According to Merriam-Webster, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” In spite of this basic concept that has been argued for decades, women, especially in the political arena, are denounced as “nasty” and “unfeminine.” In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his Republican ilk loved referring to fictional moms June Cleaver and Donna Reed to serve as a model for how our lives, our families, and our women could and should be. But this view and world outlook is pointedly through a privileged male gaze, with the women as object, conquest, and ultimately, unfettered supporter of the male ego. Even further back, in the heyday of the Hollywood Studio system, Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day were two of America’s sweethearts. They were bubblegum queens. Mom-approved girls next door the strapping male protagonist would take on a series of hijinks and wind up engaged to before the credits roll. Women whose personas were perceived as quiet, reserved, and pointedly sexless. However to explore and delve deeper into their chaste personas is to uncover the secret subversion of these two stars, who used their textual virginal status as a means of making their own way in the world.
Innocent young women have dominated the upper echelons of Hollywood. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford both became silent film darlings who embodied sweetness and light onscreen and in the gossip rags. In Pickford’s case, playing a little girl led her straight to the boardroom as one of the founders of United Artists, and paved her way to retirement.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Hollywood saw another sweetie pie on par with Pickford and Gish in the form of a little beauty queen from Burbank, the adorable Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds had spunk and verve and a warm-hearted effervescence that made her the darling of countless musicals throughout the era. Yet it’s remarkable how the star she became was at odds with the film that made her a star. Bursting onto the scene in 1952 as ingenue Kathy Seldon in Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, there’s an air of unspoken independence to her character. Reynold’s doesn’t play Kathy isn’t a pie-eyed young woman. She doesn’t immediately fall for matinee idol Don Lockwood’s (Gene Kelly) charm, even going so far as to throw a pie in his face when he irritates her. The audience doesn’t know anything about Kathy outside of her desire to be an actress – and that she makes ends meet jumping out of cakes for the Coconut Grove. It is this ignored autonomy audiences would soon come to miss with her characters.
Singin’ in the Rain is an outlier in Reynolds’ body of work, the one feature where the audience can’t deny she is a woman. After Singin’, and despite Reynolds’ age, there was always an air of immortality to her, keeping her perpetually youthful but miring her as the “kid,” the “child,” or young woman with no sexual know-how in later films. Reynolds’ isn’t gussied up, with several of her performances seeing her in pigtails with a bright, splash of lipstick to denote her innocence but also declaring she’s old enough for kissin’. Her characters, outside of Singin’ in the Rain, generally live with male relatives to both explain away her tomboyishness and act as a bridge to transfer her from her actual father to a new father in marriage. Many of Reynolds’s best-known films saw her as the woman-child in a primitive landscape. The emphasis is put on Reynold’s ability to vault over her harsh circumstances with a smile and determination. She’s reminiscent of a simpler time; a modern-day frontier woman able, and more importantly willing, to take care of her family first and then herself. Reynolds’ characters in both The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) are poor and downtrodden; Tammy is a literal Mississippi swamp-rat. As the titled heroine in 1954’s Susan Slept Here Reynolds is an orphaned runaway facing a life on the streets.
Reynolds came to personify the asexual mother figure to the men in her life. As Tammy, she cleans house for her paramour Peter (Leslie Nielsen) without being asked, and finds it shocking that Peter’s mother doesn’t cook for him. Tammy represents the ultimate in patriarchal womanhood as idealized by the 1950s, a woman willing to place her husband’s needs above her own, who simultaneously believes every woman should share the same opinion. Even while playing a literal mother, as in the 1956 Bundle of Joy, she’s raising an infant as well as nurturing reckless playboy Dan Merlin (Reynolds’ real-life husband Eddie Fisher) into adulthood.
Several of the actress’ on-screen relationships (Singin’ in the Rain excluded), never possess an air of sexual attraction, but a chance of opportunity to elevate her social standing through relationships with men. There’s no lust in Reynolds’s characters, but what is showcased is an equality, a partnership in marriage that allows her characters a grander autonomy and recognition that lasts longer than sexual attraction. She doesn’t need to be sexually attractive to be taken seriously. It is only through marriage that Margaret “Molly” Tobin becomes the Titanic-riding Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but Harve Presnell’s J.J. loves Molly for her headstrong attitude and determination to make something of herself; she’s a true embodiment of the American Dream. Though there’s a sexless attraction between Reynolds’s characters and the men in her life, they’re presented in a subversion of typical male roles – the men either secretly desire a life of domesticity (like Presnell’s J.J. Brown) or don’t realize they want to settle down until Reynolds pops into their lives (as is the case of Dick Powell’s Mark in Susan Slept Here). Opposite Reynolds, her male counterparts crave a life as tame, domestic, and asexual as herself.
