Beyond a White, Teen Icon

Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee: Beyond a White, Teen Icon

The March 18, 1991 issue of People magazine featured a cover story on Sandra Dee. The full head-shot photo showed a beautiful, seemingly ageless woman, while the headline copy read, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” The refrain is borrowed from a song in both the stage play and 1977 film Grease, which lampoons various high-school types of the 1950s, including “Rizzo,” the hard-boiled, wisecracking, female sexual hood, and “Sandy” (no coincidence there), the naive, sweet cheerleader.(1) At a pajama party Rizzo and the other “Pink Ladies” try to teach Sandy to drink and to smoke, but she promptly gets sick. Rizzo dons a blond wig and begins her song satirizing the representations of sexuality in the fifties, “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity, won’t go to bed `till I’m legally wed, I can’t, I’m Sandra Dee.” The Dee persona is instantly recognizable to audiences of the present and becomes a form of shorthand to convey a specific cultural trope. These lyrics, which celebrate the “innocence” of the Dee image, were strangely juxtaposed on that People cover with the subhead, “Years of Incest, Anorexia and Alcoholism.”(2)

The dichotomy between Dee’s public and private personas, underscored by the People cover, also functions as a metaphor for the 1950s. Dee is remembered as the embodiment of the virginal, perky, uncomplicated, adolescent girl of the 1950s. She is a reminder of a time in the recesses of collective memory when there was no incest, violence against women, eating disorders, substance abuse, or sex outside of marriage. Of course, no such golden age existed. The collective image of the 1950s reflects what Stephanie Coontz has referred to as the “nostalgia trap”: the tendency to simplify and idealize a past reality.(3) As Joanne Meyerowitz has demonstrated, “postwar popular ideology was more varied and complex” than the popular portrait painted by Betty Friedan. There has been a peculiar trend, based in part by the rhetoric of conservative politicians, to believe that life really was simpler and less complicated then.(4) Yet, Dee’s story reveals precisely the opposite.

While both the private and even the public Dee personas contradict conservative idealizations of 1950s gender roles and family life, Dee’s story also contradicts liberal caricatures of the period as well. In this article, I will examine the Dee trope as a site of contested meanings of the fifties. Appropriated by the right as an ideal of girlhood, and by the left as a symbol of enforced purity and repressive cultural values, Dee symbolized neither. I will show that behind Dee and a number of female representations that were mass produced in the 1950s lay some dark and complicated realities. A revisioning of the 1950s is currently underway among cultural historians.(5) Recent scholarly work has focused on reevaluating myths about family and gender roles during the period. Such approaches reveal that women’s lives in the fifties were more varied and complicated than the monolithic images of virginity and domesticity that pervade evaluations of the period. Dee, as a white icon of 1950s female adolescence, is significant not only because she was used to construct dominant notions of femininity in the fifties, but because her iconic value continues to this day.

Dee can also be read as a kind of “cultural body” because of what she reveals about the particular historical period that produced her. She embodies the cultural contradictions of the 1950s. Her body was used to construct a specific star image.

According to film historian Richard Dyer, star image can best be defined as a “complex configuration of visual, verbal and aural signs manifest not only in films, but in all kinds of media texts.”(6) Media texts include promotion and publicity material developed by the studio in the manufacture of the star image, material about the star not controlled by the studio, contemporary commentary and criticism, and, of course, the films themselves. I will explore the role that such media texts played, not only in the creation of Dee’s iconic value as a symbol of sexual purity, but also in the obscuring of her dysfunctional life. In 1959, for example, the Motion Picture Herald called Dee the “Number One Star of Tomorrow” and underscored her appeal for teenage girls:

Her wide appeal is to her own generation as well as to adults stems from the fact that she seems to epitomize that nice “girl next door”…The image she projects on screen is that of today’s teenager beset by problems her own generation can sympathize with and understand…Nearly always these problems involve parental relationships and dating and Miss Dee solves them by relying on decent instincts and common sense.(7)

In portraying the problems and tensions of teenage girls, Dee helped to expose the contradictions inherent in the double standard, which might have made subversive readings by female adolescent spectators possible. Audiences were not privy to all aspects of Dee’s private life, however.

Many feminist theorists have posited that the values of a culture are inscribed on the female body.(8) I argue that Dee, through her physical body and the body of her films, underscores both a cultural hypocrisy and a real ambivalence about sex in the fifties. There were several female cultural bodies competing for dominance in the 1950s. For example, the “mammary madness” of the decade as embodied by stars like Marilyn Monroe and her imitators, such as Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, is as much a part of the iconography of the fifties as are Dee and her adult version, Doris Day. Reconciling these seemingly contradictory representations is not as difficult as it would seem, however, for in many ways these types are simply flip sides of the same coin.(9)

Monroe was a modern vamp without the sting. She projected a softness, a sweetness, and a vulnerability sometimes at odds with other aspects of her sexual persona. Throughout her career, Monroe exploited her physical body yet tried to deny it in order to be taken seriously as an actress. She was simultaneously a prude and an exhibitionist, inhibited and uninhibited. Ironically, in many ways Dee was allowed to be more sexual in her films than was Monroe. As Molly Haskell has pointed out “[Monroe] was the fifties fiction, the lie that women had no sexual needs.” Thus this “sex goddess” was often paired with nonvirile, asexual men such as Tom Ewell in Seven Year Itch, George Sanders in All About Eve, Donald O’Connor in There’s No Business Like Show Business, David Wayne in How to Marry a Millionaire, and Charles Coburn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.(10) Like Dee, Monroe’s persona has also been appropriated to illustrate the sexism of Hollywood and the consequences of sexual objectification. As with Dee, such appropriations are often simplistic. Monroe’s tragedy is grounded more in her own private demons and her tortured life than in the sexual iconography of the 1950s.(11)

Jayne Mansfield, another icon of the 1950s, was a self-promoter and gained fame by satirizing Monroe. She was able to expose the sexual ambivalence of the period as she did in the 1957 film, The Girl Can’t Help It. Grabbing a milk bottle and holding it up against her prodigious chest, she cries, “I just want to be a wife, have kids. But everyone figures me for a sexpot. No one thinks I’m equipped for motherhood.”(12) But her very physicality undermines her conservative rhetoric. Mansfield, through her comedic caricatures, was almost alone in exposing the hypocrisy of a period that was both obsessed and repelled by sexual matters.

