon Jan Brady was really not that different from the more bubbly Marcia.  She was quieter, but not much.  She would go to her room to brood at some point or other, but so would the other Brady kids.  Jan never seemed to have a problem with being the center of attention, or cared about discussing big ideas.  She is just remembered for being the neurotic one thanks to some noteworthy episodes like "The Not-So-Ugly Duckling," "Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?", and "Her Sister's Shadow."

Meanwhile, Marcia also worried about her looks/popularity/identity (see "Juliet Is the Sun," "Getting Davy Jones," "Today, I Am a Freshman," "The Subject Was Noses") and had moments of espousing big ideas (even if she completely caved in the end... see "The Liberation of Marcia Brady").  Hell, even Bobby, arguably the most amiable of the Bradys, had crises about being too short, his lack of musical talent, and his identity.  All of the Brady kids had identity issues at one time or another.

What you didn't see were episodes where one of the kids wanted to stay home and read a book rather than go to a party, or episodes where any of the kids cared deeply about their grades, or about subjects in school.  The only invention tended to revolve around pranks on each other, such as the (admittedly creative, if wildly implausible) "ghost" in the attic.  Greg showed bursts of creativity as a photographer and song writer, but that was mixed with him being a popular football player and lady's man.  Cindy was quieter than her sisters, but that may have been less because she preferred observing than because she was the damned youngest and wasn't consulted for anything.  So in terms of which of the Brady kids was an introvert... probably none of them.

While some of the kids had traits associated with introverts, such as talent for writing or the arts, they never seemed to be an organic part of their characters.  They seemed to exist because the plot required them, or because it would look good to have them.  Greg was a song writer... then a baseball player... then a football player... then a song writer/budding rock star again (at a time when shows like The Partridge Family were picking up steam).  Jan was in artist... in one or two episodes.  There simply isn't enough evidence that they were introverts in any real sense.
Wait, Jan had glasses.  I stand corrected!

Actually, if there was anyone in the Brady family I think was an introvert, it was Mike.  Mike had his own office that he liked to retreat to in order to do work, sure, but no doubt he also used it as a means of escape.  He always seemed a bit remote and sarcastic, though that could have been Robert Reed's personality seeping through, much the way Christopher Plummer showed his disdain for The Sound of Music in his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp.

As for other introverted characters on The Brady Bunch, the show's treatment is interesting.  On the one hand, you have the time-worn scenario of "nerd girl just needs to remove her glasses and let down her hair, and she'll be a new person" with "My Fair Opponent."  In that one, Molly Weber was not necessarily an introvert, but she fit the frequent stereotype of an introverted person as shy and awkward, with glasses and her hair back in a ponytail (which inspires a memory of this scene).  After Marcia gave her a makeover, she was not only prettier, but her personality suddenly became more outgoing (if not more interesting).

Then there was Harvey Klinger, possibly the only bona fide intellectual to grace Bradydom.  He wore thick glasses and loved bugs with a capital L.  Yet he was also Marcia's first steady boyfriend and someone she was so hot for, she went out of her way to master details about the insect world just to please him.  If Carol and Mike questioned her taste, it was only briefly; mostly, they were active in helping her achieve her goal, and were mainly concerned about Marcia and Harvey getting too serious, too fast.  There was no "Oh Marcia, you should go out with someone more outgoing" or the like.

Similarly, The Brady Bunch mainly treated with respect another nerd and possible introvert, Harold Axlerod in "Juliet Is the Sun."  While it did lightly poke fun at Harold's squeaky voice and awkward demeanor, it also never suggested that Harold was a poor Romeo.  Rather, the show made clear that the problem was Marcia's Juliet, who had grown so conceited, she threatened to ruin the play.  (Seriously Marcia, it's a school play.  Get it together.)  Maybe The Brady Bunch's message was that it's all right to be a bit bookish and reclusive and geeky if you're a man, but if you're female, you need a makeover stat.

