The Surprisingly Girl Empowering Read… GIDGET

by Dr. Rosanne Welch

While I have a whole lot of other work to do, I was drawn to spend the weekend reading Gidget: the Little Girl with Big Ideas, (by Frederick Kohner) thanks to my friend Ken Lazebnik’s book Hollywood Digs which includes an interview with the real life Franzie Kohner who IS Gidget. In fact, she kindly appeared with Ken at a book reading he did in Malibu a while back (on a side note, that presentation happened at a bookstore that is now closed so this is my friendly reminder that if we don’t patronize our local bookstores, we will lose them — just a friendly reminder).

Before actually reading the book I didn’t know it had a longer title than “Gidget” and I didn’t know gidget stood for “girl midget” since she was so small on her surfboard (and now wonder how many women were named Gidget without knowing that); I didn’t know her father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who came to LA to be a screenwriter; and I didn’t know the book was going to be so good (both Gidget AND Hollywood Digs! — which I knew would be good because Ken is such a wonderfully evocative writer). I suggest them both as good summer reads, but I’m going to talk about Gidget for several reasons, among them it is summer and in Southern California that suggests beaches and that suggests teenagers having bonfires and fun at the beach and all these things happen in Gidget. BUT a lot of other stuff happens that makes Gidget a much more mature read than most people assume.

Turns out when it was released Gidget was compared favorably to Catcher in the Rye by book critics… and probably lost its edge in readers’ minds thanks to the bubblegum reputation the films gave the story — compounded by the fact that it was a girl’s coming of age story and not a boy’s. I learned long ago in teaching American Literature, to an all girl high school of all things, that educators believe girls will read about boy protagonists (in an effort to understand them enough to hook them) but boys will not be as enthusiastic about reading the story of a girl protagonist). So schools adjusted and chose mostly books with male protagonists for high school students of both sexes to study, which means boys lost the chance to learn the lessons first generation immigrants surviving economic hardship from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, among other losses. Hence, my seventeen year old son just spent the last two months of his junior year reading Catcher in the Rye — a book I admit I read once — because I had to — and never cared to read again, which to me is the definition of a bad book, not a good one. I mean, I have said this often, but when I have deadlines to meet in my writing life the last thing I can risk doing is picking up In Cold Blood or Breakfast at Tiffanys because anything by Truman Capote ensnares me in the first few sentences. I mean, listen to the opening lines from In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansan a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”. Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. He local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, an ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear frontier trousers, Stetsons and –“

No — wait — see? Capote did it to me again! I have a segment to write but instead I want to curl up in my chair and read all 343 pages of my copy — and then I turned to the last page to see how many pages there were and read the last few paragraphs and started to cry. THAT’s writing! And that’s not what I ever found in Catcher in the Rye, which I was forced to read by one of those curriculums that required girls to read about boy protagonists. Granted, I didn’t cry at Gidget either, (it’s not that kind of book) but I did THINK, and that matters to me when claiming something is a good read.

Of course, the advent of such things as The Hunger Games trilogy seems to belie the idea that boys will only read about boys — but you’ll notice publishers felt that in order to engage boy readers Katniss needed to wield a weapon, not merely master a craft such as surfing — which is another reason to return to reading Gidget.

All of this mulling about reading requirements for boys versus girls reminds me of a TED Talk on How Movies Teach Manhood that I showed students the other day by Colin Stokes, director of communications for the non-profit Citizen Schools. He compares the heroine of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale from Kansas, to Luke Skywalker of everyone’s much beloved Star Wars and finds that Dorothy triumphs by mastering the leadership skills of working with others and bringing them together toward a common goal that benefits all while Luke triumphs as an individual by mastering a violent skill that requires killing the enemy to win.

My comparison between Gidget and Catcher seems similar in that Gidget experiments in the world of romance and sex without needing to make the acquaintance of a hooker — yet high schools read Holden’s story as literature and are never exposed to Gidget’s story at all. In reading of the way a teenage girl in the late 1950s drove her own car to the beach every day one summer and spent hours there unsupervised by parental figures at all while she earned the respect of a band of traveling surfers who normally considered girls to be for dating. Watching her earn that respect by taking surfing lessons from their ‘leader’ and then mastering the craft is every bit as empowering as watching Katniss kill (granted always in self-defense) all those competitors in Hunger Games. And — as a bonus — the thing Gidget learns to do is something average readers — both girls and boys — can learn as well since surfing and beaches exist in the real world and hunger games do not.

So I highly suggest a re-read of what ought to have been a classic piece of literature, sadly sidetracked by its adaptation into film. Often such adaptations expand the reach and the audience and the power of a book, but in this case, the film adaptation seemed to dumb down the storyline and turn it into girl meets boy/girl gets boy/girl loses boy — forgetting the girl gets skill part of it all. Oddly enough, the adaptation in to television held on to much of the book’s focus on surfing, probably because the original author, Gidget’s father, served as a consultant and possibly because the TV adaptation wasn’t hampered by the film executives trying to turn the story into another superficial piece of summer fun. Both the film writer — Gabrielle Upton — and the TV show creator — Ruth Brooks Flippen were women so one hopes they wanted to preserve the perspective of the novel. So Flippen might have met with less network intrusion.

Either way, whatever your opinion of Gidget is as she has come to be represented in popular culture, you owe it to her to read the real story this summer on a blanket on the beach. Now excuse me while I move over to the couch ‘cause I have 342 beautifully rendered by Truman Capote pages left to read before I move on to my next task.

If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments,
email at or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.

Dr. Rosanne Welch

— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch

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