Comparisons with Doris Day were common throughout Dee’s career. In an interview with Variety, when Dee was only twenty-two and her career was in decline, Dee complained about being typecast as a “perennial teenager” or a “junior Doris Day.”(13) The characterization of Day as the quintessential virgin conflicts with the reality of many of her screen roles. Although Day might have been puritanical, she was not without a libido. Unlike Monroe and Mansfield, Day was paired with more sexy, romantic leads like Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, and James Garner. Nevertheless, our collective memory of Day is one of a forty-year-old virgin. John Ellis, pondering Day’s star phenomenon, questions the ways in which her image has obscured the reality of her films. He argues that her film roles are “to one side of her circulated images.”(14) The same can be said of Dee, who continues to wear her virginity like a mantle in popular memory, even though her life and most of her roles prove otherwise.

Although she has become synonymous with sexual prudery, in fact Dee’s film characterizations are often quite erotic, and her virginity is a source of great anguish and ambivalence in her film roles. Dee actually became a recognizable new “type” in the late fifties, a teenage girl conflicted about her emerging sexuality. Somehow that evolved into the “goody two shoes” image of today. In some way this image can be traced to what Dyer refers to as the “continuities of iconography” — the way she was dressed, coiffed, lit, photographed, and placed in the frame.(15) Fan magazines also helped to create the girl-next-door image. Her iconic value as America’s virgin can also be traced to a superficial reading of some of her most famous film roles because, upon deeper inspection, rarely was she portrayed as an unproblematized teen in her fifties roles. Indeed, by the sixties, Dee usually played a nymphet or a sexual tease as in Take Her She’s Mine (1962) or If a Man Answers (1962), although popular memory of Dee as a fresh-faced teen is tied to her Tammy films, Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963).(16) These films really represent an aberration for Dee and are hardly representative of most of her film characterizations of that decade.

The apparent contradiction between our polarized images of Dee, Day, and Monroe can be situated in the larger context of the dialectic between the dominant discourse about female sexuality in the fifties and the conflicting messages of popular motion pictures. There is not a dichotomy between the Dee and Monroe tropes; they are two sides of the same sexual continuum. In the fifties, women and girls were bombarded with deeply contradictory messages about sex. On the one hand, erotic depictions of romance were pervasive in popular media sources, and on the other existed what Wini Breines has called “a cultural obsession with virginity.”(17) As Benita Eisler remembers about coming of age in the fifties, “Incessantly we’d grappled with the conflicting signals of sex as forbidden, dirty, dangerous, to be denied, and lied about, but also romantic, exciting and glamorous.” One sociologist underscored the dilemma of adolescent girls, “It seems that half the time of our adolescent girls is spent trying to meet their new responsibilities to be sexy, glamorous and attractive, while the other half is spent meeting their responsibility to be virtuous by holding off the advances which testify to their success.”(18) It was a delicate balancing act at best.

Susan Douglas posits that one legacy of popular culture in the fifties was the erosion of the unified self. That is, “presented with an array of media archetypes, and given morality tales in which we identify first with one type, then another…women have grown accustomed to compartmentalizing ourselves into a whole host of personas, which we occupy simultaneously.”(19) The fact that both Sandra Dee and Marilyn Monroe are sexual icons of the fifties underscores the sexual ambivalence of the period.

Both stars can be read as a metaphor for the cultural schizophrenia surrounding female sexuality in the fifties. Dee’s star persona is made up of oppositional qualities much like Monroe: She is both sexy and innocent, demure yet vivacious, fearful yet sensual. Dee thus embodies the cultural dichotomy of the fifties, the contradictory qualities existing simultaneously in one person that personify the sexual tensions that ran through the ideological life of the decades. Grease requires two characters, Rizzo and Sandy, to portray the oppositional characterizations of good girl and bad girl, but Dee did both all by herself. Sexual ambivalence is reconciled through the body and persona of Dee.


Dee was born Alexandra Zuck in Bayonne, New Jersey, on April 23, 1944. For years, her birthday was reported as 1942 to make her appear older. Her parents divorced when she was five. Her mother, Mary, worked as a secretary until 1950 when she married Eugene Douvan, a real estate investor and her boss. Part of the mythology of the Dee image was his oft-cited remark, “I’m not marrying your mother, I’m marrying both of you.” Unfortunately, Douvan really believed that, and his sexual abuse of Dee began while he was still dating her mother. Dee accompanied them on their honeymoon and was forced to sleep between her parents for several years. Douvan began having intercourse with Dee when she was about eight years old, abuse that Mary Douvan never acknowledged. When Dee began menstruating and developing breasts at nine, her mother had her bind her breasts and tried to deny Dee’s sexual maturation.(20)

Dee also became an anorexic the same year. While it is difficult to know the exact origins of the disease, it appears to have been caused by a number of things. In later years Dee attributed it to an offhand comment her stepfather made when she was ten years old. He placed his hand on her stomach and said, “Someone’s had too many pancakes.” It also might have stemmed from the force feedings Dee endured as a child. Her mother believed in putting all the food for a meal in one bowl. She would then feed Dee with a spoon, and not let the girl leave the table until all the food was eaten. This behavior went on until Dee was six years old. Certainly, the sexual abuse contributed to the anorexia, and, at age nine, it appeared to be a method Dee used to gain some control over her already unstable life.

