What I tried not to learn from ’60s TV
There we were at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Art Boy, me, and a crowd of fans, listening to my friend and colleague Wallace Baine read from his new book of essays, “Rhymes With Vain.” Wallace launched the event with one of his vintage Sentinel columns “Jed Clampett, Molder Of Men,” his ode to the male role models provided to impressionable youth on 1960s TV shows.
It’s a funny piece. (I was especially delighted at his shout-out to Gomez Addams, the sexiest, most impassioned husband on TV. Even after two children, his ardor for wife Morticia was undimmed. She had only to murmur c’est la vie—or even “hors d’oeuvres”— and Gomez came unglued. “Tish—that’s French!” he’d cry, throwing away his pipe, grasping her hand and commencing rubber-stamping her arm with his kisses.)
But even as my inner writer was smacking me upside the head, demanding “Why didn’t YOU think of that for a column?” I knew the answer. Female role models on ’60s TV? There weren’t any. Little boys like Wallace could aspire to the panache of Gomez Addams, the witty irreverence of Hawkeye Pierce, or the smart, rationalistic cool of Mr. Spock. Little girls were taught something entirely different by TV heroines like Jeannie, in her flesh-baring harem costume, whose only desire was to please her “master,” the compliant, tabula rasa robot that was My Living Doll, and the backwoods sisters on Petticoat Junction, in their skimpy Daisy Mae outfits.
Men on TV were doctors, lawyers, business execs, detectives, compassionate family men. Women were babes, ditzes, or moms. They had Father Knows Best. We had My Mother The Car.
When I was little, all women on TV were housewives: Lucy, Harriet, Donna Reed, June Cleaver, in their a shirtwaist dresses and pearls, sorting out the problems of their husbands and kids. This was the norm well into the ’60s; even Morticia Addams and Lily Munster were stay-at-home moms.
Samantha Stevens of Bewitched, wore the pearls and Barbie-style sheath dresses, but one wrinkle of her pert little nose could unleash magical powers undreamed of by mortal man. Which, freaked her disapproving, amxious husband, Darrin. Instead of harnessing her powers to oppose evil, ease the hardships of loved ones, or even enjoy a little private hedonism now and then, Darrin, the old killjoy, demanded that Sam keep her extraordinary gifts under wraps.
And consider Mona McCluskey, that rare TV woman who actually had a job. She was a famous movie star who earned a ton of moolah in her own right. So, of course, the conceit in the series was that she married a blue-collar guy whose tender ego could only be massaged if she agreed to move into his crummy, walk-up flat with the busted appliances and live on his salary. And she did, because, according to the Tao of ’60s TV, it was the first duty of every woman to make her man more secure. (Just ask Samantha.) They never said in the show what Mona did with her own money, but I hope she spent it on assertiveness training.
Laura Petrie, of The Dick Van Dyke Show, had once been a dancer on Broadway, but she gave it up for marriage and motherhood. That Girl Ann Marie was an aspiring actress who was allowed to go out for auditions because she wasn’t yet married to her ever-present boyfriend. And while Julia was justifiably hailed as the first black woman to star in her own sitcom, the reason she was allowed to work for a living (as a nurse) was that she was a widow—not divorced or single—with a child to support.
These women provided scant encouragement for little girls whose dreams stretched beyond the kitchen or maternity ward. Still, there were a few refreshing exceptions. Lt. Uhura was the only female officer stationed on the bridge in the original voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Even if her duties as Communications Officer amounted to little more than a glorified secretary, transferring incoming calls to the boss, hey, at least she wasn’t the ship’s cook. Plus, she got to wear that sexy outfit on the job without losing the respect of her co-workers.
And speaking of dressing for success, what about Emma Peel of The Avengers? Here was a woman to be reckoned with, in her skin-tight, cut-out catsuits, she was an international secret agent who could karate-kick a miscreant into submission without mussing a hair of her long Mod flip, or losing an atom of her cool and always ready to pop open a bottle of bubbly with her debonair partner, John Steed. He always called her “Mrs. Peel,” out of deference to a mysteriously vanished husband, but the very discretion with which they bantered onscreen, while protecting the world from evil, suggested intoxicating possibilities in their private encounters.
But my personal Numero Uno TV role model was Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She may not have been as glamorous as Mrs. Peel or Uhura, she may have been a little too desperately obsessed with finding a husband, but she was a self-sufficient working woman with what sounded to me like a dream job: comedy writer on a weekly TV show. Laura had to give up her career to keep the home fires burning, but Sally was right there in the office all day, trading wisecracks with the boys. If not for Sally’s sterling example, I’d never have realized a woman can get paid to be funny.
Check out “Rhymes With Vain” at a bookstore near you, or visit www.wallacebaine.com. Discuss role models with firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local songbird Jayme Kelly Curtis was also inspired by Wallace’s column. Listen to her wry, bluesy song, “What Would Jed Do?”