Patron Saint of Restraint
Doris Day mastered the arcane guidelines and strictures of pre-pill femininity.
BY WENDY BOURGEOIS
WHEN I READ Doris Day died, on the eve of another southern state stomping on my reproductive rights and breaking my heart, I went straight home and curled up to watch Pillow Talk. The plot is stupid. It’s got Tony Randall and Rock Hudson and Thelma Ritter. It’s cute. It’s colorful. The clothes are terrific, and despite all its corny falsehoods, Pillow Talk suits my mood. Pillow Talk came out in 1959, just one year before the pill did, the last flowering of high stakes virtue- (if not virginity-) guarding. Jan, played by Day, must do her own guarding, though. No fathers and brothers where she works in her office in the big city—she’s got only her wits and dignity to protect her, so it's a marriage plot kind of, but also a dangerous adventure.
I feel, before I continue, that I must mount a defense of Doris, whom my mother hated, and understandably so. Mom was ten when Pillow Talk came out, a mere five years before she would get pregnant and kicked out of school and into a marriage with another teenager. The pill hadn’t made its way to her junior high in Orange, Texas. Maybe it still hasn’t. Her father told her then, “You are too smart to ever be happily married.” As if any fifteen-year-old could or should be happily married, for any reason. He guessed right, though, and she was hitchhiking to Canada alone by twenty, where I would be born, in swinging Montreal. In my baby book lives a crumpled newspaper photo of me, aged one or so, on Mom’s shoulders at a pro-choice rally.
To Mom, Doris’s creamy business suits and helmet hair symbolized everything her generation fought to abandon, with mixed results. Doris was clean, Protestant, middle class, perky, and marriage obsessed, like a photo negative of Liz Taylor, who in her personal life clearly won the title of most marriage obsessed, though she usually played a languorous, fur-covered tart. Doris, in her films, stood up straight and never gave it up without a ring. She also had a JOB. She needed to look crisp and keep her shoulders back. She knew that if you wanted to marry on your own terms, you better have an income of your own and a spiffy apartment, and you’d better avoid getting knocked up, if you could, because that would be the end of your career, your freedom, and your reputation. Marriage would only save you from one of three.
She was barely in time. Soon, the cool kids saw DD as hopelessly repressed and unsexy, and conservatives saw a poster girl for hygiene and morals. But there’s no real commentary on virtue in Pillow Talk. We never get the sense that sleeping around is wrong, just stupid. Rock Hudson’s many girlfriends wander around like toddlers, wide eyed and naïve in pastels (Doris sticks to white and black), falling for the trite, romantic garbage he manufactures with practiced ease.
Doris, in her DF movies (delayed fuck, as she called them) is as horny as the next gal. When asked to describe her swoony new beau, she says, “He’s six-foot-six and owns a mountain.” This is not a woman who doesn't care about getting laid. I suppose you might say that she cares more about the owning a mountain bit, but that’s not how she looks at him, or how she sighs when she says his name, running her naked foot along the bathroom tile.
The truth, says the pragmatist, is what works, and Pillow Talk shows us what worked for finding love, sex, and marriage in 1959. The wolves of New York want sex, and Jan (our Doris as mid-century-fabulous interior decorator) wants a love she doesn’t have to sacrifice her integrity or lifestyle for. The other great romantic comedy of the moment, The Apartment (it came out eight months later), shows us what it looks like for the girl who gives up the sex without first asking for a mountain. Definitely a better movie, but not one I’d watch for comfort. Shirley MacLaine’s tears stick with you, because you can tell that pain won’t be sliding off her face like so much mascara just because Jack Lemon is a nice guy.
Doris wins, though. She wins because she’s competent, industrious, and she knows her own value. She’s the pull-it-up-by-your-garters gal, winning the American Dream through hard work, coupled with libidinal discipline and a lot of structured work wear. Tony Randall tries to buy her with a blue convertible, and Rock Hudson lies, cheats, and steals in order to lure her into his bachelor’s lair, complete with automated pull-out couch. He fakes a personality, a Texas accent, and in one scene he even “fakes” being gay, in the old fashioned way, asking for recipes for his mother.
Now I don’t have time here to go into too much detail about the sexual politics of gay Rock playing straight Rex playing gay Rex, but as in all good comedies of errors, everyone is lying to everyone else like crazy and everyone knows it—except for Doris, who is scrupulously honest, which causes her no end of inconvenience and embarrassment. Everyone tries to manipulate her, but she doesn’t really mind, because she knows what she’s got is worth fighting over. In an early scene, a young “Harvard Man” skips the lying and goes straight for attempted rape in a car. She fights back with righteous indignation, the weapon of choice for a girl with the correct class background. She succeeds because this is a comedy, and because we know Jan is “respectable.” Day communicates her boundaries, clearly, loudly, and with force. We get the impression that she’s been here before, and feels mildly irritated (rather than terrified or enraged) that once again, some entitled brat wants the milk for free. She never pretends lack of interest in selling the cow, though—just not to him. It’s depressing, this scene, not because of date rape-y content, but because of how bored she seems with it all, like: just another Saturday night defending your honor. No wonder women then wore those intense girdles—panty armor.
