I have watched several episodes of That Girl (1966-1971) in the past week as research for my (extremely) forthcoming book of recipes from classic TV shows.
I realize that watching television may not exactly sound like work. Sometimes it feels like work, however. I viewed scores of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for my doctoral dissertation—no easy task. Ozzie’s insecurities and Babbitt-isms can wear on a person very quickly.
That Girl was a lot easier to watch–but challenging in its own way.
As older viewers and Netflix addicts may recall, That Girl followed the adventures of Ann Marie, an aspiring young actress striking out on her own in New York City.
Marlo Thomas, who served as the producer of the show as well as its star, apparently originally wanted to name the series Miss Independence. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, had often applied this nickname to his eldest child.
In later years Marlo Thomas made claims for her show that were perhaps a little farfetched. “’That Girl’ threw the hand grenade into the bunker and everybody else got to walk through,” she told a fan website in 2010, making it sound as though Ann Marie was television’s first and most important single female protagonist.
She wasn’t. She was one of the most memorable and most assertive female characters of her era, however. Ann is a social creature who experiences her life and career in partnership with her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), and her loving but slightly disapproving parents, Lew and Helen (Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp).
Nevertheless, she is financially independent of all three—and although she cares about their opinions she charts her own path. She is often outspoken, although always charmingly so.
Watching this character cavort through New York City this past week has made me want to BE Ann Marie.
Certainly, I’d love to have her postitive attitude, not to mention her plain old gumption. I have wanted to live in New York all my life but never believed that I could make enough money to go out and rent an apartment there. In the pilot Ann just packs her bags, gets on a train, and starts living in the city.
I’d also love to have her figure and wardrobe. True to type, Ann is a slender and attractive creature, with extraordinarily chic clothes.
Her bright, mod wardrobe embodies ABC’s move away from black-and-white broadcasting; when That Girl debuted the network had been showing most of its programs in color for only a very short time.
Ann Marie’s eyes have eyelashes that, in my friend Alice’s words, resemble the business end of yard rakes. These enormous fringed eyes seem to take in everything that New York and life have to offer. Ann is a positive and joyful figure, trying, in the words of Marlo Thomas, “to get a bite out of life.”
The part of me that wants to be Ann Marie also knows that facets of her identity may be slightly disturbing for me as a feminist.
First, her job is acting (a career to which I aspired when I was little and watching reruns of That Girl), hardly a ground-breaking line of work for a female.
Second, her extreme adorability could be a problem for a person who wants the world to take her seriously. Often Ann gets her way not because her arguments are strongest but because she is so darn cute that people in power can’t resist her.
I love getting my way, and I even enjoy being cute. I’m not sure that being cute should be my preferred path to success, however.
Finally, I’m a little bothered by Ann’s ethnic identity … or lack thereof. Her truly lovely face–with its big eyes, tiny nose, and huge smile—and her fetching flip hairstyle (the show was underwritten by Clairol) are bland yet hugely appealing; it’s easy for any girl to identify with Ann and her perspective.
But … Marlo Thomas was her Lebanese-American father and Italian-American mother’s daughter. Pictures of the young Marlo show a nose that was definitely prominent, although it couldn’t quite compete with her father’s famed beak.
That young Marlo is striking. She’s ethnic. She’s not drop dead gorgeous according to popular standards, however, not the Marlo of later years. She’s not “That Girl.” And so … clearly, somewhere along the way, her nose (at the very least) mutated.
Wanting to be Ann Marie, then, makes me a little nervous about the thought of abandoning my own sizeable nose and my own ethnic identity. And it makes me wonder whether Marlo Thomas, a noted feminist, ever doubted her own choices in recreating herself as Ann Marie.
I’d still love to live in New York. Maybe one of these days I’ll just get on that train and see what happens. I’ll try to be my own girl if and when I get there, however.
By the way, in case anyone was wondering what I’m planning to cook from this series, I’m taking my cue from the second season opener of That Girl, which aired in September 1967.
In it Ann Marie gets a walk-on part in a week-long revival of the musical Gypsy, starring the legendary Ethel Merman. In a silly but (yes!) cute plot twist, Ann and Donald end up inviting La Merm to dinner at Ann’s apartment—and Ethel herself volunteers to prepare her favorite dish, stuffed cabbage.
Hmm … Ethel Merman. Now, there’s someone who might be an interesting role model for this girl.
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