Dee began modeling when she was ten and became a top Conover employee, earning as much as $75,000 a year. In 1956 her stepfather died during heart surgery. A few days later, producer Ross Hunter arranged a screen test for Dee after seeing her in a television commercial. She was signed to a seven-year contract with Universal-International and was immediately loaned to MGM to play the younger sister in Until They Sail. In her first year and a half she made four films: Until They Sail, The Reluctant Debutante, Stranger in My Arms, and The Restless Years. In 1959, she made another three films, Gidget, A Summer Place, and Imitation of Life.(21) In the same years, she was hospitalized three times for her anorexia, twice after overdoses of Epsom salts caused cardiac distress, and another time for severe edema caused by lack of protein. She met Bobby Darin in Rome in 1960 at age sixteen during the filming of Come September, and they were married after a whirlwind courtship.(22) The union produced one son, Dodd, born in 1961. She became an alcoholic during the turbulent marriage, which ended in 1967. By the late sixties, Dee virtually disappeared from the public eye to battle the demons of incest, alcoholism, and anorexia. Her career suffered from continued typecasting as an ingenue.

Dee’s story reveals the dark side, not only of family life, but of stardom in the 1950s. Dee’s life is in sharp contrast to her “circulated image,” which prompted responses from fans like the one who said of Dee, “She was what I hoped to be like — a darling girl, a perfect figure, pretty smile and dimples, all the clothes in the world and many boyfriends, plus an outstanding personality…I saw all the films she made and read all the articles in movie magazines on her.”(23)

The Dee mythology can best be traced in the hundreds of articles that appeared in the various fan magazines between 1958 and 1964, at the height of her popularity. Dee’s coverage was enormous, with approximately fifteen articles on Dee appearing in the various fan magazines every month. An analysis of these fan magazine articles reveal a number of themes: the idealization of her stepfather and family life, her preoccupation with her looks and dieting, and her social life. All of these taken together paint the picture of a conflicted and troubled girl, an image that hardly jibes with that of the girl next door.(24)

An example of this falsity is found in a 1958 article on Dee in Modern Screen about the initial meeting between Douvan and Dee’s mother at a charity raffle, where Dee was pulling numbers from a large drum. Douvan supposedly remarked, “I’ll bid a million dollars for the little girl!” Dee appeared to be the cherished daughter of this childless man, as she gushed, “They took me everywhere, even on their honeymoon.”(25) Today, such words have the power to inspire suspicion, yet as Linda Gordon reminds us, incest has seemingly been “discovered” only in the past twenty years and has been constructed as a “new” social problem. Dee’s life reveals that in 1960 a public consciousness about incest was almost nonexistent, although social workers had routinely handled cases since the nineteenth century. Incest was explained either as a result of female sexual delinquency, or experts asserted that it was “a rare sexual perversion, a one in a million occurrence.”(26)

Psychoanalytic and anthropological interpretations, as articulated by Sigmund Freud and Claude Levi-Strauss, assumed that incest taboos effectively stopped incest from occurring. Gordon shows how this ideology influenced social workers in the 1950s. She cites a psychiatrist who clearly suspected the reports of incest might be true, writing in 1954, “Most of us have trained ourselves to skepticism toward the claims of young girls who maintain they have been seduced by their fathers…. We must ask ourselves whether our tendency to disbelieve is not in part at least based on denial.” Nonetheless, for most mental health professionals, to admit that incest was occurring would threaten the most cherished beliefs about the family structure, and, ultimately, civilization.(27) Admitting that incest occurred in the 1950s also threatens conservatives’ notion of an idealized family life and exposes the false dichotomy that has been created — that is, that the family was in good shape in the fifties until it was “destroyed” by the liberal social policies of the sixties.

In a 1958 article on Dee, “The Men Who Excite Me,” the author predictably reported, “Although many men might excite her [Dee], none could measure up to the still-warm memory of her [step]father.”(28) In article after article, Dee’s film success is made to sound like a tribute from a dutiful daughter to her dead stepfather, who appears positively saintly. One fan magazine wrote of the late Douvan:

Eugene Douvan was to make life a fairy land for his new family. He showered them with gifts and bought them only the best. He adored them as only a big, generous man can adore the petiteness, the helplessness of women, and he was fiercely protective of them.(29)

The above quote underscores the adherence to normative gender roles, which is often characteristic of both incest victims and perpetrators. As Gordon observes, “Probably the most striking indication of the father’s power was his ability to create within the family an alternative psychosocial order, stable despite its contradictory relationship to larger community patterns.”(30) By day, Douvan appeared to be a man of largesse; by night, he became a man of even greater sexual appetites.

Eisler comments on the tendency of children in the fifties to contribute to the idealization of family life:

The real revelation for me was the role played by children in….keeping up appearances. Many of my friends had been pressed into service early as happy smiling fronts, emissaries of family normalcy, cheerful proof that “nothing was really wrong” at the Joneses.(31)

Dee would contribute to the fifties’ idealization of the family by keeping up the charade long after Douvan had died. His death is construed in the popular press as the great tragedy of her young life. Dee’s mother, Mary Douvan, was untruthfully portrayed as a saint, and she was also often grouped with Dee in fan magazine photographs in youthful poses, as a girlfriend: They were “almost like sisters.” Mary Douvan was constantly described as Dee’s “closest companion and friend.” Mary was complicit in creating the mythology of Dee and her great love for her stepfather through various articles she “wrote” for the fan magazines. She always tried to reassure fans that Dee was truly a typical teen.(32)

