There were many times as a teenager watching Leave it to Beaver reruns that I thought life in the 1950s was in fact black and white. That is until Gidget came along.
Television before the 1960s separated races, economic statuses and genders. The white, middle class men were the breadwinners and their wives were the happy home caretakers. Life in the ’50s was not literally black and white, but the stereotypical “norms” drained the colorful varieties, metaphorically speaking.
1960s television slightly presented the changes that emerged in America with The Patty Duke Show, Bewitched, That Girl, and of course, Gidget. These shows were of leading female characters who portrayed the difficulties real girls and women encountered and solved, sometimes with a little help of magic. It was also the ideal role girls and women wanted to portray in real life: the popular girl in school, the independent career woman, and the housewife who could make her life easier with the twitch of her nose and be the boss once in a while.
Television helped women to stand up for their rights, and on Sept. 15, 1965, the ABC network taught girls through Gidget. The surfer didn’t let anyone talk her out of her hobby even though it was considered a male sport.
Unlike the previous Gidgets, such as Sandra Dee and Deborah Walley (and later, Cindy Carol), the TV Gidget was played by Sally Field, a brunette. The show broke the mold that blondes and redheads had more fun. The character’s perkiness allowed her to be feminine with masculine qualities: act like a girl around boys but also be one of them, in other words, be treated as an equal.
Field’s portrayal of Gidget gave the character a realistic dimension. She was closer to the audience of girls, because she was smart, fun, and adventurous. The character often turned to the camera and talked to the viewers through the other side of the television monitors. The TV Gidget loved surfing but unlike the character in the films, she also experienced the changes that occurred in the ’60s. She protested when movie theaters sold stereotypical tickets and when her favorite hangout was being shut down. She was independent and aimed to solve her problems often with advice from her father, played by Don Porter. Gidget became the best friend for many American girls and she too, was learning to fight for equality, and they were there through the mid-60s to walk (or surf) through the journey together.
The series, however, only lasted for one season due to low ratings. It wasn’t until the summer of 1966 when teenagers were out of school that they saw the reruns and gave the show the recognition it deserved. Despite the television studio’s decision to end the series too soon, Gidget has triumphed for half a century.
Sally Field is the most recognized Gidget. Some historians claim it was the reruns, which are still capturing new audiences since the show premiered 50 years ago. Maybe Field was crowned the Gidget because of her excellent acting and her relatable girl-next-door charisma.
Gidget was not a female stereotype like June Cleaver or the damsel in distress in a black and white movie. Gidget was a teenager who taught girls her age to stand up for themselves no matter what. She was the mid-60s Gidget whose perkiness taught girls to have slumber parties with girl friends and still be able to surf with the boys.
On Thursday, Sept. 10, Sally Field will receive a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama for giving life to characters who have touched audiences and for her off-screen activism for women, LGBT and health care rights.