Seitz Asks is a weekly feature in which our critic proposes a question about the medium, gives his own answer, then engages with readers about their responses.
So who was my first TV crush? Mary Ann Summers from Gilligan’s Island and Bailey Quarters from WKRP in Cincinnati. I realize I’m cheating by listing two characters, but hey, there’s an autobiographical reason for it.
I was in elementary school when I first started watching Sherwood Schwartz’s island sitcom in repeats. But in its goofy way, the juxtaposition of Dawn Wells’s farm girl Mary Ann Summers and Tina Louise’s Marilyn Monroe–wannabe Ginger Grant got me thinking about what attractive meant and how I would define it.
One of the sitcom’s conceits was that a whisper of interest from Ginger could make any man stutter and bump into palm trees. But even as an elementary-school dork, I knew Ginger was trying too hard — and that was, to use Playboy’s phrase, a turn-off. Ginger’s constant complaining and neediness neutralized the heat she generated when she did her slinky va-va-voom thing. Mary Ann, on the other hand, was pretty (pretty curvy, actually), smart, optimistic, adaptable, and handy in a crisis. You’d never see her whining or shirking or faking the vapors like Ginger when the time came to build a pedal-powered generator or bamboo interstate. Mary Ann was present. Mary Ann was invested.
I never bought the argument (advanced in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, in this video about the “binary babe theorem” of sitcoms, and elsewhere) that Ginger and Mary Ann expressed the Madonna-Whore split in men’s psyches. I rejected this theory instinctively for one reason: Mary Ann was a farm girl. My grandpa grew up in rural Missouri one farm over from a family with five wild sisters. I overheard him and his brothers swapping nostalgic stories about the “parties” they used to attend over there when the sisters’ parents were away. I didn’t understand all the slang they used, but I knew enough to deduce that Mary Ann might not be an innocent prairie flower after all, and that if she ever got Gilligan alone in a hut, he might emerge hours later with a full beard and chest hair, crooning “Love Serenade” in baritone.
After a couple of years, I’d graduated to Jan Smithers’s Bailey Quarters on WKRP in Cincinnati, who was basically a Chicago-bred Annie Hall with curves. I think my voice might have actually broken while watching the episode in which the characters assume fake personas to fool a consultant. To my hormone-clouded 11-year-old eyes, Bailey’s “stoned” impression read as “having a hell of a good time messing with you” and “up for whatever.” Her teasing rendition of the Nestle jingle was sexy as hell.
I also liked how Bailey got tougher and smarter with each passing season, evolving from a soft-spoken, deferential office drone to a reporter who campaigned for the ERA and threw lit matches at Herb Tarlek’s polyester suit. She was a real-world Mary Ann to the show’s resident Ginger, Loni Anderson’s Jennifer Marlowe, who presented as a dumb blonde but was actually the most competent person at WKRP besides station manager Andy Travis. On paper, the characters were equally sexy, albeit different. Yet Jennifer Marlowe never did much for me. There was something off about her presentation. Her clichéd, super-high-maintenance ideas of beauty called her supposed levelheadedness into question. She was shellacked in sexiness. Her outfits and hair and makeup were her armor. If you saw her on the street you might think she was going to a costume party. But if you saw Bailey, you’d think, What a knockout. And what a great laugh. I wonder if she has a boyfriend?
Puberty hit around the same time that I started reading pulp sci-fi and fantasy novels, which meant real women were briefly eclipsed by Frank Frazetta–style illustrations of babes in chain-mail bikinis riding giant lizards. I outgrew these images the moment I got an actual girlfriend. Familiar story, I know — but hey, it’s mine.
Oops, sorry – I was having a grainy Super 8mm flashback scored to Led Zeppelin “Misty Mountain Hop“, and I lost the thread. Remind me, what were we talking about?
Oh, right. First TV crush.
Your turn, reader. I want details, the more embarrassing the better.