The complicity of her mother in creating this myth of a bountiful stepfather extended to Dee herself. The cornerstone of Dee’s relationship with her mother appeared to be denial, a denial that underscored most sexual matters in the fifties. When asked by her son Dodd many years later why she never told her mother of the incest, Dee replied, “In this way I was like my mother. Don’t say it and it won’t be true…. I’m sure my mother knew…. Turning a blind eye was her way of surviving.”(33) On the surface, Mary Douvan appeared to conform to the prescriptions of the period. Her first husband, Dee’s father, was not successful either by the standards of his family or his day. Mary tried to be the dutiful wife and helpmate, exhorting Zuck to be successful, but he never became more than a bus driver, and that was simply unacceptable to her. After their divorce, Mary was forced to go to work to support her young daughter. The rich, successful, stable Douvan must have seemed the answer to a prayer. Finally, Mary was able to conform to the notions of middle-class, white femininity being offered by popular culture. When faced with the alternative of her daughter’s welfare or her security, she chose the security, convincing herself she was doing it for her daughter. Dee’s success came on the heels of Douvan’s death, and Mary simply switched her identity from wife of a successful businessman to mother of a movie star. Although Mary Douvan was a bright woman, capable of taking care of herself, she became totally dependent on Dee as she had been on Douvan.

It was not until thirty years after Douvan’s death that Dee finally confronted her mother:

She was ranting into the night about what a saint Gene was, and I finally couldn’t stand it. I said, “He wasn’t a saint. He had sex with me.” She said, “You’re crazy and you’re drunk. Go to bed.” I went to bed and the next day, I said to her, “Now I’m sober. And it happened.” She didn’t say anything. She had nothing to come back with.(34)

They never spoke of it again. Instead, Mary continued to deny not only Dee’s incest, but also her daughter’s anorexia and alcoholism, and even her own final bout with cancer.

What is particularly striking to the modern reader when perusing the fan literature on Dee is the emphasis on her eating and dieting habits. There is such a clear indication of Dee’s obsession with regulating her food intake that it is difficult to imagine that someone close to her would not have noticed. Perhaps this negligence on the part of those around her illustrates that restricting food intake was, in fact, a normal preoccupation of girls in the fifties. The severity of her eating disorder fairly jumps off the pages of almost every article in the fan magazines. As one article predicted, “Her salad days may never be over.”(35) An article in the Los Angeles Mirror News reported, “Her lunch is a hard-boiled egg and half a head of lettuce — with a teaspoon of vinegar when she feels reckless.”(36) Susan Kohner, Dee’s co-star in Imitation of Life, admitted, “She’s never had any lunch since I’ve known her. She eats practically nothing for breakfast and not much more for dinner.” Despite this, Kohner alludes to Dee’s high level of energy.(37) As Joan Jacobs Brumberg reported, physicians in the 1950s began to notice that the obsession with thinness was linked to a preoccupation with food that was often expressed in cooking for others.(38) Dee was often photographed in the kitchen, and her cooking skills were frequently mentioned in the media.

Like incest, anorexia has also been constructed as a contemporary disease. Yet as Brumberg points out, there was an increase in reported cases of anorexia in the post World War II period. As she says, “Increasing numbers of adolescents…used appetite and eating as emotional instruments much as they had in early childhood.”(39) Her mother’s role in the creation of Dee’s eating disorder was underscored in an interview Douvan gave in 1958:

Sandy always had a mind of her own. I remember when she was about four and wouldn’t eat her cereal. Nothing would change her mind. I could stuff all the cereal I wanted into her mouth and she’d just keep it there till she turned blue.(40)

It would seem that by adolescence, Dee was still using food in a battle with her mother.

Not all the symptoms of anorexia went totally unrecognized. One fan magazine reported, “Sandy is underweight. Her back is so thin it has to be padded when it shows.”(41) In 1960, one Modern Screen reported “How She Almost Killed Herself” from her dieting during her modeling days, but Dee swore that she would never diet again, and “today I can eat anything!”(42) What was missing was any critical reaction by these magazines, again illustrating that dieting was a normal part of the female adolescent’s life. Ironically, the only contemporary commentator to react was Louella Parsons, after one of Dee’s hospitalizations due to the overdose of Epsom salts. Parsons wrote a didactic piece, admonishing Dee for her fad diets and warning other young girls not to follow Dee’s example.(43) During Dee’s pregnancy, her eating habits came under scrutiny again:

She has restricted her food intake for years — sometimes harmfully. At sixteen a dose of epsom salts hospitalized her…. Her continuing problem has been her diet. “I can’t develop a taste for things that are good for me.”(44)

In all, Dee suffered six miscarriages during her marriage, at least partially because of her eating disorders. Yet for the most part, the magazines do not face the implications of Dee’s eating habits and continued, instead, to emphasize her “doll-like, trim, petite,” five-foot four-inch, ninety-nine pound figure. This is hardly surprising in light of an increased media preoccupation with weight control and dieting for female adolescents. As Brumberg points out, it was about this time that Seventeen magazine took up the cause of dieting and made being thin “a critical dimension of adolescent beauty.” Moreover, weight control was privileged by prescriptive literature aimed at teenage girls as a “worthwhile endeavor with transforming powers.” In fact, the beauty ideal for adolescent girls as perpetuated by teen periodicals was the petite young woman as epitomized by Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee.(45) Thus spartan food regimes appeared to be not only a price of stardom, but the lot of all adolescent American girls.

Deborah Lupnitz has argued that anorexia is culturally analogous to incest:

In both eating disorders and incest, we find the reduction of the whole girl…to her parts. The female subject becomes the female object, from the point of view of others and eventually herself. The anorectic feels that she is nothing but her thighs and buttocks; the sexual abuser also sees the girl as little more than that. Both anorexia and incest are supported by a social context that makes use of female fragmentation.(46)

Not only was Dee a part of a cultural system that underscored female fragmentation through conflicting media archetypes, she was also part of an industry in which the female body is constituted as an object of spectacle, fetishized, and often hacked apart and dismembered by the editing process.

