Remembering Doris Day and Peggy Lipton: Icons of White Femininity

By Sullivan, Rebecca; Women's Studies et al. | The Canadian Press, May 16, 2019 | Go to article overview

Remembering Doris Day and Peggy Lipton: Icons of White Femininity


Sullivan, Rebecca, Women's Studies, Calgary, University of, The Canadian Press


Remembering Doris Day and Peggy Lipton: Icons of white femininity

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Rebecca Sullivan, Women's Studies, University of Calgary, University of Calgary

Within the space of two days, we saw the passing of two icons of white femininity: Doris Day and Peggy Lipton. While these two Hollywood actors occupy opposite sides of the American postwar sexual revolution, their deaths in the same week provoke some reflection on the sexual and racial politics that persist in popular culture.

"White femininity" is a convoluted concept that reinforces society's racist and sexist biases by the way it represents desirable but unattainable white woman. Marilyn Monroe is an icon of white femininity, as is Princess Diana. Examining the cultural significance of such women can help untangle the ugly persistence of this ideology in its contemporary form.

'Perpetually virginal'

Doris Day, the better known of the two actors, was known as "perpetually virginal and hopelessly unhip," as film scholar Dennis Bingham put it. Yet, she was the queen of early '60s sex comedies, coyly flirtatious films filled with sexual innuendo and double entendres. The most famous of these, Pillow Talk (1959), the first of three that co-starred Rock Hudson, established her persona as an independent and successful career woman, as comfortable in the board room as she was in jazz clubs. Just don't try to manoeuvre her into the bedroom.

Day herself mocked her caricature-ish virginity in her 1976 autobiography, but the image stuck. Dwight MacDonald, writing in Esquire in 1962 called her "as wholesome as a bowl of cornflakes and about as sexy." He drew attention to her blonde perkiness as the "standard American (female) face, speaking in terms of aspirations rather than of realities." That kind of puritanical sexiness promised both purity and promiscuity in equal measure.

In a still deeply segregated Hollywood imaginary, the purity was represented by a woman's fair, Nordic features. The promiscuity was hinted at by placing the dazzlingly white woman in underground, urban cultures. Indeed, it's at a basement jazz club that Rock Hudson begins to truly fall for Doris Day as she sings "Roly Poly" with an African-American singer, Perry Blackwell.

Sexual and racial purity

Richard Dyer unpacked this contradictory impulse in his landmark book, White (1997). Whiteness is the condition of being simultaneously "everything and nothing," of holding complete representational power while appearing unremarkable. It was not only a hallmark of racial purity but also of sexual purity -- especially for women. At a time when American popular culture still cautioned women to remain chaste, it also revelled in the possibility of ripping away the vestiges of heteronormative domesticity to expose a nation's sexual frustration.

Of course, ultimately satisfying those desires was only possible for men. Women who "gave in" became instantly undesirable, spoiled for any kind of long-term commitment. They not only betrayed their gender, but also their race. How could whiteness be superior if white people were susceptible to the lustfulness they imagined poisoning other races?

While a white man could temporarily escape such sexual-racial restrictions by preying upon non-white women, a white woman having sex with anyone of any race was the ultimate betrayal of whiteness because their purity was forever sullied and, in the eugenical attitudes that still prevailed, it was feared that corruption could be passed down to their children.

If all this sounds confusing, it's because racism usually is. …

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