How Gidget broke the rules in '60s TV

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: In '50s TV, there were June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, perfect housewives
  • Kohn: But '60s TV starred women you might even want to be, like adventurous Gidget
  • Kohn: Women in '60s shows like "Gidget," "The Avengers," "Julia" broke the rules
  • She says those characters paved way for the revolution to come in women's roles

I can't imagine growing up in the '50s, certainly not as myself or any degree of myself that I am now. My strongest sense of the '50s comes from Betty Friedan and feminist critiques of the era. And June Cleaver.

But the 1950s TV stereotypes of women as housewives in fancy dresses and high heels gave way to a much more interesting cast of characters when the '60s came along.

In real life, there probably never was a family as picture perfect and problem free as the '50s Cleavers, but June Cleaver was certainly the archetype of her decade. As a child, I didn't quite know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew who I didn't want to be. I didn't want to be June Cleaver. The dress. The hair. The pearls. The sense that she never had any fun, never broke the rules, possibly never even exhaled. Her entire existence circumscribed by her white picket fence.

I couldn't imagine being Donna Reed. Or the mom from "Father Knows Best." Or Harriet Nelson. None of them.

Sally Kohn

But then along came Gidget.

I still hadn't been born when the TV show "Gidget" premiered in the 1960s. In fact, my parents had just barely met. But years later, as a kid in the early 1980s, I would watch reruns of "Gidget." Finally, a TV woman I wanted to be. Smart. Independent. Even sarcastic at times. She went to school. She hung out outside the house. She even surfed. She was everything!

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As a little girl, I didn't realize all that had happened in the years between June Cleaver and Gidget Lawrence, everything that had changed in society to create a new era of culture that mirrored a new day in America, one in which the compulsion to be June Cleaver was eroded as a universe of Gidgets arose.

Suddenly, women like Marlo Thomas (from "That Girl"), independent with careers, were on the scene. There was Agent 99 from "Get Smart" and Emma Peel from "The Avengers" --- not just career women, but spies. Who kicked ass! There was Samantha in "Bewitched," who had immense powers --- just like Jeannie, about whom I indeed dreamed. And most ground-breaking of all, there was "Julia," which featured a leading African American character who was a single mother. Nick at Night introduced me to the 1960s Technicolor menu of gender roles and role models unheralded in the narrow black-and-white confines of the 1950s. I could watch TV and see women with personalities and problems and potential. I was hooked.

Sally Field's 1965 studio head shot for "Gidget"
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Of course, in hindsight, none of these shows was perfect. Elizabeth Montgomery's character Samantha in "Bewitched" was always apologizing for using her magic. Barbara Eden's character in "I Dream Of Jeannie" called the man whose house she lived in "master." And Gidget was always being scolded by her overly stern and moralizing father, who like many male characters in shows of that era, seemed designed as stand-ins for older men of the 1950s generation who were deeply wary of, if not downright resistant to, the equality of women.

At the end of each episode of "Gidget," Sally Field would usually turn to the camera and announce the life lesson she'd learned, usually imparted by her father. So in a way, metaphorically, she was still bowing to and echoing unquestioned male authority and hegemony. But it was always Gidget who got the last word, who was the only one who could turn to us and speak to us directly. She was given that special, powerful voice.

And in the next episode, Gidget invariably broke the rules again. In the socially and politically tumultuous era of the 1960s, the message of "Gidget" and "Bewitched" and "I Dream Of Jeannie" and all these shows where the women kept getting in trouble was not that the rules were enforced by these throwback men, but that the women kept breaking them.

Show after show after show, the women kept breaking the rules, testing the limits, crossing the line. That was the entire premise, the whole point.

In the new era, there were strong and sassy women who would make their own rules. And we would watch them and fall in love with them and want to be them and find the rules to break in our own lives and in the world around us. For women and people of color and gay folks and anyone remotely not Ward Cleaver, the rules of the 1950s were at the very least limiting and in many cases ugly and violent. These were rules that needed to be broken. Gidget showed us how.

"Gidget" the TV show only lasted for one season, a tragedy from which my little 8-year-old rerun watching self would never fully recover from all those years later. And yet the social, cultural and political changes that 1960s TV women like Gidget helped both reflect and set in motion --- fortunately, those changes lasted for generations.

Related: TV then and now: How does it stack up?

Quiz: What is your '60s personality?

Photos: 60 iconic moments from the '60s

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