Dee’s virginal image was largely constructed by the discourse of the fan magazines. Articles like “Nobody Wants Me,” “I’m Ready for a Real Romance,” “It Can Be Lonely,” “Nobody Ever Carries My Books to School,” and “My Problem is Love” perpetuated the image of a shy, lonely girl.(47) In 1957, the Los Angeles Times Mirror reported that Dee “has no friends her own age, no time for the ice skating and horseback riding — no time for much of anything, but being an actress.”(48) She was still playing dutiful daughter when she told Louella Parsons in 1957:

My daddy…was such a wonderful man. He encouraged me in all my ambitions, but when I was twelve years old, he made me promise I wouldn’t date too early. He said, “Don’t have life come at you too quickly. Enjoy being a little girl while you can. Responsibility comes soon enough.”(49)

The article is darkly chilling in light of the sexual abuse and the early career that robbed Dee of a childhood. The picture that emerges is of a young girl (a girl two years younger than the magazines were reporting) who was more comfortable around adults than children her own age.

Yet what is also striking is the number of articles that suggest that Dee was a femme fatale of sorts. In 1957, when she was only thirteen years old, she was described by one newspaper as possessing “that super femininity that some call sex appeal.” Accounts of romances with a number of her leading men and other teen heartthrobs were published simultaneously with the articles portraying her as the dateless wonder. She was linked with such stars as Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue (all of whom are referenced in the “Look at Me” number from Grease, and all of whom, despite being icons of male sexuality in the fifties, were, in fact, gay), John Saxon, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Rick Nelson, Lindsay Crosby, and Rik Von Nutter.(50) Tantalizing articles such as, “Sandra Dee Didn’t Break Up My Marriage,” “Maybe It’s Love,” “The Hottest Gal in Town,” “Sweet or Sexy: The Gossip about Sandra Dee,” and “Saint and Sinner” underscore that Dee could be used to represent both saint and sex kitten.(51) Studio publicity constructed a persona that was alternately shy and withdrawn, yet sexy and popular.

Fan magazine articles made it clear that Dee had an eating disorder, and these same articles point to her serious personal problems, as well. In a 1958 interview, Dee confided:

I guess I’m self-conscious all the time. I hate myself for it. And I haven’t overcome it yet…. Mama says I’m a perfectionist. Anyway, I never feel I do well. I have actually gone home from the studio and cried. I can’t believe I can be good. I’m never satisfied.(52)

By 1960, one exposé tried to “Blast Those Lies about Sandra Dee” by combating rumors that she was “strange and neurotic,” rather than an “All-American girl.”(53) The evidence was there all the time for those looking for it, yet in the fifties, the subtext remained hidden, encoded in the narratives of fan magazines.

The construction of the Dee persona in the discourse of fan magazines is schizophrenic at best. She is alternatively shy yet outgoing, bubbly and perky, thoughtful and introspective, lonely yet popular, innocent and naive, yet mature beyond her years — the same characteristics she would bring to her screen portrayals. For the most part, however, she appears to be a parent’s dream of what a typical teenage gift should be: loyal, dutiful, obedient, adorable, virginal, and not at all affected by stardom. Yet, there were clear anxieties lurking below the surface of those fan magazines. Popular fan discourse reveals not only a cultural obsession with appearance, but also with sex. There is also an intense preoccupation with “being normal” and conforming to social prescriptions.

In 1966, Dee told film critic Charles Champlain that she had once told a fan magazine about her interest in the Civil Rights Movement, but Universal went to great lengths to kill the story because it did not fit with her image. She continued, “If I read and believed everything about me growing up, in that darling, pink world, I’d hate me. Or her. Nobody, except a moron, is that good all the time. If that were me, I was a vegetable or a child.”(54) That assessment may be a part of both Dee’s personal memory and the collective memory of the Dee persona, but it fails to capture the complexities of her most popular film roles of the fifties. In the remainder of this article, I focus on one of her most famous film performances of the fifties, A Summer Place. This performance not only emphasizes her conflicted sexual persona, but also illustrates that the construction of adolescent sexuality was more ambivalent than either conservative or liberal characterizations of the period would have us believe. In many ways A Summer Place exposes the moral facade of the fifties, as well as the hypocrisy surrounding advice to teenagers in general. The film also reveals Dee’s body as a façade — a facade that masks not only her sexuality but also her eating disorder.


Dee’s glossiest film role of the fifties was A Summer Place, one of the most explicit films about adolescent sexuality of the decade, and a film that helped define sexuality for adolescents of this period.(55) Dee plays Molly Jorgenson, the upper-middle-class daughter of self-made millionaire, Ken and his sexually inhibited wife Helen. Molly’s father brings his family back to Pine Island, Maine, an exclusive summer enclave where Ken used to be a lifeguard. On the island, he is reunited with his former adolescent lover, Sylvia, her alcoholic husband, Bart, and their teenage son, Johnny (Troy Donahue). Trapped in loveless and sexless marriages, Ken and Sylvia rekindle their romance, and their children begin a romance of their own.

The film is very voyeuristic, as both the audience and the main characters are positioned to gaze. Sexual voyeurism seems to characterize the fifties generally, in that there was an exaggerated interest in all sexual matters, an interest that tended to be wrapped in hypocrisy and sexual puritanism.(56) For example, the drunken Bart watches daily life on the island through a telescope, and Johnny and Molly first see each other through the lenses of their respective binoculars as the Jorgenson’s rented yacht pulls into the harbor at Pine Island. “Funny feeling, being looked at without knowing it,” Molly muses to her father after noticing Johnny’s gaze. She then admits to letting the boy next door watch her undress when she feels like being “naughty.” Later, she lets Johnny “watch” her again as she stands in front of an open window wearing only a slip. Molly is eroticized by the male gaze. Her body is continually fixed on the screen and held there in close-up as an object on which to gaze. She likes being looked at when she controls the gaze, although teen passion is characterized by its opposite, a lack of control. Prying eyes are everywhere on the island. The groundskeeper catches Johnny and Molly kissing in the harsh glare of the flashlight as Helen watches them from above. The young lovers are caught again during a clandestine meeting in front of the church by the town gossip.