But overall, unlike Saved By the Bell, which treated anything introverted with withering disdain, The Brady Bunch didn't punish introverts.  It just kind of, sort of, tended to forget that introverts even existed.

No Space to Be an Introvert

Not only did the show not have many obvious introverts, but it did not even provide much in the way of space to be an introvert.  The Brady boys and girls were each three to a bedroom, which seems painfully cramped for a non-introvert let alone someone who regularly needs space to recharge.  (No wonder Greg and Marcia fought so hard to win the attic.)  If someone needed time alone, the other kids were necessarily inconvenienced, such as in the episode where Greg was trying to write his "hit" song and locked his brothers out of the bedroom, leading them to pound on the door in protest.  Only Mike had a private room to call his own.

I won't even get started on the one bathroom for six kids...

There was not only a lack of space for being alone to think and recharge, but also little time for the Brady kids or Carol to be alone.  When they weren't at their dozens of extracurriculars, they were participating in family ho-downs, Roaring Twenties parties, trips to the amusement park and the Grand Canyon, fairytale theatre in the backyard... you get the idea.  It sounds like a dream for anyone who has always wanted to belong, but if you are the type who needs downtime, it could be a nightmare.  If you lay on the bed to decompress, Carol would probably come in and surmise that you were coming down with something.

Bradys were not permitted to wallow or ponder.  Their problems had to be confronted and solved.  Part of the reason, obviously, was because it would make for more interesting television than if their family just let them be.  But it also shows an intolerance for anyone who would choose to be alone, and a general disbelief that you could choose isolation for healthy, happy reasons, as well as troubling ones.  

But Why?

Why even look that deeply into the reasons?  Well, what else is this blog for?  I would say the reasons were that Sherwood Schwartz, the creator, and his writers knew shit about how to develop characters.  His two most well-known shows, The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, were both peppy and silly, with characters whose personalities were an inch deep.  In fact, the characters on Gilligan's Island made The Brady Bunch characters look like they came out of Breaking Bad.  Gillian was stupid, the Skipper was irascible, the Howells snobs, Ginger pretty, and so on.

But also with The Brady Bunch, Schwartz seemed less interested in the individuals and more interested in the situation.  As recalled imprecisely from Barry Williams's Growing Up Brady (yes, I am that big a fan), Schwartz was most interested in seeing how a blended family got along.  In that sense, the individuals involved were less important than the group as a whole.  Never mind that the group results have more impact if we know the individuals.  And never mind that Carol, Mike, and the kids acclimated to their situation at warp speed, to the point where Carol would make comments about Greg as if he were her biological son ("He gets it from my side of the family" and so on).

But most of all, I think Schwartz just wanted to make a fun show.  And much the way incredibly interesting and meaningful computer jobs can't be portrayed on screen in a compelling manner, showing kids reading does not make for good television.  Of course, there are other things he could have done to portray an introvert's life as interesting, but why do that when there's a family sack race to watch?  Adios, Johnny Bravo.


To sum up, how does The Brady Bunch treat introverts?

Number of Introverts: ???

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Depends.  If Mike Brady is an introvert, yes.  If not, no.

Is the Introvert Active?: See above.

How Do the Other Characters Treat the Introvert: If Mike Brady is an introvert, with respect (though his introversion is not emphasized).  If not, treatment of other introverts ranges from "transformation" treatment to respect and even passion.  But mostly introversion is noticeable for its absence in the characters' lives.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Unpopular Opinions

Normally I provide one unpopular opinion and expound at length.  However, the unpopular opinions I have lately are on subjects that are not especially weighty.  That is not to say I couldn't find more to say about them at a future date.  But for now, I give you not one, but five randomly chosen unpopular opinions.

1.  Get off my lawn!  Usually when that expression is used, it is meant to paint the speaker as a crotchety, out-of-touch, inflexible nincompoop who hates the free-flowing awesomeness of young people.  Omigod, how dare this geezer resent young people romping on his lawn?  It's like he cares about respect for other people's possessions or something.  If you worked hard to maintain your property, or something equivalent, why shouldn't you resent the people who make light of, and ruin, your efforts?        

