If ever there was an overtly ideological depiction of the deeply stratified and hierarchical society of the United States, it was in the person of the live-in servant among the cast of extremely affluent characters in The Brady Bunch.
This family was formulated to depict a caricature of “middle America” to an audience who were, in the reality of 1960s economy, far below the income level of this TV family. I say ‘caricature’ because the depiction did not precisely match the facts of what it meant to be “middle class”. But, despite their evident great wealth, the Brady family displayed common tastes, drove a common station wagon, ate common foods, and wore common clothes — all towards showing they were “regular folk”. They didn’t put themselves above the audience by making ostentatious (and hierarchical) displays of their obvious wealth.
The reason for this isn’t a mystery, though. We can ignore the “facts” if the depiction reads like a promise that we, the audience, can have everything they have and in having that be just like them. People like to see themselves in their entertainment. Keeping an audience means selling to an audience. Coincidentally, the items for sale in the commercials were the same items enjoyed in the background of the weekly drama.
Like most American families, the Brady’s employed a live-in servant named Alice. Well, no, not like most American families; perhaps that was merely the aspiration of all American families. Which raises an interesting problem, just now while I’m thinking of it: If everyone wants a low wage, long-suffering servant, who is left to be a low wage, long-suffering servant? That’s a digression. The servant of the Brady family was, I think, meant to be depicted in as genderless and non-controversial a way as was practically possible. We will see why shortly.
The character of Alice the servant was created to be tireless and long-suffering in a way that most people are not — nor should be, I think. This character was for the audience (and so for the advertisers) an ideological hook: Since Alice was depicted as being a willing and enthusiastic participant, and since the family made a show of treating her as a friend (if pet-like), a liberal-minded audience might feel no conflict liking this depiction of a liberal and affluent family. This was a depiction of a family who, it must be said clearly, nevertheless employed someone who had few other options but to work as a servant and who would never be able to participate in the affluence of her employer.
And Alice was white.
Alice was not the overweight and large-breasted “mammy” of her black predecessors typically and regularly depicted in cinema. But she was certainly given over to maternal and nonthreatening displays to her white masters (and their brood) and, more often than not, while making a show of being utterly fair in her dealings, took the side of her female master over the male. In this way, she provided the perfect object to both liberal and conservative viewers. This servant could neutralize criticism of her depicted station just by being white — this made it safe, as I mentioned, to side with the liberal Brady family — and she was a ready-made, propagandistic, racial object lesson for those who would use her in the aftermath of the civil rights era to say, “you see, that white woman accepts her place, why can’t you?”
The Brady’s were depicted as a family who functioned fully and seamlessly in a technological society. They were the very personification of everything regarded as simultaneously contemporary and Modern, with all of the connotations that those two words evoke. Alice provided a bridge between a liberal audience, who wanted to enjoy the status quo of privilege and the promise of affluence; and a conservative audience, who didn’t want to observe black people living among whites in a contemporary setting but wanted nevertheless to celebrate hierarchy in society.
The question we should ask about Alice and The Brady Bunch is not whether it is “okay” that she was a white woman simply repeating the performance of a long and tawdry and degrading role automatically assigned to black women in cinema, but why the servant character was even necessary in a weekly television drama ostensibly about the life of a middle class family? We should also ask why no one seems to notice this.
I thought that maybe I’d never see a serious invocation of that image again, either in print or cinema. It’s the twenty-first century, after all. It’s a tired and obvious theme upholding a clearly racist (and class-centered) ideology. I say ‘I’d never see…again’, except of course, there she is in The Matrix (The anonymous Oracle, baking cookies for white consumption), in Ghost (Oda Mae), and in Deadwood (Aunt Lou). So, in fact, screenwriters are still making robust use of this tiresome depiction. The stereotypical mammy––the long-suffering and matronly black servant––is just too beloved and seductive to white authors and white audiences.
Add to cinema the patronizing examples used in the pulpit and in devotional literature. Surely, you might think, contemporary, divinity educated clergy would have a well-developed sense for avoiding depictions of the old degradations. Anglican Preston Yancey disproved that tidy theory in March of 2013 with ‘when father God is a black woman in my kitchen’