Just as there were many social and cultural facades in the fifties, so, too, are there many facades on Pine Island. “Stretch the paint, all we need is a good front,” Bart instructs his handyman, underscoring the cultural concern for keeping up appearances and the desire for conformity and consensus. The decaying Victorian mansion becomes a metaphor of the two families’ lives. Bodily appearance is a facade as well. Helen is full of pretensions, overly concerned about appearances and how things will look to others. She forces Molly to dress “modestly” in outdated, ill-fitting clothing to hide her maturing body. Ken intervenes on her behalf, confronting Helen, “Molly has a lovely, healthy figure. Why do you insist on desexing her?” Molly’s facade as an “all-American” girl hides a young woman with strong passions.

A Summer Place highlights the inevitability and naturalness of adolescent sexual desire by placing sex in the forefront of the adolescent experience. Johnny and Molly share a kiss on a moonlight stroll with the refrain from A Summer Place playing softly in the background. Molly is doe-eyed and luminous. Johnny is shocked when she confesses to “necking on the roof” of her high school with the student body president during lunch hours, “`till I learned.” Molly is totally without guile or artifice. Helen, however, is disgusted by her daughter’s “cheap” behavior. She screams, “No decent girl lets a boy kiss and maul her on the first date.” Ken, the conscience of the film and champion of adolescent sexual desire, defends his daughter to his prudish wife, accusing her of suffocating Molly’s “natural impulses” and “making sex a dirty word.” Yet Helen continues to berate Molly, “Don’t underestimate the value of a decent reputation,” she warns. “You can’t let him think his kisses come cheap.” Although this was the standard message being offered by most advice books for teenage girls in this period, somehow the emptiness of Helen’s words is emphasized by the fact that they are delivered by a hysterical, sexually inhibited woman, thus offering a conflicting message to the female adolescent spectators.

Molly and Johnny are shipwrecked after an outing and forced to spend an innocent night alone on a deserted island. The depth of Helen’s paranoia, and the paranoia surrounding virginity in the fifties, is revealed when she forces Molly to be examined by a doctor to ascertain that she is still a virgin — the ultimate violation of the gaze. This scene stands in sharp contrast to films of the forties, which make the suspected loss of virginity the butt of a running joke in adolescent comedies of the 1940s, such as Janie, Kiss and Tell, and Father Was a Fullback.(5758) By the fifties, virginity was a deadly serious subject. Molly later confides to her father, “She [Mother] makes me afraid of my body, and after I have a naughty dream I feel like hanging myself…. She says all a boy wants from you is sex, and once you get married, it’s something you endure.” The secure comfort of Molly’s relationship with her father stands in sharp contrast to her tortured relationship with her mother.

Ken and Sylvia divorce their respective spouses and marry. They buy their own beach house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, beautiful and airy, a contrast to the rococo Victorian beach house. Johnny and Molly are reunited for spring break with their parents. Their reunion on the beach is spoiled by a group of rowdy young boys (again, watchful eyes for the young lovers). The two struggle to control their passion (“No, Johnny, we’ve got to be good,”) and caution each other with platitudes, which ring hollow compared to their physical desires. Dee was so thin that she could not be photographed in a bathing suit. Instead, she is wrapped in a modest beach jacket, an outfit that belies not only her desire but also her disorder. The two sneak off to a deserted lighthouse that Molly has found to be alone. Johnny tries to pull away, but it is Molly who encourages him to continue and they consummate their relationship as Ken and Sylvia had twenty years earlier. Molly, the sexual aggressor, is both wholesome and sexy. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy is negated by Molly’s actions.

Meanwhile, as Ken and Sylvia wait anxiously, they remember their own youthful passion and the fact that they “didn’t settle for a walk on the beach.” Their assessment of the situation is realistic, and they agree that any sexual advice they might try to give their children might be hypocritical. Ken asks, “Should I tell Molly, `Don’t let Johnny make love to you, but don’t be angry if he tries. Be a half-virgin, be half-good?'” Eventually, when Molly finds out she is pregnant from the sexual encounter, she and Johnny turn to Ken and Sylvia, who lovingly accept their situation. Bart, who is dying, has checked himself into a hospital and has left the house on Pine Island to Johnny. Johnny and Molly marry and go back to Pine Island. The closing shot reveals them finally free from prying eyes as they embrace on the pier and declare their love “in front of God and everyone.” With adult status comes freedom and control of the gaze. Although Molly has transgressed the norms of social behavior by having sex before marriage, even her resultant pregnancy is not a punishment. It is simply a way for her and Johnny to be together.

In the film, Dee’s character is supposed to be conflicted about her body, both self-conscious because of her mother’s admonitions to be ashamed and uninhibited in her desire to be looked at. Yet Dee moves awkwardly, self-consciously, and stiffly in role: This is clearly a woman who is not comfortable in her own skin. Her costumes send out mixed messages as well. Although her outfits are fairly conservative, tending toward modest shirtwaists with cinched waists or capri pants with baggy sweaters, she is photographed in two major scenes wearing only a slip. She is alternately positioned as a demure young woman and a sex kitten, again revealing the cultural schizophrenia of the period.

