Oh, That Girl!
Feminist wishful thinking 40 years later.


The DVD release of That Girl’s complete first season has deepened the wallow I’ve been in lately about the strange messages ’60s pop-culture sent women of my generation. Marlo Thomas, the show’s producer and star, has always insisted That Girl was a watershed feminist moment for its focus on an unmarried career girl rather than someone’s wife or secretary. But there’s some feminist wishful thinking in that notion.

Delightful as the show remains 40 years later, you can see how its spunky main character is actually defined almost entirely by her relationships with men–from her boyfriend (“Oh, Donald!”) to her father (“Oh, Daddy!”) to various suitors and occasional employers.

Of course, no sane person expects fictional TV characters to reflect reality, so I think we can cut That Girl some slack for its depiction of a struggling actress whose series of low-paying, part-time jobs somehow keep her clothed in Cardinalli, Courreges, and Oscar de la Renta. As a child, though, That Girl had me firmly convinced of three things:

First, I thought that when you grew up and moved to the glamorous big city to start your fabulous new career, you needed not only your own apartment and a lot of groovy clothes, but also a dressing table with a wig stand. I was so sure of this that I expected to see some sort of establishing wig/dressing-table shot in the That Girl DVD, but haven’t spotted it yet. Maybe because that trademark perfect flip seemed so much like doll hair, I just assumed that real-life career girls had a wardrobe of hairstyles that could be popped on and off like Barbie heads.

Second, I fretted about what to do, as an animal lover, when I grew up and men began trying to give me fur coats, as they surely would. I could never accept such a grisly, awful thing, but children’s birthday-etiquette rules meant you’re never supposed to refuse a present. In That Girl, it seemed Marlo Thomas could hardly leave her apartment without besotted men trying to sweep her off her feet with various offerings. I figured I’d accept them all as my due…but how would I handle the awkward situation of that fur coat? Funny how this never turned out to be a problem in real life.

Third, I thought that even as an adult I might continue to run everywhere rather than walk. It did occur to me one day, as I raced home from the school bus stop at my usual full gallop, that in real life grown-ups for some reason plod along instead of getting where they wanted to go by running as fast as they possibly could. But aspiring actress Ann-Marie ran everywhere–around her apartment, past Lincoln Center, on her way to an audition or some zany part-time job–at a pace impractical for any real-world, adult woman in pantyhose and heels, but entirely natural for the average eight-year-old. Even if she still wore white gloves just to feed pigeons in the park, That Girl was obviously a new kind of woman, so maybe by the time I grew up the world would be filled with adults who kept the same breakneck pace as children.

A few years ago, I began really pondering the hold that the go-go ’60s still have on women my age when I came across a tribute from New York Observer columnist Simon Doonan to an iconic self-help book I remembered vividly from my childhood. Doonan wrote:

After reading the subway poster “Do blondes have more fun?”, Judy went running down to her favorite beauty salon and had her hair done yellow. Judy spends three nights a week–and I mean from right after dinner to bedtime–doing those little girlie things like plucking her eyebrows, polishing her nails, shampooing her hair, creaming her face. But Judy is wasting her time. Judy’s fat.

This isn’t me talking. It’s a rant from Barbara Johns Waterston. In 1967, Ms. Waterston wrote the Mein Kampf of self-help books, Pull Yourself Together: Or, How to Look Marvelous on Next to Nothing. This book is bursting with delightful bossiness, accusations and forthright solutions, and I strongly suggest that you get yourself a copy…

I strongly suggest it too–I noticed a copy on Alibris the other day for around $25–as a fascinating relic of the harsh rules the let-it-all-hangout generation had for anyone hoping to be appropriately groovy. (Rent Georgy Girl to watch as you flip through Pull Yourself Together, for maximum retro bossy effect.) I was a curly-headed child and still remember the exact wording of Waterston’s grim hair advice: “Curly hair never looks healthy, even if it is.”

Another time-machine trip back to see why baby boomers are the way they are is via All-American Ads: The 60s, the thickest volume in Taschen’s irresistible series of thick coffee-table book collections of advertising history. Flipping through the ’40s and ’50s volumes (my favorites) is an exercise in vicarious nostalgia, but the publisher’s collection of ’60s ads can hit you where you live. The sucker punch for me was the 1969 ad for Love cosmetics.

I was the right tender age to actually believe the “hope in a jar” message of all cosmetics ads when I saw this one in its original magazine form, and there was something about the brilliance of that old Love campaign, with its clean, spare photography and snappy sound-bite copy: “Love’s Fresh Lemon Cleanser has fresh lemon in it. Lemon that makes hair squeak. Makes Martinis shriek…” I think I originally encountered the Love campaign in a copy of Seventeen my mother tossed at me–to stifle my complaints about back-to-school shopping at Zody’s and get some ideas about what to wear already–and it was like first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

What an ineffably glamorous world those old ads promised, with their vision of a That Girl life made possible by the right beauty regime. I bought tons of Love’s Fresh Lemon products, and tried to pull myself together. But how differently things turned out anyway, as they always do.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.