After several decades as an ingenue, Reynolds transitioned into playing older characters, actual mothers and grandmothers. Her sweetness contained an added bite of wit, as evidenced by her character in 1997’s In & Out, but she simply transitioned to a higher state of sexless female.
With second wave feminism looming in the distance, the segue from the 1950s to the ‘60s saw the outmoded Reynolds make way for the more progressive Doris Day. Often considered a relic of the apple-pie mentality of classic films, Doris Day is nearly the antipathy of Reynolds. Day’s characters were chaste, but far from virginal. In 1959’s Pillow Talk, for instance, Day’s character Jan is introduced with the camera close-up on her stockinged leg, proof of the glorious gams that can only be attached to a sexual woman.
Unlike Reynolds, whose youthful appearance and short stature contribute to her childlike look, there is no denying Day is a woman. Though she often played mothers and wives, it was often integrated into an entirely separate plot for her characters. Her characters in the likes of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) or Move Over, Darling (1963) had established homes and jobs. Day was a role model for the modern housewife, both working or otherwise, not overly perfect in a Donna Reed way but able to navigate both spheres of home life with elegance. Being a mother and wife was a distinct part of Day’s characters, but they don’t define her entirely. And, more importantly, there was no denying her children were begat by good old-fashioned sexual contact. Day had sexual chemistry opposite several of her leading men. Opposite James Garner in two movies – The Thrill of It All (1963) and Move Over, Darling – there are actual sequences of the two canoodling, with no dispute about what they do in their free time, that would make Reynolds’ characters blush.
Unlike the boys (or Oedipal men) of Reynolds’ features, Day’s male paramours were all manly men. In fact, in many of Day’s films her male co-stars’ masculinity was proven to be a fragile front. In The Thrill of It All, Day’s Beverly Boyer feuds with her husband Gerald (James Garner) when she decides to get a job. For Gerald, Beverly’s job threatens the attention he’ll receive, literally and figuratively. Not only does Beverly not have time to run the house, but she’s also seen as a more important person than him by complete strangers. The film’s satire ends up criticizing the male ego; not only is Gerald a baby worried about his mother finding something better than him, but he also erroneously believes someone might be more confident than himself.
By the ‘60s Day was allowed to embrace sexuality, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t subverting sexuality before that. As the titled tomboy in Calamity Jane (1953), her relationship with Howard Keel’s WIld Bill Hickcock is fraught with issues regarding her gender discrepancy. What draws Bill to Jane’s rival, Katie Brown, is her femininity to negate any deep-seated attraction Bill might have to Jane’s masculinity. Day’s Calamity Jane is the outlier in her career. Where her characters were drawn to heteronormative romances – even opposite Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality would be revealed after their pairings on-screen – Calamity Jane presents her as a sex object to both Bill and Katie Brown. Reynolds’ smallness made her scrappy, but not necessarily a threat. Day’s unconventional sexual allure makes her appealing to all genders (possibly tying into the idea that Day embodied what men wanted to marry and women wished to attain to) and thus a threat to everyone. It is only through marriage, and a return to heteronormative sexual activity, that Calamity Jane can be accepted.
Day built on Reynolds’s chaste image with the added benefit of independence and autonomy. Day’s characters had jobs and children, a home, and a husband who was often dumber than he thought. That’s not to say Reynolds’ characters didn’t present themselves as sexual objects, but hers is that of a sexual creature without the tools. Day is sexual, and uses the tools she’s presented with deliberately. Each actress received her share of scorn as second-wave feminism took over in the ‘70s. Day, more than Reynolds, was often pointed out as proof of the impossible standards women had to strive for, with an eye towards being pious and virginal, a fact disproven. Movies today like La La Land and, more specifically, Down With Love, itself a parody of Day’s romantic comedies, play off classic film tropes established by Day and Reynolds. Perfect or no, without them the female heroine wouldn’t be who she was meant to be.