Celebrating Florence Henderson—And Subversive Sitcom Moms

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in memoriam

November 27, 2016

by

The news of Florence Henderson’s recent passing felt, to me, like another cruel twist of the knife in 2016. She was, after all, a woman so widely beloved that, for many Americans, young and old alike, she not only represented the paragon of what an authentic, albeit stereotypical “American Mom“ should be like—she actually set a standard for it.

Even in the wake of her death, not many folks realize that Henderson wasn’t actually all that similar to the extremely cheerful, perpetually-pleasing mother archetype she played on TV—though she never actively attempted to shun the image, either.

Unlike Carol Brady, whose passive onscreen disposition occasionally relegated her to the ranks of peripheral sitcom character, Henderson was and always had been brazenly loud and opinionated—a trait that got her into heaps of trouble with television producers and the media.

Henderson didn’t care.

In fact, she persistently tried to shift the social paradigm about American housewives while The Brady Bunch was still in its heyday (from 1969 to 1974), asking the producers and writers numerous times to please give Carol a career.

“I used to beg [for Carol to have a job] because I’d been working since I was 8 years old—a lot of them not fun jobs,” Henderson told the Huffington Post in 2015. “I begged for a job because I’ve been a working mother. I have four children. [But they said] ‘No you can’t, Alice is taking care of that.”

After some time passed, and when the producers still wouldn’t budge, Henderson then refused to return for the sitcom’s reunion specials until Carol Brady had a career. So the Hollywood honchos caved.

“You know what they made me?” she once joked long after the fact. “Screw you! A real estate agent!”

In addition to fighting for a more modern representation of women on TV, Henderson also took up social justice pursuits that existed far away from the wholesome, mid-century-modern butter churn with which Hollywood was once so obsessed.

She fought for gay rights and, later in life, sex positivism.

For example, in the early ’80s—at the beginning of what was to become the U.S. AIDS epidemic that would eventually contribute to the death of her onscreen Brady husband Robert Reed, who was HIV-positive—Henderson organized several benefits for the gay community alongside fellow celebrity and close friend Debbie Reynolds. “‘When AIDS first started, I was one of the first along [with Reynolds] to do a benefit many, many years ago at The Hollywood Bowl,” Henderson told Gay Star News in 2014. “It was not easy to get people [to attend].”

Henderson also said she believed that, had The Brady Bunch been shot in a different era, it would certainly have addressed homosexuality at some point. “At the time that we actually did the show, they wouldn’t have addressed [homosexuality],” she admitted. “But if the show were on today, I think it would definitely be addressed. After all, their father was gay.”

Henderson’s visible and vocal acceptance and advocacy for gay rights and culture likely managed to assuage those who’d grown up watching The Brady Bunch (and I’m hard-pressed to find anyone who actually hasn’t seen the show, even if only in passing), whose own parents had later disowned them because they’d come out as gay. On some small hopeful level, many young queer people understood that America’s favorite mom still loved them.

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While remaining a mainstay in public gay advocacy forums, Henderson later began to reveal her own sexuality to America, oftentimes explicitly disclosing her preferences in bed—what turned her off and what turned her on, what she liked and didn’t like, how many partners she had at any given time.

Earlier this year, she boldly proclaimed to The New York Post:

“I may have more than one friend with benefits. It’s very healthy for the heart. I think no matter how old you are—and I am pretty up there in terms of numbers—I think you should do whatever makes you happy.”

And prior to this revelation, Henderson told The Daily Mail in 2015 that, for her, sex just kept getting better with age. “You learn to do things with more experience, intelligence, and [you have] the ability to choose more wisely,” she said, after which she admitted, however, that should a future gentleman caller lack a proper sense of humor, she would most certainly be “going home very early” that night.

Henderson’s decision to be so transparent about her sex life exhibited to women (of all ages) that it’s okay for them to defy restrictive norms surrounding sexuality, including by being as open as they please about their desires, needs, and standards.

Florence Henderson Plays ‘The Dating Game’ on The Queen Latifah Show, May 5, 2014.