Marjorie Rosen said of Dee’s appeal, “[She] wove the transition between fifties and sixties nymphet, exhibiting a provocative self-awareness, almost a fear of her own sexuality, which in view of the decade’s moral expectations was sensible.”(58) In fact, as an incest survivor, Dee was probably drawing on her own real fear of sex. It was hardly a pose. Instead of being read as representations of virginity, her films can be read as representations of conflicted and ambiguous feelings about sex. Her characterizations offer adolescent spectators a number of paradigms for sexual behavior, such as the “good girl” who also has sexual desire. Dee’s film roles thus do not simply mirror existing ideological norms of sexual behavior, revealing the limitations of existing societal prescriptions about sex. Her roles are not so much about what Elaine Tyler May terms “sexual containment” as they are about the dangers of trying to contain sex.(59) George Lipsitz has noted that films “often express the pent-up frustrations of an era, not reflecting dominant views as much as prefiguring the next swing of the pendulum.”(60) Certainly, stars themselves can also express societal contradictions, as is the case with the Dee persona who in many ways anticipates the sexual revolution. Dee’s own conflicts about sex, both on screen and off, then, underscore existing cultural tensions ready to explode.

At the end of Grease, Sandy metamorphoses from virgin to vixen, revealing that nice girls really wanted sex after all. The same can be said of Dee in many of her screen characterizations. The narratives of Dee’s films involve conflicts that recognize adolescent sexual desire, a recognition that is absent from the public discourse about sex for teenage girls. These conflicts are embodied in the person of Sandra Dee, who reconciles the two in her characterizations, perhaps allowing female spectators to reconcile the contradictory aspects of their experiences and to come to terms symbolically with their own sexual ambivalence.

Dee might have helped make teenage girls more ambivalent about their bodies, however. Although appearance had long been an important component of the life of an adolescence girl, it took on new significance in the 1950s because of the increased market power of teens, and because of the premium placed on looks for girls in the social marketplace.(61) Appearance was stressed as the basis for success, and as Breines points out, “Emphasis on female attractiveness strengthened traditional feminine behavior; females were to be chosen by males on the basis of their media-defined sexual allure.”(62) Dee herself helped to create media standards of beauty, first as a model and later as an actress. On the surface she was the embodiment of the ideal — petite and blond-haired — yet she hated her body. Dee’s “look” was achieved at great cost, not only to Dee, but perhaps also to the girls who tried to emulate her.

Dee’s iconic value is not only part of the political nostalgia that continues to frame the fifties but is also a part of the liberal critique of it as well. Even while Dee appeared to be conforming to conservative ideals of the period as the embodiment of the “girl next door,” her film characterizations undermined these values, and her life and film characterizations reveal that there was an underside of American life and families in the 1950s. Dee’s story reminds us of “the way we never were” and also of the way Dee never was, either. Deconstructing the Dee trope reveals the continuities and conflicts with the past, rather than obscuring them. The Dee trope is the repository of a lie, not only about the girl we knew as Sandra Dee, but also about women in the fifties as well.


(1). Grease, 110 min. Paramount, Hollywood, Calif., 1978.

(2). Sandra Dee, “Learning to Live Again,” People, March 18, 1991, 87-94.

(3). For a discussion of conservatives and the myth of a golden age see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 1-7.

(4). Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963); and Joanne Meyerowitz, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946-1958,” in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, ed. Joanne Meyerowitz (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 251.

(5). See Meyerowitz, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique”; Coontz, The Way We Never Were; Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992); Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (New York: Routledge, 1992); Benita Eisler, Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties (New York: Franklin Watts, 1986); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988); Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History (New York: Harper Collins, 1993); Brandon French, On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties (New York: Ungar, 1978); and Marty Jezer, The Dark Ages: Life in the United States, 1945-1960 (Boston: South End Press, 1982).

(6). Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979), 68-70.

(7). Cited by Thomas P. Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 196.

(8). See Susan Bordo, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology and the Crystallization of Culture,” and “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault,” in Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Femininism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 139-64 and 165-184; and Sandra Lee Bartky, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, ed. Rose Weitz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 25-46.

(9). The term “mammary madness” comes from Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1973), 182.

(10). The Seven Year Itch, 105 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1955; All About Eve, 138 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1950; There’s No Business Like Show Business, 117 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1954; How to Marry a Millionaire, 96 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1953; and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 91 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1953.

(11). Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York: Penguin, 1986), 255; and Rosen, Popcorn Venus, 286-93. For interpretations of Monroe that reject the notion that she was a “victim” of Hollywood, see Barbara Learning, Marilyn Monroe (New York: Crown Publishers, 1998); Norman Mailer, Marilyn: A Biography (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1973); and Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: the Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), and American Monroe: The Making of a Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

(12). The Girl Can’t Help It, 97 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1967.

(13). “Sandra Dee Ends Long Hitch with Universal,” Variety, June 21, 1968, 5.

(14). John Ellis, “Stars as Cinematic Phenomena,” in Star Texts: Images and Performance in Film and Television, ed. Jeremy Butler (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 311.

(15). Dyer, Stars, 71. For a revisionist reading of Doris Day, see Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, 262-67.

(16). Take Her She’s Mine, 98 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1963; If a Man Answers, 102 min. Universal, Hollywood, Calif., 1962; Tammy Tell Me True, 97 min. Universal-International, Hollywood, Calif., 1961; and Tammy and the Doctor, 88 min. Universal-International, Hollywood, Calif., 1963.

(17). Breines, Young, White, and Miserable, 87.

(18). Eisler, Private Lives, 129. For a discussion of collective memory and popular culture, see George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

(19). Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times Books, 1994), 13.

(20). The biographical information on Dee was compiled from a number of sources including Dodd Darin and Maxine Paetro, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Life of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee (New York: Warner Books, 1994); and Dee, “Learning to Live Again.”

