January 1, 2021

Dawn Wells, R.I.P.

If there's one phrase that keeps appearing in the outpouring of affection and sadness over the death of Dawn Wells, it's a charmingly outdated one: "the girl next door." Is there such a thing anymore? Judging by the way women are portrayed on television--not just in scripted comedy and drama, but in reality shows as well--it seems as if "desirable" has come to mean being overly made up, overly endowed, overly loud and overly dramatic. And I suppose that would describe the girl next door, if you lived next door to the Osbornes or the Real Housewives of whatever city happens to be cursed at the moment. 

But for people here in flyover country, it means something else to be the girl next door, and if you want to know what that means then all you have to do is look at the career of Dawn Wells, especially during the three seasons she played Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan's Island. She was bright, pretty, well-scrubbed, and had a goodness about her that was obviously there and obviously real. And, judging by the comments of those who knew her or worked with her over the years, that was pretty much Dawn as much as it was Mary Ann. Not for nothing does Mary Ann win all those "Mary Ann vs. Ginger" polls.

It would be cynical of me to suggest that the idea of the girl next door no longer exists; it speaks ill not only of the women who fit that category, but the men who hope to meet them. And yet I'd be less than truthful if I didn't at least note that, in a year where so much that once seemed timeless and permanent has either been cast out or simply drifted away, this somehow seems to put a stamp on it. And if this, too, smacks of excess cynicism, then let's keep in mind that Dawn Wells hasn't really left us. She's there any time we watch one of her performances, when we can still make time stand still, for an hour or so at a time. TV  

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