Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

For some of us, Alice reflected the accessory parents we had in our own lives. For others, she was one of those accessory parents–a familiar presence on the TV in an empty house, dishing out one-liners and companionship. We loved her because she made us laugh, and because she told us something we already knew: that you didn’t have to be blood to be family, you didn’t have to be related to relate. RIP, Ann B. Davis.

In other words, this essay “appreciates” Davis because she symbolizes, for the writer, family forms that were undercutting the hegemony of the two-parent traditional family.

Of course, Davis herself was also a single woman who made a personal decision to leave Hollywood and to live in what for many years was a large multi-generational household which was united — to be blunt — by Christian faith and service. That was, on every level, a pro-family nontraditional family.

This was, to say the least, an ironic counterpoint to the thesis of the Time piece. One reader was rather offended by this, since the piece was billed as an “appreciation” of Davis. I wrote back that important to realize (a) that this was not a news piece and (b) it was not actually about the person Ann B. Davis.

On the other hand, I did focus on Ann B. the Christian woman in my “On Religion” column last week for the Universal Syndicate. You can find it here. A sample passage, noting the confusion that pop-culture elites felt about her decision to pursue an alternative, truly religious life. What was she, a nun?

The confusion was understandable and Davis knew it. It was hard for outsiders to grasp the spiritual changes that caused this tough-willed and very private women to put her career on the back burner and, in 1976, join a commune of evangelical Episcopalians, led by Colorado Bishop William C. Frey and his wife, Barbara. She stayed with the household as it moved to an Anglican seminary in Western Pennsylvania steel country and, finally, to the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, where she died last Sunday (June 1) at age 88.

As the years passed, she opened up and shared her story with religious groups using the title, “Where I am, where I was and how I got from there to here.” … Several times a week, Davis headed deeper into urban Denver to work at the St. Francis Center for the homeless, tucked away — anonymous — in the back doing laundry and sorting through clothing donations. …

Davis explained that she was a semi-believer during most of her career. She had a Bible, but it stayed safely in its box. “I wasn’t struck by lightning. I didn’t fall off my horse on the way to Damascus. I was going to church. … It’s more like I suddenly started paying attention.”

Please read it all. And let me know if you see other pieces worthy of mention, for good or ill.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • fredx2

    Just one comment. I am somewhat appalled by the number of reporters whose entire cultural world seems to be defined by movies and TV. Whereas a well read reporter would, in former days, refer to the great thinkers of the Western world, and the great books, now they seem to either refer to Oprah or a movie or TV show for their cultural references. Perhaps this is a failing of both reporters and the public – reporters may realize that the public nowadays may only recognize a reference to a TV show.
    Anyway, the reference in the Time piece to non parent parents makes me wonder if reporters are similarly coming less and less from stable families and are coming from more disrupted situations. The reporter’s comments seem to say more about her than they do about Anne.

    • tmatt

      That was the point: The piece is not about Ann B. Davis. It’s about the author.


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