Before Ellen There Was Alice

I can't remember the first time I watched The Brady Bunch, but it was definitely before the airing of 1988's A Very Brady Christmas. It's one of those classic Americana sitcoms that pushed the envelope only as far as 1969 would allow: not only did Carol and Mike sleep in the same bed, but it's inferred (through omission) that Carol's first marriage ended in divorce. Perhaps the executives felt Peoria wouldn't accept a woman that abandoned her husband; at least Mr. Brady's wife had the moral decency to simply die on him. It's ironic to think of divorce as too unwholesome for the Bradys' image, considering nearly half its audience had divorced parents by the time the show was cancelled. Imagine how that might have helped heal the psyche of  young viewers to see a maternal icon like Carol Brady bounce back from divorce? They were a modern family tackling the social challenges of the day, but when I think of the strong fiber holding this family together, it's sky-blue and belongs to none other than Alice Nelson: housekeeper, confidant, and closet lesbian.

"Now why didn't I think of this design?" —Mike Brady, every night.

"Now why didn't I think of this design?" —Mike Brady, every night.

When Ann B. Davis died in 2014, the outpouring of grief was palpable. Davis first entertained America as "Schultzy" on The Bob Cummings Show, and her sparkly eyes, quirky ticks, and comedic timing would return to TV a decade later as our lovable Alice. My sisters and I started watching the show after school, along with Diff'rent StrokesFacts of LifeWhat's Happening!!Three's Company, etc. By today's standards most of the shows of the '70s and '80s appear to be on par with say, Leave it to Beaver or Green Acres, and even though my sisters and I were plenty familiar with R-rated movies (our family had the WHT/HBO box), we still had a lot of love for The Brady Bunch, Alice being my favorite. As a queer woman this hardly makes me unique; we usually identify with characters known as "The Other."

While there are far more erudite explanations of this, I'll attempt one: Most of western history is documented through the eyes of wealthy, white Christian men, and their portrayal of women, gays, people of color, the poor, etc., allows them to form a separate, opposing identity for themselves. In other words, these types of men strengthen who they think they are by subjugating and stereotyping these classes of people; why do you think it took so long for women and blacks to vote, drive, own property, or open bank accounts? All four of those actions could result in total autonomy from these types of men. When equality looks like oppression it's because you're been privileged, know what I'm sayin'? 

Can't you picture Ann B. Davis pulling this off?

In that clip Ellen is doing what she does best: dry humor, physical comedy, exuding confidence...and these traits tend to be associated with lesbians, rather than hetero women. My guess is that people (mostly men) are uncomfortable with a woman in a powerful role, like it somehow negates her identity as female, or even worse: it's perceived as a direct challenge to masculinity itself, and I'll bet there are plenty of straight-identified women who can recall when an insecure man called them a "dyke" in response to being on the receiving end of such power. As Patty Hewes from Damages says, "Taking power away from a man is a dangerous thing. Someone always pays." 

Can't you picture Ellen Degeneres pulling this off?

Despite Alice having a boyfriend in Sam the Meatman, their relationship reads more like a friendship than anything else. With his bulbous nose, big ears, and goofy way, Sam seems more likely to play a joke on Alice than to kiss her. Can you picture them in a romantic embrace? I sure can't, and this is why Alice seems "other" to me. I had the same thought when I watched Ellen's early standup back in the day; it just didn't seem to "fit" that there would be a guy on her arm, and while I can't say I *knew* she was gay, I definitely related to that "otherness" about her.

By the time I was 12 it became apparent that my friends would rather sit around and watch the boys play basketball or video games than to facilitate any interests of their own. I was ostracized then, rejected from the Boys Club yet incapable of sitting around with the Girl Spectator crowd. It was a lonely time, and maybe that's what I picked up from Alice, loneliness. You don't have to be an oppressed person to identify with alienation, but you can't deny the hardship of someone being born queer in 1926. It feels speculative, but Ann B. Davis never married or was romantically linked to anyone. Additionally, she spent much of her time supporting the Episcopal Church, and one can't help but wonder if the very community she belonged to prevented her from identifying with who she really was. Talk about shameful irony.

Aptly cast as physical education instructor Ms. Wilson on  The John Forsyth Show . She sure looks at home with that sweatshirt and whistle ;)

Aptly cast as physical education instructor Ms. Wilson on The John Forsyth Show. She sure looks at home with that sweatshirt and whistle ;)

So here's to hoping Ms. Davis had a few "special friends" we didn't know about, women who embraced her and made her feel a love and acceptance that her roles, however endearing, could not provide. Rest in peace, Ann.

ANN B. DAVIS (1926-2014)





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