Sometimes I’m amazed that I’m the pro-choice, proud-to-be-a-feminist, outspoken woman I am today when I think of the pop culture influences that pervaded my youth. This weekend I watched an I Dream of Jeannie marathon. I spent summer evenings watching reruns of the half hour sitcom about a NASA astronaut and the two thousand year old genie whose bottle he found, from the 1960s, as a child, and Barbara Eden’s pink harem costume is still a reference point when my friends and I see bolero jackets for sale (especially those with braid and/or in a hot pink color!). When I watched the show as a child I was amused by Jeannie’s antics, dazzled by Major Anthony Nelson’s classic good looks – and my only question was why – with all of the magic available to her – Jeannie so infrequently changed her outfit or hairstyle.
Watching I Dream of Jeannie as an adult though, gave me a very different perspective. Rather than finding Jeannie’s contant pining for Anthony’s approval and love sweetly romantic, I found myself gnashing my teeth as she bobbed her head and repeated “Yes, Master,” over and over. I saw Jeannie’s jealousy of other women override her better judgment, forcing Anthony to treat her as a child rather than an adult. Even in the later episodes when Anthony finally marries Jeannie (the ultimate happy ending, right?), she still refers to him as “Master,” and defers to him on even the smallest decisions. Throughout the show, she is shown to be petty (once putting Anthony’s career as an astronaut in danger over a pair of shoes) and vindictive, and despite her purported magical powers, too flighty to survive without the solid Anthony. No, I Dream of Jeannie’s fantasy is not a happy one for women. Even her belly baring, low cut, harem costume is the fantasy of men, not women – as is the bottle that Anthony could send her to when she couldn’t figure out that her presence was problematic.
Neither is Bewitched, another childhood favorite. The show’s overriding plot line showed Samantha, a witch, trying to hide her identity as such – because her husband said so, rather than embracing her for who she was. Underneath the hi-jinks and one-liners about Samantha’s meddling mother, Endora, it was a show that glamorized the subordination of one’s identity to her husband’s preferences. Ouch. Interestingly, both Jeannie and Samantha were blondes.
Disney movies unfailingly showed princesses being rescued by princes – princesses that were – always – large breasted with flat bellies, usually with long hair and dresses (though Jasmine’s harem girl outfit featured pants, it was the skimpiest of them all). Princess Jasmine might have chafed at her father’s insistence that she marry (at age 16!), but the movie’s resolution was that she married Aladdin – not that she was given the opportunity to rule on her own. Whatever else critics had to say about Disney’s most recent animated film, The Princess and the Frog, it did, at least show the female lead, Tiana, as being as strong – if not stronger – than the male lead. I have to wonder though – did that leave viewers wanting to tell Tiana that she could do better?
The upbringing I had from parents who continue to believe that I can and will do anything that I want in life – regardless of gender – clearly overrode any other influences. Still, there’s a part of me that knows that, like Julia Braverman on Parenthood, I will cringe if I have a daughter who admires princesses more than professional women. What about you? Did the television and movies you watched as a child affect your expectations – for women, for your life, for what is and isn’t normal?