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The Girls Next Door

by Jeanine Basinger, chairman of the film studies program at Weslyan University

The New York Times, 24 November 1996 page VI 64

At the age of 12, my friends and I were all tomboys. We were the ones who read "Little Women" and wanted to be Jo. (She cut off all her hair and left town, two inspired pieces of action.) We loved Brenda Starr, intrepid newspaperwoman, preferred Lois Lane to Superman and took Wonder Woman into our hearts. We checked out every single Nancy Drew mystery from the library and formed our own Nancy Drew Club. But when we became teen-agers, these fictional females suddenly seemed childish.

Luckily for us, a new role model was moving into position. We could each become "the all-American girl" because anyone could qualify. It required no special beauty, no particular glamour, no rich Daddy or Park Avenue address. All you had to be was willing. The all-American girl was a teen-ager who wasn't the prettiest girl in school, but the peppiest. She had to use her brains and energy, and she had to work, work, work. She was the head of the prom committee, cheered the team on, edited the school paper and was just swell to everyone.

Actually, she had been around since the 1920's. Our mothers told us about Colleen Moore, the flapper, and our older sisters mentioned Deanna Durbin, a chirpy little female who could pump up her bicycle and shake dollars out of old millionaires with equal skill. But it was our era, the late 40's and early 50's, that really celebrated the type. The movies were full of examples. There was Jane Powell in "A Date With Judy," June Allyson in "Good News" and Esther Williams in "Skirts, Ahoy!" There was the teen-aged Shirley Temple (formerly the all-American tot) in "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," Debbie Reynolds in "Tammy and the Bachelor" and Doris Day in "On Moonlight Bay." Those stars, most of them well into their 20's and some of them already on second marriages, were presented as ideal American teen-age girls -- virginal, cheerful and healthy. Watching them, we learned that it was O.K. to be good at sports, because Esther Williams fielded a hot grounder and still got to kiss Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. We could be smart, because June Allyson stole Peter Lawford from the prettiest girl by teaching him French verbs. And we didn't have to worry about doing things only men were supposed to do because Doris slid under her boyfriend's car, quickly repaired it and earned his gratitude and a proposal. Jane and June and Debbie had to cope with all the same things we did: stupid parents, uncooperative teachers, jealous rivals and everyone's basic challenge -- the male sex, who never had a clue. These girls were just like us, so we could be just like them!

All these characters were always telling everyone what to do and how to do it. In short, they were bossy -- in a cheerful way, of course. But underneath their useful exteriors, they concealed a deadly secret about what motivated them: they wanted a job. They were like the female astrobiologist in "The Angry Red Planet." When told by the male crew members that she must stay safely behind in the rocket ship while they go out to explore Mars, she bawls: "Not on your life, Colonel O'Banion! I'm coming, too!"

Wasn't that what we were being prepared for -- to go along on important missions and help run the universe? As all-American girls, we thought we were sharpening our organizational skills for a productive life of running things. But soon the bad news hit us. The all-American girl was a disposable role model, and like them we were expected to give up the gavel and retire.

Most of us had finished college by then and were now in our early 20's. We were left without role models, until suddenly Doris Day defied the odds. With her freckles, slightly bucked teeth and obvious warmth, she had been one of the most effective personalities -- the good sport with spunk. Instead of fading from the screen, Doris, although aging right along with the others, dug in and hung on. She started playing an older, successful, unmarried career woman, better known as the All-American Hold-out. There was hope!

Then came Marlo Thomas on television as "That Girl." Her Ann Marie was a throwback to the old tradition, but with a new twist. Although she was exactly like the original all-American girl, she was neither a teen-ager nor a middle-aged career woman looking for love. She was in her 20's, like us, and trying to make it on her own as an actress in New York City. She wasn't much of a success, getting only one line here and a pie in the face there, but she was earning her own living and upgrading the all-American girl from heading the prom committee to paid labor. (When the series ended, Ann Marie was not seen walking up the aisle on the arm of a reliable new husband. Instead, she was dragging Donald off to a women's liberation meeting.)

Marlo Thomas led to Mary Tyler Moore. Thomas had been innovative but safe. Moore played Mary Richards as frankly over 30, with a solid career and, it was hinted, an unmarried sex life. Unlike Doris Day, she didn't have to hold out, and love didn't have to conflict with her career. The all-American girl was a grownup!

Is there such a thing as an all-American girl today? The times seem to have rendered her obsolete in a world in which all females are automatically "women" when they hit puberty. It is now more or less agreed that women can have a life after high school -- or even after marriage. Today's all-American girl can be an actual all-American, like Rebecca Lobo, the basketball star. She can come in all shapes and colors and sizes from Ricki Lake to Brandy or Chelsea Clinton or Alicia Silverstone. And she definitely has a future!

1996 The New York Times Company

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