by Susan J. Douglas
Who’d have thought that girl groups like the Chiffons were subversive or that perky Gidget was a take-charge role model? Well, so swears Susan Douglas in this intriguing baby-boomer Baedeker to the conflicting portrayals of women in postwar pop culture.
What others view as disposable kitsch, Douglas—a professor of media and American studies at Hampshire College and media critic for The Progressive—mines for clues to our collective psyche. The images flickering on TV screens both reflected and kindled the nascent feminist movement, she says. Supernatural sitcoms of the 1960s showed society’s ambivalence about emerging female power. Quick to change her bumbling husband into a Yorkshire terrier, Samantha Stephens of Bewitched was nonetheless a sensible, traditional housewife who used her magic to solve problems in the outside world. On the other hand, I Dream of Jeannie’s sexpot was an impulsive, dangerous creature who often made so much mischief that she had to be contained in a bottle. And the campaign to ratify the ERA—depicted in the media as a female catfight—was by the early ’80s being enacted on television by Krystle and Alexis duking it out on Dynasty.
There’s less fun when the discussion turns to actual feminism. And if you flinch at the word, says Douglas, blame news reports that characterized the women’s movement as a contagious social disease. But by and large, humor tempers her fierce love-hate relationship toward the cultural forces she credits with making her a feminist while at the same time presenting “so many split personalities…that Sybil seems pretty uncomplicated by comparison.” Where the Girls Are is not comprehensive (single career gal Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is included but not That Girl’s ditzy yet groundbreaking Ann Marie). No matter. Whether you’re a woman who sniffled through Queen for a Day, who slept on hair rollers made of orange juice cans or who feels caught twixt waifs and Wonderbras, there’s sure to be something in Girls that will bring a groan of recognition. (Times Books, $23)