2.  I can't stand Pixar's UP.  People treat this movie like it's the high watermark of cinema.  The first 10 minutes were poignant, but the rest?  The little boy made me want to rupture my eardrums with a pencil.  The "house flown by balloons" could have been so inventive in Miyazaki's hands, but was never used to its potential here.  Instead, it became a standard adventure film, where the bad guys chased the good guys through the jungle.  To show how not-old and still relevant he was, Carl performed physical feats with his walker that gymnasts could not equal.  This would not have bothered me -- it is a cartoon, after all -- if I weren't watching UP with my father, who at a too-young age would never again be able to cross a room without the aid of a walker.
Like he wouldn't break his back having to pull an 
entire house.  Yeesh. 

3.  I never want to hear the words "selfie" or "photobomb" again.  When did taking a picture of yourself, or getting caught in someone else's picture, become such a novelty that it required its own catchword?

4.  No, she is not "the worst." It's become a trend among media critics, and in general, to respond to someone's actions with a sneering "She (or he) is just the worst!"  Whether it's a celebrity who wore the wrong outfit or a character who slept with her best friend's boyfriend, you can count on this critic to mark it with the withering putdown of an eighth grader.  I don't even need to mention why this expression is ridiculous -- the daily newspaper is filled with offenses far worse than anything Marni did on Girls.  But calling someone "the worst" also smacks of laziness.  The critic doesn't need to describe why the characters' actions were wrong.  Just call that character "the worst" and the reader gets the idea.       

Nice try...
5.  I do not find Don Draper sexy.  Love him or hate him, gay or straight, we are supposed to be overcome by his magnetism and his utter beauty, right?  I mean he's attractive, but... eh.  His personality is too loathsome, his outlook too static, for me to ever separate it from his admittedly fine physique.  Then again, I'm a little weird when it comes to what I find attractive.  For instance, I don't think present-day Colin Firth is that sexy, but I do find the real George VI (whom Firth played in The King's Speech) to be quite the looker.

I just said that I don't find Colin Firth sexy?  Now I'm going to get it.

You on the other hand......... *swoon*

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Downton Abbey: To Downton or Not to Downton This Time Around?

By which I mean: should I keep blogging about episodes of this series?

At this point, it doesn't matter: for us luckless Americans, Series Five of Downton Abbey begins in January 2015.  But Downton will begin airing in the UK and other parts of the world soon, and already promises that earth-shattering changes are on the way.

The year is 1924.  Socialism is on the rise, and the Labour Party runs the country for the first time.  There will be change like never before, and Downton Abbey may not survive!

Pause and consider what you just read.  Does it sound different from what was promised in previous series?

Unprecedented change in the social order?  Check.  Downton may come apart at the seams?  Check.  Downstairs characters reveal a desire for social advancement?  Check.  Lord Grantham sputters with outrage?  Check.  The Dowager Countess has the perfect witticism to capture it all?  Double check.

Each year promises remarkable change, but the greatest upheavals -- Matthew and Sybil's deaths -- were unplanned, thrust upon the show by the actors.  Otherwise, every episode features Downton Abbey and its slow, stately lifestyle, only offering a glimpse of the gritty outer world when Bates gets in trouble for something.  The most socially rebellious character, Tom Branson, has been tamed into an agreeable house pet.  The most disgruntled downstairs resident, Thomas, has been a soldier and a businessman, but always ends up a servant.  Daisy has more outs than you can count, yet somehow prefers to remain in the kitchen under the tutelage of Mrs. Patmore.

Upstairs, Mary has boyz... please.  The Dowager is witty, Cora simpering and clueless, and Lord Grantham is offended by the very idea of change.

For Series Three and Four, I wrote a blog post recapping each episode.  This year, I don't have the patience.  It's like watching a ferris wheel turning.  Downton will be pretty and timeless and utterly dull.  I not only don't feel inclined to blog this time around, I'm not even sure that I want to watch.