I suppose we thought at the time that tossing the old courtship rules would put men and women on more honest, even footing, but it sure doesn’t feel like it worked out that way. We once thought Doris symbolized repression, but perhaps we could rename it restraint. Easier to maintain, I’d guess, before one could reliably remain not pregnant, but still not easy. I myself never had any restraint, and I suffered the consequences, as well as the rewards.
My sex life started thirty years after 1959, and still it careened around the same vertiginous cliffs of sleazy dudes, broken hearts, and pregnancy scares, except it wasn’t funny. Everyone thinks these rom-coms, these cheeky little romps, are bullshit, even women (who should know better), even me. And maybe they are, but at least they acknowledge the primacy of these dramas in our lives. Not many of us, male or female, are international spies, but every major crisis or decision I ever made in my entire life was tangled up in sex, love, and reproduction, either getting into it or out of it or justifying my intent to avoid it entirely. I couldn’t even leave my small town and go to college without having an abortion first. If I had stayed there and married my boyfriend, I shudder to think what would have happened. In fact, I know what would have happened. I still keep in touch with those friends who are raising their grandchildren now, and though I would never disparage their life choices, it certainly wasn’t for me. He wasn’t for me. And I could not have known that beforehand. I was a kid.
This was in Texas, by the way. Getting an abortion in Texas in 1990 was easy, even for a young, lost girl such as myself. I didn’t have to skip town or even face slavering, sign-waving Baptists. It was hard, and I was sad, but I never, ever regretted it. I made much worse decisions. Even the good decisions I made, like, to have kids eventually, ended in twenty-plus years making peanut butter and jellies through panic and tears over money, exhaustion, and loneliness.
When I first saw Pillow Talk, I was a single parent, snuggled up with my girlfriend on a snowy weekend. The kids’ dad couldn’t get them back to me from across town, and those three days without them were likely my first kid vacation for more that thirty-six hours since they were born. I love my kids, they are the greatest thing that ever happened to me, etc., but I would be lying if I failed to mention that raising them was hard, expensive labor, and that forcing someone into that labor, as Georgia and Alabama lawmakers are attempting to do, is cruelty of the highest order. You need, I needed, help and resources, the kind a multigenerational family or an economically and emotionally generous and stable partner might provide. I could have used someone who owned a mountain.
And am I saying “Oh well, hey girls, instead of enjoying sex and pleasure however you want, with your very own body, keep it in your shift dress like Doris, and you’ll all live happily ever after, even though most of you are not, in fact, an interior decorator in New York, but more likely young, and scared, with limited resources and a longing for love and touch bigger than you know what to do with?” Am I saying “MAKE THEM BUY THE COW,” and make them pay premium?
No, I am not. And yet, what sort of compromise is available to those girls? What should they do? How do they navigate these most basic human needs and instincts, without going to jail, raising kids they don’t want, or dying inside? How do they keep from getting pregnant on purpose or on accident, consensually or not, without exhausting and limiting themselves through constant genital vigilance? How are they expected to balance the consequences of unplanned pregnancy for men and women equally under current conditions, even a little bit?
All these senators just dying to get rid of Roe v. Wade, do they think the world will go back to 1959, with chipper, self-contained dames and handsome bachelors getting married and raising kids on a single income? This was barely true then, when the economy flourished. I’ve heard more than once from relatives that all the world’s ills, from poverty and crime to drug addiction, are caused by single mothers. That’s right: caused by.
Doris Day the actress was married four times. She had one son, with her first husband. Her third husband lost all her money through bad investments, though she was able to recover somewhat after his sudden death. Her fourth husband, a maître d, claimed he left her after four short years because Day, a lifelong animal lover, liked her animals more than him. If I’m honest, I don’t know anyone whose love life looked like Pillow Talk. My grandparents on both sides got married and stayed married under a variety of unpleasant, depression-era circumstances, and their married lives were hard. My paternal grandmother, for example, had fourteen kids. I once met a girl, when I worked at a Jack in the Box, who was about to have her third child. She was seventeen. When I asked her if she would ever get her tubes tied, she looked at me with horror. No man would ever want a woman who couldn’t give him babies, she said. The father of the baby in her belly was thirty-six. He picked her up from work sometimes. These “choose life” scenarios don’t seem all that morally evolved to me.
So why, in the face of this curtailing of a fundamental human right for half our citizens, am I still charmed by Pillow Talk and its ilk? Contemporary film is filled with Furiosa-from-Mad-Max-type amazons. No judgment; I too find it an appealing fantasy. But Jan isn’t conflicted about being a woman. She’s not trying to butch it up or get a gun. I do tire of so many women in movies and TV who are heroic precisely to the degree that they aren’t girly. Maybe I like Doris Day movies because she seems so sure footed, so certain in her own skin, despite the relentless tide of entitled men of bad character. She’s not afraid, though perhaps she should be, but she’s also not naïve. Doris is determined to make femininity work for her, even though it means mastering an endless litany of arcane guidelines and strictures. It was a lot, but she made it look easy—like all great performers do.