Who was Sadie Hawkins? And why has it been a go-to plotline for so many TV shows?

By Drew Mackie
Updated November 11, 2015 03:25 PM
Credit: Everett

Everyone knows that a Sadie Hawkins dance is the yearly high school tradition in which the girls ask guys out – even if they have no idea who Sadie Hawkins is. In fact, most people probably know this even if their particular high school didn’t offer any such opportunity to reverse gender norms.

Why, then, is it so celebrated? Well, for one it’s long been a staple of pop culture and of teen-centered TV shows in particular. In fact, a lot of people may have only ever experienced a Sadie Hawkins dance through TV. And TV shows are still doing it today, even if we’ve gotten to a point in American society where it wouldn’t be all that strange for a girl to ask a guy to prom, homecoming or any other major dance. (Actually, it wouldn’t be so out of left field for a girl to ask a girl, a guy to ask a guy, or any other combination these days either.)

In honor of Sadie Hawkins Day, which is generally celebrated in early November, we’re recounting its history and its long life as a plot device in TV shows.

The "real" Sadie Hawkins

Sadie Hawkins didn’t actually exist. She was only a character in the Al Capp comic strip Li’l Abner, and she was an unattractive woman who at 35 years old was doubting that she’d ever get married. As a result, her father declared Sadie Hawkins Day, the celebration of which included a footrace for all the eligible bachelors in town – with Sadie and town’s other spinsters in pursuit of them.

The series of strips ran in 1937, and Sadie Hawkins Day became an annual event in Li’l Abner. Shortly thereafter, the event had transition from the comics page, and LIFE magazine in 1939 ran an article headlined "On Sadie Hawkins Day, Girls Chase Boys in 201 Colleges." It’s been part of American culture ever since, and it translated into high schools as a dance in which girls could ask boys instead of waiting around by the phone, even if the girls participating had never heard of Al Capp or Li’l Abner.

Not every high school sanctioned such a dance, and some did under a different name – Morp (or “prom” backwards), Twirp (“The woman is required to pay”) or Turnabout, among others. But when it’s depicted in pop culture, it almost always uses does so with the name Sadie Hawkins.

Probably the first instance of being realized in motion pictures of one sort or another is a 1944 animated Li’l Abner cartoon all about the chaos that ensues on Sadie Hawkins Day.

But it’s been featured on many a sitcom since. And here are just 10 of them.

1. Welcome Back, Kotter (1978)

Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) learns a valuable lesson about why he shouldn’t be an insensitive jerk when he turns down all offers to the Sadie Hawkins dance – “I’ve got a reputation to think of,” he says – and ends up attending solo.

The moral? Don’t be a jerk – toward woman or anyone else, for that matter.

2. The Facts of Life (1982)

Natalie (Mindy Cohn) deems the Sadie Hawkins dance to be sexist on grounds that the guys are only permitting the girls to ask them out. But she’s really just too shy to ask the guy she wants to go with.

The moral? The one you’re too scared to ask out may also be too scared to ask you out. And that’s hopeless unless one of you makes the first move.

3. Kids Incorporated (1987)

Stacy (Fergie before she went by only one name) asks Renee (Renee Sands) to ask a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance on her behalf, but he ends up falling for Renee instead.

The moral? Sadie Hawkins dances can cause stress even when you apparently don’t attend school and just spend all your time performing at an underage concert venue with questionable sources of income. Also, the Cyrano de Bergerac ploy never works out the way you plan it.

Fergie s Changing Looks

4. Punky Brewster (1987)

Spud (Brent Chalem) tricks Punkey (Soleil Moon Frye) into going to a Sadie Hawkins dance with him, but when Punky realizes the trick she backs out. Spud consequently walks out onto a window ledge and threatens to jump. In the end, Punky asks him to the dance anyway.

The moral? Apparently, if you trick a girl into asking you to a dance, threaten to kill yourself until she agrees to take you anyway. Real great lesson here, Punky Brewster writers.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1998)

Nothing ever goes smoothly at Sunnydale High School, and sure enough, the Sadie Hawkins Day preparation goes south when students are possessed by the ghosts of a male student and female teacher whose affair long ago ended in a murder-suicide. True to the spirit of Sadie Hawkins Day, however, Buffy ( Sarah Michelle Gellar) ends up getting possessed by the male spirit and Angel (David Boreanaz) by the female one.

The moral? Having genders swap for one evening is novel, but in the end, we’re all just people with similar wants and desires, regardless of whether we’re male or female.

6. Even Stevens (2001)

It’s the typical sitcom take: A quickly-approaching Sadie Hawkins Day dance brings to the surface a lot of insecurities that various characters were trying to hide. These kinds of dances are great for that – like prom, but without the formal wear and with an increased amount of attention on gender roles.

The moral? Mock weddings held at middle school dances are a terrible, terrible idea.

7. Veronica Mars (2003)

The episode “Plan B” features the usual Sadie Hawkins dance drama as a central plot. For example, in the above scene, Logan (Jason Dohring) gets an earful about emotional vulnerability from Gia (Krysten Ritter). Couples break up, others begin, but because it’s Veronica Mars, it’s the only Sadie Hawkins-themed episode that ends with someone getting wacked by the Irish mob.

The moral? Veronica (Kristen Bell) always ends up with Logan (Jason Dohring) – for better or for worse. Not even the drama of a Sadie Hawkins dance can shake some couples.

8. Glee (2013)

Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) decides that William McKinley High School should have a Sadie Hawkins Day Dance because it would empower and embolden the female students. Much singing and dancing ensues (but that’s every Glee episode).

The moral? There’s probably some lesson about young love here, but instead we’re going to to go with the fact that “Tell Him” is an amazing song that should be performed more often.

9. Community (2013)

When Greendale Community College throws a Sadie Hawkins dance, Britta ( Gillian Jacobs) decries it as sexist and stages a Sophie B. Hawkins dance – because she was thinking of Susan B. Anthony but refused to admit that she was mistaken.

The moral? Sophie B. Hawkins, who cameos as herself in the episode, is a treasure who should be given more to do. Damn, we wish you were our lover too.

10. The Goldbergs (2015)

In an effort to put some distance between her son and his girlfriend, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) finds a girl to ask him to the Sadie Hawkins’ dance. The girl, however, is a miniature version of Beverly and only drives him back into his girlfriend’s arms.

The moral? Playing matchmaker for your teenage children will almost surely backfire – on Sadie Hawkins Day or otherwise.