Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wake Up, Little Suzy

Over dinner with the girls recently, we were talking about our favorite childhood toys. I remembered a “life-size” cloth dancing doll with elastic bands on its feet that you would slip over yours, and then you could dance with it. I still need all the help I can get when it comes to dancing. I have two left feet, no rhythm, and I like to lead.

I called her Suzy, which I think was the doll’s commercial name. But when I Googled it, the search returned a long list of pole-dancer dolls, and I felt Bob Dylan whisper in my ear, “The Times They Are a Changin’.” These are a few of my favorite things?

I got Suzy a few years before the 1968 television debut of “Laugh-In,” which showcased bikini-clad Goldie Hawn dancing in a palette of fake body tattoos. Suzy even arrived before Nancy Sinatra’s boots were made for walking. As young girls, we all wore go-go boots like hers. I remember thinking how slick I was at age 10.

As a matter of fact, I still own one pair of those boots. They are shipped back and forth between my friend Sandy and me – I think I first gave them to her for her wedding in the 1970s. They are gone just long enough to forget about them until the postman brings that odd box around again. Those boots were made for mailin’, not walkin’.

The bit about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels was supposed to resonate that anything men could do, women could do…backwards?

Via the television and movie programming of the era, we processed messages of what a woman should be: shapely frames in little black dresses with classic strands of gleaming pearls and French twist up-dos - and heels, always high heels. We were destined to date and marry Robert Wagner – or a dreamy facsimile with Cary Grant charm in a sleek tuxedo. We’d feel protected and, well, girlie.

But the times, they were a-changing. I grew taller than Suzy, and she was cast in the corner with the other well-loved dolls. Soon we had new female messages of bra-burning, pants-wearing, afro-sporting, and Staying-Free women. From my rural worldview, I had only known that women could be homemakers, teachers, lunch ladies, teeth cleaners, and shot-givers at the doctors’ office.

On the glamorous side, they could be models, actresses, singers, and stewardesses. Now these were the gals that got our attention.

I’ve been playing DVDs of Marlo Thomas in “That Girl” and laughing about the old mod styles we coveted. She can’t imagine how influential she was in shaping my young brain. Watching her, I believed that someday I could leave the farm, live independently in a sunny metropolis, and sport a giant up-do and brushy fake eyelashes. As much as I idolized Ann Marie, I never could stand teasing my hair. I’ve only worn false eyelashes once, and that was on Halloween when someone mistook me for a hooker.

The early sixties influences soon morphed into more modern Breck Girl messages via shiny-haired models like Cheryl Tiegs and Cybill Shepherd. We glued our eyes to American Bandstand, Shindig!, and Hullaballoo, and we tried to look Twiggy-chic. We traded-up for knee-length pull-on black crinkle boots to emulate Mrs. Peel from the Avengers. Forget playing house. I got busy acting out spy-fi adventures with my friends.

Somewhere between then and now, life happened. These days it’s more like, “My Birkenstocks Are Made for Walking.” When did we stop fantasizing about our bold adventuress lives? Can we recapture some of that zeal and enthusiasm that comes with the promise of a scathingly brilliant tomorrow?

Who were your childhood idols? What did they teach you? What do you want to be when you grow down?

This year I’m making it a point to revisit more of these old role models and see what lessons they still can share. In the meantime, here’s a little bit of wisdom I gleaned from my other American Idols:

  • Patty Duke (as Patty and Cathy Lane on the Patty Duke Show): Always temper the finer things in life with the wacky.
  • Elizabeth Montgomery (as Samantha on Bewitched): A twitch on the nose and you’ve got him in the palm of your hand (when cousin Serena is around, anyway).
  • Barbara Stanwyck (as successful rancher Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley): A woman can run her own business and look good in gauchos.
  • June Lockhart (as Dr. Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space): You don't need a PhD in biochemistry to cook dinner on another planet, but it doesn’t hurt.
  • Sally Field (as Gidget): A girl cannot survive with her surfboard alone; she must use a good sun block, too.
  • Anne Francis (as Honey West): Black cat suits are hot.
  • Stephanie Powers (as April Dancer on The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.): Girl power rocks.
  • Sally Field (as Sister Bertrille on The Flying Nun): Who needs wings to fly? (In the sky, you still need sun block.)
  • Peggy Lipton (as Julie Barnes on The Mod Squad): When you go after the bad guys, flail your arms from left to right to run like a girl. Not much of a life lesson, but she looked cool running.

God bless Netflix.

Nancy Sinatra sings on Ed Sullivan.

Hey, go-go boot aficionados, still carries them!