A first-wave Baby Boomer, I grew up the 1950’s and early 60’s. We teenage girls yearned to look like Sandra Dee (a.k.a. Alexandra Zuck), who passed away on February 20, 2005. If we couldn’t remake ourselves into the image of “Gidget,” then Mouseketeer-turned-beach-babe Annette Funicello, Carol Lynley (Blue Denim), Tuesday Weld (Rally Round the Flag, Boys!), Shelley Fabares (Ride the Wild Surf), or Natalie Wood (West Side Story) had to do. There were others, of course. But Sandra Dee defined the era.
Our mothers’ female idols included Elizabeth Taylor, Hedy Lamar, Judy Garland, and Ingrid Bergman. Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, and Debbie Reynolds were crossovers, but they, too, were replaced by packaged “stars” that catered almost exclusively to the nation’s teen and preteen culture, not to young adults, as in the past.
Sandra, Annette, Carol, and Tuesday all had “the look”: wide-eyed innocence that telegraphed the enthusiasm of a much-coveted, just-opened Christmas present. They also had perfect curves. The “Twiggy” look came later, and we 50’s girls, steeped as we were in a Gidget/Annette mind-set, were stumped as to why anybody would want to look like—well, like most of us. Only as adults did we discover that Sandra Dee starved herself to preserve that hour-glass waistline.
“The look” meant being sexy without trying—i.e., sexiness without the flaunting. That is what we thought boys wanted: mystery, flirtation, and the disarming sort of candor of the ingenue—someone they could feel protective toward.
We, on the other hand, wanted young men who would knock the blazes out of any oaf who tried to force himself on us or who dared proffer a crude remark in our direction. In the words of Brenda Lee, we “wanted to be wanted” (not, “I want to be taken”). In the final analysis, it was still our call as to whether a fellow’s advances were accepted, just as it had been in our parents’ day.
Celebrity managers of the late 50’s had other ideas; they were surreptitiously altering such views. Even though the teenage girls of my era were disinclined to parade their sexuality, we were being pushed to do exactly that, through such films as Gidget and Blue Denim. The trend accelerated later with the Elvis Presley movies.
My parents weren’t particularly happy about the Gidget films, although they allowed me to see them. But they drew the line at Blue Denim, which centered on a teenager’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The “Beach Blanket” Annette and Frankie Avalon films were similarly off limits.
At the time, I was furious with my folks. I argued that these movies were no different from those Bob Hope-Rosalind Russell Road Shows, or the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies, not to mention the Marilyn Monroe romps such as Some Like It Hot.
But the teen flicks of the 50’s and 60’s were different. Older romantic comedies, such as the Hope-Crosby Road Shows, were spoofs with a few exaggerated knockouts that nobody took seriously. The Rock Hudson-Doris Day films were lighthearted, forgettable, and aimed at family audiences. Parents decided when their youngsters were mature enough to understand them. Marilyn Monroe pictures catered to a more mature audience, but again, her antics were mainly farcical—overstated in a way that children would not find amusing, in any case. Moreover, the sexuality offered in the 40’s and early 50’s was discreet, not blatant, and the characters were adults, not minors.
The Gidget and Lynley films, representative of the new “teen-flick” genre, challenged accepted values and frequently defied them. Underage female characters were continually placed in sexually compromising situations. While humorous interludes did exist, the Gidget series and Blue Demin had the feel of serious dramas.
The Annette and Frankie movies were less somber, of course, but the clean-cut Annette was repackaged into a voluptuous, bikini-clad sexpot—albeit sans the vulgar gyrations of today’s Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé Knowles. Parents such as mine were often at a loss to articulate their misgivings to their daughters, but some recognized, nevertheless, that the subtle sexuality of the mid-50’s was morphing into raw exhibitionism.
To be truthful, we 12- and 13-year-old girls squirmed in our seats when actor Cliff Robertson tried to seduce Sandra Dee in Gidget. I recall being uncomfortable when he dangled sexually provocative lingerie in front of her in one scene. No, we were not inhibited, but we were embarrassed—for Sandra Dee, not for ourselves. This guy was using her, not protecting her—definitely not very romantic.
Like my parents, I was unable to convey what my little friends and I were feeling back then when we watched the new teen movies, and the boys we liked were more into cars and adventure films, anyway. It was a fine distinction, after all, between love and lust, but the really enlightened parents knew it when they saw it. And they were right.
The emergence of teen films propelled us, along with rock music and school-sponsored preteen dances, into relationships we were not ready for. The film industry kept pushing the envelope, until raunchy language, gross sexuality, and, finally, illegitimacy became normalized. By the 1970’s, one did not have to go to the movies to hear nonstop double entendres. By the 1980’s, television had devolved into cruel put-downs, bathroom humor, and bed hopping. In the 1970’s, The Gong Show, featuring “contestants” who were nearly uniformly awful, was rejected by audiences as dehumanizing. Today, American Idol and its equally abusive spin-offs are hits.
I had to laugh during a recent PBS pledge week (the week when affiliates air repeat performances of the shows executives believe were the audience favorites). This time, PBS was featuring folk music of the 1960’s and 70’s, which drew a huge teenage audience in its day. Hosting the program was the Smothers Brothers. During a mid-show interview, Tom and Dick Smothers made the expected comments about how PBS had been a huge influence on their family. However, Tom commented that PBS programs were generally the only ones he allowed his kids to watch. Quite a statement, coming from a team that was kicked off the air in 1969 for pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech and good taste. Of course, using comedy as a platform for counterculture politics and lifestyles hardly raises an eyebrow today; nevertheless, the Smothers Brothers, together with many of the “folk” heroes featured on the PBS program, helped launch the opening salvo (with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin’s Laugh-In) in today’s battle over decorum in entertainment. Following CBS, the other networks caved in by the late 1970’s.
Like so many stars, Sandra Dee ruined her health with extreme diets, alcohol, and drugs. Perhaps her career was destined to end as she changed from teenage heartthrob to mature woman. Yet, given her head start, she could have used her name-recognition to jump-start a new career, even after her divorce from Bobby Darrin and his untimely demise. In the end, she was unable to make that transition, just as many of her young fans were unable to emerge from adolescence. Sandra Dee was among the first teen starlets to be used by an increasingly left-leaning entertainment industry to stunt childhood, catapulting little girls into lives of Hollywood-engineered rebellion, recreational sex, drugs, and shattered innocence.