Henderson was not alone in her “American Sitcom Mom” social activism over the years, but she may have played a role in the sweeping paradigm shift that soon befell TV sitcom matriarchs for the better in later years—a shift that allowed social activism, feminism, and sexual liberation to be incorporated into sitcom moms’ onscreen roles.

For example, the 1980s introduced America to The Cosby Show matriarch Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad)—a black woman who “not only maintained a successful career while raising five children but who refused to suffer gladly any fools who questioned her ability to do so,” as Slate so adroitly put in 2014.

Clair Huxtable was also arguably the first female sitcom mother to introduce what would later be dubbed “intersectional feminism” to the mainstream.

In one particular Cosby Show episode, Clair, a high-profile attorney and extremely well-educated historian, was asked to appear on a talk show to discuss the Great Depression alongside other knowledgeable panelists. As soon the cameras started rolling, her three fellow panelists, all white men, immediately started speaking over her.

When the show’s host asked her about “how the Great Depression affected ‘the blacks’,” Clair immediately objected to being the program’s “token black woman,” to which the host responded by (stupidly) clarifying that she’d also been invited to represent women.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Clair shot back, “I am a woman, who is black, but I am also a human being, who is an attorney, a mother of five, and somewhat knowledgeable about history, which is why I thought I was invited here. But when you look at me, this is all you see in me—a black woman?”

In 1982, two years before The Cosby Show debuted, Family Ties introduced America to another progressive mom: Elys, the baby-boomer hippie matriarch played by Meredith Baxter-Birney. Elys was a mom who constantly found herself in familial spats with her Reagan-loving son, Alex (played by Michael J. Fox), as well as her often flighty, fashion-obsessed daughter, Mallory.

When the late ‘80s arrived, it brought Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) along for the ride. The show centered around the life of a single female news anchor and recovering alcoholic whose feminism, as Jezebel noted in 2009, “was often highlighted by her contrast to the character Corky Sherwood, a ditsy, former Miss America-turned-broadcast journalist.”

As the show’s course began to run into the next decade of the ‘90s—broadcasting amid the new presidential era of Republican POTUS George H.W. Bush—Bergen’s character became pregnant and opted to raise the baby as a single mother. This controversial decision, which was, of course, televised nationally, prompted then-Vice President Dan Quayle to openly criticize the show for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it ‘just another lifestyle choice.’” Quayle’s personal attack on Murphy Brown opened a national discourse around “family values,” while the sitcom itself addressed the former veep’s remarks by editing his speech to seem as if he’d been talking about Brown personally, thus inspiring the show’s protagonist to do a “special edition” broadcast about “different kinds of families” on her news program FYI.

And then, of course, there was Roseanne—which aired in 1988 and ran until 1997—with Roseanne Barr starring as Roseanne Conner, the show’s central, oft-sardonic character. Roseanne was immediately lauded for introducing the world to a relatable character who represented “blue-collar feminism.” Roseanne, after all, was an overwhelmed mother who didn’t fight to “have it all,” but who struggled instead to just “have enough.” She was the antithesis of June Cleaver—she didn’t fit the typical body type of Hollywood stars or societally idealized wives, often appeared to be wearing clothes that came from bargain stores, and wore hairstyles that would likely not have been considered “fashionable” at the time (or ever).

Roseanne also addressed myriad social issues head-on during the course of its run, which aired in tandem with Murphy Brown, thus exposing it to the same sort of entitled Republican upper-white-class criticism that Brown experienced from VP Quayle. Like Murphy Brown, Roseanne never backed down from focusing on these issues, and the show actually wound up addressing several more, including homosexuality, local politics, drug addiction, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy—the list goes on.

A lot has changed since America was first introduced to the squeaky-clean, conventional Brady family. In its wake, it seems Henderson’s outspoken push for feminism and other social justice causes laid the groundwork for a new kind of idealized matriarch: the socially-aware, feminist “American Sitcom Mom.”

And for that, I would like to posthumously say to her, “Oh, Mrs. Brady, thank you so much.”

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Lead image: flickr/WeHoCity

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  • Abby Higgs

    Abby Higgs is a feral essayist. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Marie Claire, Salon, Freerange Nonfiction, and various other online and print publications. More of her words can be found at www.slowclapabby.com. Find her on Twitter @AbbyHiggs.

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