Then there is Edith's plot line with her bastard daughter and the Gregson disappearance.  That alone could get me to tune in.  But of course, it depends on how Fellowes portrays it.  If he continues to force poor Edith to endure misery upon misery while Mary lives the charmed life, I'll have had it.  Give Edith some victory, Fellowes.  Make us feel like you care about her, even a little.  She is by far the most interesting upstairs character.

So for Edith's sake, I will likely tune in, but I probably won't recap every episode the way I have the last two series.  Since I don't have as much time to blog these days, I don't want every post for a month or two to be about Downton Abbey.  Instead, I may just write an essay or two critiquing Series Five.

Will it be the season of change?  Or more of the same?
The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Monday, August 11, 2014

How I Research My Novel

Still very busy and dealing with some big life changes, blah, blah, blah...

That said, I've been meaning to write a blog post on how I do my research for my Victorian novel, if only because it's a vital part of my writing process, and I'm always interested to see how historical writers approach it.

Many writers declare that research is their favorite part of the process and that writing comes second.  I feel the opposite.  I enjoy research and get excited when I discover new details, but for me, the story is the thing.  I want to harvest enough details to provide a realistic setting.  I don't want to wallow in research books for months on end; rather, research is like an itch that I need to scratch until it disappears.

That said, providing a wholly believable setting for a historical story, especially if the story is broad in scope, can take quite a bit of research.  Reference texts, contemporary novels, newspapers, pamphlets, maps, you name it.  As for where I find them:

1.  University Library.  I'm fortunate in one respect: I'm an alum of a university with one of the best library collections in the world.  For $60 a year, I have full access to all of the libraries, and can therefore hunt through stacks that have scarcely known human beings.  I have cracked open books that have not seen sunlight for at least a decade, judging by their musty odor.  Many of these books are rare, and could easily cost over $100 to purchase, so not only do I have access to them, but I also save money.

2.  Amazon or Other Online Bookseller.  How I learn about these books in the first place is usually through Amazon or Google Books searches, or searches in a similar book search engine.  It's especially nice when I have the opportunity to read snippets of the books to see if they are the type I need.  If they are not available at the library, I order them from an online bookseller.

3.  Google Books.  Another option is to download books from Google.  Often Google will have reference materials that I just can't find elsewhere, especially certain magazines and pamphlets.  For example, one of my characters is a doctor who writes an article for the Lancet.  Google Books contains multiple copies of the Lancet from that time period that I can use for reference.  And best of all, it's often free!     

4.  Historical Newspapers.  This option obviously doesn't apply to everyone, but I have frequented a British newspaper website where, for a certain price, I can access newspaper articles dating back to the 1860s and earlier.  The biggest surprise: learning that the front pages of old newspapers were completely consumed by advertising.

5.  Good Old Wikipedia.  When I want to learn a little background about a subject, I often start here.  While yes, Wikipedia articles need to be taken with a big grain of salt, it is a good resource that has led me to several pertinent books on my subject matter.

And what do I do once I get the books?  I skim through to find valuable information and then proceed to type like mad, almost word for word.  I had over 400 pages of research for the first novel.  Is this a normal way of going about it?  I don't know.  I imagine other researchers underlining and marking passages, maybe taking a few notes on a separate pad.  I like to type out large paragraphs of notes because that is how I end up truly absorbing the passage, feeling the details of the time period.  Then, rather than hunt through the source book to find the passage while I am writing, I just scan my notes.

The research process takes me months and can be exhausting and frustrating, especially when I realize how many questions remain unanswered.  But when I have a breakthrough, it is a wonderful feeling.  Right now, I feel like I'm getting close to being done with the research for my next novel, but I'm not quite there.  I'm starting to see the outlines of the characters' lives, such as where they would live and how much money they would have to live on.  However, I still need to research how they would get around, or how certain illnesses were dealt with back in the day.

Looks like it's time to hit the books once more.      

The above image was taken by Mattox and is royalty free.