Everything I learned about being a girl I learned on TV. This is a sobering thought when I think about what I watched as a girl. Not only was I unlike those girls, but I would never be like those girls. Among other things, I didn't have two sisters or gal pals to make up the triumvirate of the blonde, brunette, and redhead or the smart one, the athletic one, and the pretty one. There are plenty of famous gal-pal duos: Lucy and Ethel, Kate and Allie, Cagney and Lacey, and, more recently, M.E. and Rene from Lifetime's Any Day Now. But the gal pals that defined the ideal girl for a generation of viewers came in threes. In the early years, there was Petticoat Junction (1963-1970). Kate Bradley (Bea Benadaret) was the star, but she never elicits as much discussion or snickers as the show's one enduring image. Who hasn't seen the clip from the opening credits in which Mrs. Bradley's daughters -- Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo -- pop up along the edge of the wooden water tank they're swimming in and gaily throw their petticoats over the edge of the tank? This happens around the part of the theme song that goes, "lotsa curves, you bet. N'even more, when you get to the Junction (Petticoat Junction!)."
I distinctly remember thinking three things when I saw that opening sequence. One, wasn't there a swimming hole on ground level? Two, aren't they swimming in the water the town drinks? And third, were they naked in that water? In some versions of the opening credits (there were several cast changes during the show), it appears they were either strapless (i.e. nekkid), or they wore ruffly camisoles. I wasn't sure, and it confused me because I knew what they were doing was naughty but that their naughtiness was somehow acceptable. It horrified me to think they might not be wearing panties. (I was eight. Panties were important.) In other words, I was oblivious to the idea that not wearing panties was part of the acceptable, titillating naughtiness. Instead, I puzzled over them climbing the water tank in their bloomers in broad daylight and wondered why they didn't order swimsuits at Mr. Drucker's store. The sexual innuendo of the opening sequence went over my head, and it wasn't until very recently that I caught the joke about the name of the town where Petticoat Junction is set: Hooterville.
What I did understand clearly was that girls should be good. Good girls were pretty. Pretty girls always had long hair, wore make-up and form-fitting, but not tight, clothes. To be a pretty girl, it helped to have a pretty name. Henrietta Plout didn't have a chance against Betty Jo Bradley. The reward for all this girlishness? A man. Not just any man, but a handsome prince of a man who arrived in the form of a pilot who literally crash-landed in Hooterville. The Bradley girls nursed him back to health, which gave him ample opportunity to consider the produce, er, the girls. He even selected the youngest Bradley girl for his bride -- the tomboy Betty Jo, which only proved that when it comes right down to it, even the most die-hard tomboy is capable of femming herself up for Prince Charming.
Next in the evolution of gal pals is Charlie's Angels (1976-1981). I have to confess, I was never a Charlie's Angel fan, mainly because I don't think it was for girls to watch (though some surely did) as much as it was for boys and men to ogle. In the late Seventies, I was in my I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar phase and gagged at the jiggle and bounce of Charlie's Angels. The opening sequence completely turned me off: "Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy ... but I took them away from all that and now they work for me. My name is Charlie." This group of women were part of a mysterious man's stable of detectives, and their cases always seemed to involve wearing a bikini or slinky evening wear. Compared to the Bradley girls, the Angels were downright brazen. But in some ways, they were more harnessed. Even though the Angels were "liberated" women, flipping bad guys over their backs and handling weapons, Charlie was always the specter of the man they would never see and could never, ever supersede in power or authority. Oh sure, these women were smart enough to start their own detective agency, but if the Bradley girls taught us it was important to be good, Charlie's Angels taught us it was important to be loyal. With the exception of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, those women weren't going anywhere.
Which brings us to the present. Charmed, the WB fantasy-horror series about three sisters who discover they're witches, deserves a mention, but just in passing. Its angst is derivative of Ally McBeal, and the characters' internal struggles accompanying this discovery are nowhere near the sophistication of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No, for good-natured fun, action, humor, and a keen lesson on all the possibilities of being a girl, tune in to The Powerpuff Girls (Cartoon Network). Yes, it's a cartoon. The Powerpuffs were created by accident by Professor Utonium, who added Chemical X to his mixture of sugar and spice and everything nice. Cartoon creator Craig McCracken came up with the Powerpuffs on purpose. The result is three supercharged kindergartners -- one pink, one green, one blue -- named Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles.
Watching the Powerpuff Girls marathon last week, I delighted in the tykes' exuberance in being girls with very clear desires: to save the world from evil before bedtime. All other elements aside -- the sly humor, the visual influences from Japanese animation -- the most striking feature of the Powerpuff Girls is the sense that anything is possible. The Powerpuff Girls remind me how open and available the world seemed before I was corseted by messages about what it means to be a girl and a woman and the long process of first questioning, then deconstructing, those messages. It's a process that's exhausting, sometimes demoralizing, and often seems futile. But the Powerpuffs make you forget all that. For those precious 30 minutes, when you can watch these modern-day gal pals whip bad guys' butts, all the chest-swelling excitement about taking on the world floods back. Okay, maybe not all of it. But it sure is a whole lot more fun than swimming in a wood tank of water. As always, stay tuned.
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