(21). Until They Sail, 95 min. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Hollywood, Calif., 1967; The Reluctant Debutante, 96 min. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Hollywood, Calif., 1958; Stranger in My Arms, 88 min. Universal-International, Hollywood, Calif., 1958; The Restless Years, 86 min. Universal-International, Hollywood, Calif., 1959; Gidget, 95 min. Columbia, Hollywood, Calif., 1959; A Summer Place, 130 min. Warner, Hollywood, Calif., 1959; and Imitation of Life, 124 min. Universal-International, Hollywood, Calif., 1959.

(22). Come September, 112 min. Universal, Hollywood, Calif., 1961.

(23). Quoted by Orrin E. Klapp, Collective Search for Identity (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969), 215.

(24). The clipping files on Dee at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles contain virtually every article written on Dee between 1958 and 1964.

(25). Sandra Dee, “Hi, I’m Sandra Dee,” Modern Screen, April 5, 1958, 54.

(26). Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence: Boston, 1880-1960 (New York: Viking, 1988), 207.

(27). Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives, 208.

(28). Diane Redfield, “Sandra Dee — The Men Who Excite Me,” Movie Life, April 1958, 30.

(29). Betsy Harris, “She’s Darling, She’s Different, She’s Delightful,” Motion Picture, October 1958, 58.

(30). Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives, 233.

(31). Eisler, Private Lives, 170.

(32). See Mary Douvan, “Sandy,” Modern Teen, February 1958, 7; Mary Douvan, “My Daughter Sandra,” Movieland and TV Times, November 1958, 45-48; and Mary Douvan, “I’m for Real — Honest,” Movieland and TV Times, October 1959, 24-28.

(33). Darin and Paetro, Dream Lovers, 38. In 1991, People magazine featured a cover story on another incest survivor of the fifties, Marilyn Van Derber, Miss America 1958. See “The Darkest Secret,” People, June 10, 1991, 88-94.

(34). Darin and Paetro, Dream Lovers, 39.

(35). Maxine Block, “Enduring Young Charmer,” Screenland, April 1958, 39.

(36). Darin and Paetro, Dream Lovers, 80.

(37). Susan Kohner, “Is Sandra Dee Stuck Up?” Screen, December 1959, 32.

(38). Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 229. Brumberg also discusses the preoccupation with food intake in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997), 119-24.

(39). Brumberg, Fasting Girls, 10-11.

(40). Mary Douvan, “My Daughter, Sandra Dee,” Family Weekly, November 3, 1958, 18-19.

(41). “I Have No Friends,” Modern Screen, July 1959, 79.

(42). “How She Almost Killed Herself,” Modern Screen Yearbook, No. 3 (1960), 54.

(43). Louella Parsons, “Let Sandra Dee Be a Warning,” Modern Screen, February 1960, 20-22.

(44). “Is Childbirth Safe for Sandra Dee?” Movie Stars, November 1961, 27-28.

(45). Brumberg, Fasting Girls, 251; and Lois Banner, American Beauty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 283-84.

(46). Deborah Lupnitz, The Family Interpreted: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Family Therapy (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 225.

(47). “Nobody Wants Me,” Screen Stars, October 1959, 35; Karen Foster, “I’m Ready for a Real Romance,” Screen Stars, November 1959, 18-20; “It Can Be Lonely,” Photoplay, November 1959, 54-56; “Nobody Ever Carries My Books to School,” Photoplay, June 1959, 23-25; and Lou Larkin, “My Problem is Love,” Movie World, March 1959, 18-21.

(48). Quoted in Darin and Paetro, Dream Lovers, 80.

(49). Louella Parsons, “Sandra Dee: Everything Is the Most,” Los Angeles Examiner Pictorial, December 1957, 44.

(50). Darin and Paetro, Dream Lover, 79.

(51). Dee Spencer, “Sandra Dee Didn’t Break Up My Marriage,” Movie Life, May 1959, 35-36; “Maybe It’s Love,” Modern Screen, September 1959, 22-24; “The Hottest Gal in Town,” Screen Parade, July 1959, 40-42; Jean Roberts, “Sweet or Sexy: The Gossip about Sandra Dee,” TV Life, November 1960, 17-18; and Mark Anderson, “Sandra Dee: Saint or Sinner?” Screen Stars, July 1960, 25-27.

(52). “It Can Be Lonely,” 91.

(53). Mike Connally, “Mike Connally Blasts Those Lies about Sandra Dee,” Screen Stories, June 1960, 50-52.

(54). Charles Champlin, “It’s D-Day for Sandra’s Image,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1966, 12.

(55). When I was discussing this paper with a colleague at a professional conference a few years ago, she described herself as “the horniest eight year old on earth.” She said that seeing A Summer Place gave her “permission to be sexual.”

(56). See Betty Friedan, “The Sexual Sell,” in The Feminine Mystique, 201-27. See also Breines, “Sexual Puzzles,” in Young, White, and Miserable, 84-126; and Douglas, “Sex and the Single Teenager,” in Where the Girls Are, 61-81.

(57). Janie, 106 min. Warner, Hollywood, Calif., 1944; Kiss and Tell, 92 min. Columbia, Hollywood, Calif., 1945; and Father Was a Fullback, 84 min. Twentieth Century Fox, Hollywood, Calif., 1949. For a discussion of screen comedies of the 1940s see Georganne Scheiner, Signifying Female Adolescence: Film Representations and Fans 1920s-1950s (Greenwich, Conn.: Praeger, 2000), 103-111.

(58). Rosen, Popcorn Venus, 311.

(59). For a discussion of “sexual containment,” see May, Homeward Bound, 13-14.

(60). Lipsitz, Time Passages, 165.

(61). For a discussion of the market power of teens, see James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 174-75; and Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 97-115.

(62). Breines, Young, White, and Miserable, 105.

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