Actress Dawn Wells’ death today at the age of 82 brought back memories of the old debate from my childhood. Do you prefer Ginger or Mary Ann?
Gilligan’s Island was a ridiculous sitcom that many of us loved anyway. The show was old enough that I grew up seeing it in late-afternoon syndication. My sisters and I often watched it every day after school.
At some point, most people who watched the show took up the question of which of the two young single women in the cast was more desirable. Ginger was the glamorous movie star who had a huge ego. Mary Ann was the small-down girl from the Midwest who was the quintessential “girl next door.”
If you were a man, your choice said something about the sort of woman who appealed to you. If you were a woman, your choice said something about who you really wanted to be.
I felt a little lost in such debates — because I didn’t think either of them represented my ideal woman.
I didn’t dislike either character. Each had her charms. Each was attractive in her own way. And I understood the preferences voiced by the advocates for each. Even though I was only about 12 or 13 when I watched the show most often, I already had a feeling I wanted something more than what the writers gave us in either character.
As played by Tina Louise, Ginger was a confident and beautiful woman, but she was mostly confident about her looks. She knew that men wanted her and that she could use her beauty to manipulate them. She was a great stereotype and it made for ridiculous fun in the plots, but she was essentially a cardboard cutout beyond that.
Wells’ characterization of Mary Ann had a lot of charm and charisma. She was attractive, but not in the glamorous way of Ginger. She was more approachable and down to earth. She didn’t necessarily lack confidence, but it was different from Ginger’s aggressive sexuality. She was more like a comfortable pair of jeans to Ginger’s high-society party dress. But she was essentially someone to stay in the background and wait to be taken care of.
As a young teen-ager, it’s no surprise that I looked at attractive characters on television and imagined having such a woman as my partner. Millions of other boys and men surely did the same. But I couldn’t imagine choosing either one of these women.
Gilligan’s Island was a product of its era, so it’s natural that neither of the women was presented as especially smart or competent. I don’t mean they were shown as idiots, but it was clear that they were just there for their looks — to be background for the men. Their role was to be protected, not for them to be functioning parts of the characters’ many attempts to survive and escape.
Even in my very young brain, I wanted a woman who was a lot smarter than these characters were. Mostly, though, I wanted a woman who was competent — who was just as capable of playing a strong and leading role at times when it was called for.
That wasn’t the way the male creator and writers of the show saw women of the mid-1960s. I certainly wasn’t some protofeminist who was on the barricades for women’s liberation. I just knew that my ideal woman was stronger, smarter and more competent than Ginger and Mary Ann were.
I couldn’t quite put that into words when I was 12, but I felt it — and it’s why I had trouble agreeing with those many guys around me who fervently argued for either the glamorous Ginger or the down-to-earth Mary Ann.
I wanted more, even if I couldn’t quite explain it.
This didn’t take away my enjoyment for the ridiculous show. I took it for what it was and loved it. I haven’t seen an episode for years, but I still feel nostalgia for the castaways.
My vision of the ideal woman today is pretty complicated, but she’s still smart and competent and strong, in a way that wouldn’t have worked on television in 1964.
So if I’d had to choose, which would I have chosen? It would have been the 5-9 Ginger over the 5-4 Mary Ann. If I’d had to choose, height would have won out. At least that part hasn’t changed for me.
With the death of Dawn Wells, Tina Louise is the only surviving cast member. True to the self-conscious vanity of her character, she asked a reporter today not to mention her age when she made a statement about Wells’ death.
Ginger and Mary Ann were both wonderful in their own ways, but it’s pretty clear to me that the ideal woman is far deeper than either of the characters. At least for me.