Though it’s been going on for several years, one episode of The Brady Bunch continues to be propped-up as “evidence” by anti-vaxers that measles isn’t a serious, and deadly problem. Recently, the 59-year-old actress who played Marcia Brady — Maureen McCormick — made it clear that she, a former Brady, is not cool with anti-vaxers. It’s really wrong when people use people’s images today to promote whatever they want to promote and the person’s image they’re using they haven’t asked or they have no idea where they stand on the issue.”
But how did this all start? And what is this Brady Bunch measles episode really like? Let’s get into it.
Because anti-vaccine activists lack evidence backed by science suggesting that immunization puts kids at risks, the movement (such as it is) has embraced anecdotal argumentation. Jenny McCarthy, for instance, feels that a vaccine gave her son autism. Okay! But even the gelatin emulsion-thin logic of the Scary Movie 3 star looks like the thrilling close of an Oxford Union debate when contrasted with the arguments of anti-vaxxers who cite the 13th episode of The Brady Brunch, “Is There a Doctor In the House?”, as evidence that life was just fine before MMR vaccinations. The show, which first aired in 1969, sees six Brady brats come down with the measles. Then Cindy Brady died of brain swelling. Just kidding, it works out fine for everyone.
The episode is, to put it fairly mildly, deeply crazy as a piece of art and even crazier as a cultural artifact that has retained relevance despite the progression of medical science.
The measles vaccine was developed in 1963, and become relatively mainstream around 1968. Meaning, in 1969, The Brady Bunch had an opportunity to provide a public service and advocate for immunization. That is not at all what happened. The Bradys do not discuss vaccination at any point. They are not against it. They just act as though it’s not an option. The timing is such that this doesn’t feel retro, it feels less like the show is stuck in the 1960s than that it is stuck in an alternate dimension.
Instead, the plot of the episode isn’t about measles at all; the primary conflict is all about whether or not a pediatrician who is a woman can take care of boys and if a pediatrician who is a man can take care of girls. Mom Brady and Dad Brady each call separate pediatricians, with Dad Brady’s views being predictably more sexist and less-progressive than his wife’s. The “laughs” in the episode are mostly about Mike Brady being a chauvinist and the girls being uncomfortable. At one point, young Jan tells the male pediatrician, to “keep your distance.” It was a solid molestation joke.(This is the part of the article where readers may remember their experiences with The Brady Bunch and that it was a bad show.)
Meanwhile, the measles subplot — it really is a subplot — “hilariously” culminates in giant chalkboard, charting which Brady child has had which symptom, ranging from fevers to mumps to scarlet fever. This is all treated very lightly in the episode. At no point does anyone come out and say the Brady kids could all die. Mom and Dad are way too busy making jokes and accidentally calling two doctors to make a house call instead of one. Their marriage is clearly crap.
It’s easy enough to mock an episode of television that came out 50 years ago for being dumb. It was dumb and, it’s worth reiterating, it was even dumb at the time. But the scariest thing about”Is There a Doctor In the House?” is that modern anti-vaxxers use its existence as “evidence” that measles aren’t a big deal. On the anti-vax website Age of Autism, Cathy Jameson suggests this Brady Bunch episode proves that contemporary concern about measles is a “hysteria.”
“Instead of freaking out, a TV family portrayed what real-life families encountered — surviving short-lived diseases,” writes Jameson in her article “A Very Brady Measles.” “These families managed the illness. They responded with common sense. They treated the symptoms and worked around what tended to be a temporary situation.”
The fallacy here is so obvious it’s laughable. Since when did sitcoms portray anything about real life that indicated a behavior real people should model their choices upon? Do dads who act like Homer Simpson have a higher life expectancy? Should I become a meth dealer because it worked for Walter White for like 50 percent of Breaking Bad? This is just a massively silly point. But silly isn’t the issue. Dangerous is.
The amateurish argument of anti-vaxxers like Jameson are often buttressed by the apparent support of medically flexible thought leaders like Dr. Sears, who has himself been known to mention this episode of The Brady Bunch in connection with his own antivaccine views. Now, Dr. Sears is not so easy to dismiss. He’s a medical professional and not actually a full anti-vaxxer. There’s a subtlety to his questionable suggestions on vaccine schedules. But the trenchant thing is that he uses the same rhetoric and the same Brady Bunch episode to illustrate his points. So it seems like a medical doctor is taking Jameson’s side. That’s not really what’s happening, but it’s convenient for Cathy and potentially profitable for the good doctor to let it ride.
And it all gets a little weirder because the show exists largely as a memory of a memory. Even if you did want to watch this episode of The Brady Bunch right now (you don’t), it would be difficult to do so through legal channels. “Is There a Doctor in the House?” was the 13th episode of season 1, but now, when you look for an episode 13 on either CBS All-Access or Hulu, there’s just a hole. Episode 12, “The Voice of Christmas,” is now just followed by episode 14, “Father of the Year.” Did CBS specifically pull the episode? Maybe, but probably not.
When I reached out CBS All-Access customer support, I was told that “certain episodes aren’t available due to copyright issues.” This actually seems to be true. The notorious episode 13 isn’t the only episode of The Brady Bunch that is unavailable to stream. In fact, episode 1 is also missing from CBS All-Access. And, as far as I know, that one doesn’t have any anti-vax propaganda in it. Still, as media outlets — from Facebook to YouTube to the Tribeca Film Festival to Not Amazon — scramble to dissociate themselves with anti-vaxxers before more children die of preventable diseases, it seems convenient that the episode has been scrubbed from the streams.
You can, of course, find “Is There a Doctor In the House?” if you know your way around the less corporate corners of the internet. I’m not going to help, but it’s not that hard. I’m pretty sure Cathy Jameson figured it out and it’s unclear that she understands causal relationships. So look it up if you want to take a pockmarked trip down memory lane, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Not only is it painful to watch a badly scripted story treat a dangerous illness as a punchline, it’s even more painful to think that there people out there watching the same thing and thinking, “Yeah, the Brady family gets it.”
But that’s where we’re at.