In 1957, European immigrant Frederick Kohner published the novel Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas, about a girl who aspires to be a surfer. Kohner got the idea after watching his daughter, a budding feminist, declare her desire to engage in a “boys-only sport.” Two years later, Hollywood adapted the novel into a film starring America’s sweetheart, Sandra Dee. Kohner’s story may have been a delightful book meant to inspire young girls to push the boundaries of athleticism, but the Columbia Pictures feature, simply called Gidget, focuses on more than riding the waves. It explores a young girl’s rise to sexual awakening and how she ultimately finds her own independence.
Paul Wendkos’ film starts with our titular heroine, Francie Lawrence, going on a “man hunt” with her friends. Compared to her more buxom and developed compatriots, Francie is lithe and underdeveloped, almost child-like. (Dee sadly suffered from anorexia her whole life and was always thin.) Her friends take a child-like activity like throwing a beach ball around and turn it into an advertisement for how desirable they are, but Francie actually wants to play and scamper or, when that fails, snorkel.
This isn’t presented as demeaning to Francie as a character. She’s highly educated and aware of her disinterest in attracting the opposite sex. In fact she’s more perceptive than her friends, flat-out stating “those guys just aren’t interested.” Where Francie’s friends see her as a buzzkill against their summer search for men, she is able to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the beach rats her friends are attempting to seduce. By not caring about whether she attracts male attention, and taking up a male sport, she comes off as more intuitive of the male psyche.
The boys and men who are entranced by surfing are as stereotypical as their names (one of which is Loverboy). Their leader, Kahuna (played by Cliff Robertson) is the majordomo of the surf bums who lives in a hut on the beach. In a pre-emptive nod at the burgeoning hippie movement, Kahuna would rather be homeless than engage in pleasing the government by getting a job and settling down. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the young Moondoggie (James Darren), a wealthy son of privilege who sees surfing as a means of sticking it to his father. In comparison to Francie, both men utilize surfing as a means of rebellion, their passion for it tempered by what they’re using it to avoid. Francie is seduced by the concept of surfing itself, not the men she’ll attract from it. She engages with something she’s passionate about, and her confidence and ability (soon on par and surpassing that of the pros) makes her attractive to the other boys, particularly Moondoggie.
When Francie describes surfing, her words imply a deep-seated romantic relationship with shades of an emotional, orgasmic experience. “You can’t imagine the thrill of shooting the curl. It positively surpasses every living emotion I’ve ever had,” she tells her parents. Even her mother coyly agrees that her daughter makes surfing “sound attractive.” Upon buying her surfboard, Francie continues this line of intense, pleasurable discourse, describing surfing to Kahuna as “like nothing I ever felt before. Whoop, we’re on an elevator headed for the sky! And then, zoom, speeding across the ocean on top of the world. It was the ultimate!”
But Francie’s attempts to achieve “the ultimate” come with serious connotations that are difficult to separate from their sexual themes. She lies about her experience level to Kahuna and the other boys in an attempt to gain their respect, leaving her to almost drown and be saved by Moondoggie. After being plucked out of the drink, she’s scared, but immediately demands to “do it again.” As Francie takes on the mantle of Gidget (short for “girl midget”), surfing takes on a more overt sexual connotation and becomes sex itself.
The boys’ demeanor toward her changes, becoming more aggressive as she attempts to become part of their group. One of the boys takes her out for a private surf lesson. As Francie lies on her stomach on the board, the surfer starts pawing at her and eventually tries to climb on top of her. When Moondoggie breaks it up, the boy jokes, “We were just about to go in deeper,” the double entendre grossly obvious. When Francie is finally accepted, it comes during a group “initiation.” She is surrounded by all the boys in the water who force her to cut kelp. As Francie keeps popping up from the water with kelp, Moondoggie demands more, pushing her head down in a moment that feels like an assault and culminates with Gidget nearly drowning. After passing the initiation and becoming Gidget, the rest of the boys fail to see her as a sexual object; this is coupled by the arrival of the “will they or won’t they” romance that develops between Gidget, Moondoggie … and Kahuna.
Once Francie learns to surf and become one of the boys, the sexual symbolism in surfing starts to manifest literally, bleeding out of the board and into Gidget’s real life. She starts asking her mother about funny feelings she has, that she’s never felt with other boys in school. Though the object of her affection is obviously Moondoogie, the other boys’ growing attraction to her increases her sexual potency, making her catnip to everyone. Things come to a head during the big luau, which one of the boys openly (albeit jokingly) calls “an orgy,” which Gidget believes will give her the opportunity to make Moondoggie jealous.
To save face after Moondoggie continues to treat her like a child, Gidget says her crush is on Kahuna, a man whose virility and masculinity has been on display in the film by his chronic refusal to close his shirts. His treatment of Gidget has been paternal, calling her “angel” and “little one,” yet Gidget takes the reins to assert herself as a Lolita figure to Moondoggie, saying, “A girl has to get started some time” and “Kahuna has always been a great coach” — implying that Kahuna’s inspirational father figure will transcend surfing into sexual life experience.
Once Gidget has ingrained herself into the surfing crowd as the lone female, with evidence that all the males’ hormones are raised by her, Kahuna threatens to cross a line. The two end up in a secluded beach shack with Gidget shyly implying that she’s looking for more than a conversation with the man. Kahuna takes this as a teachable moment, hoping to show Gidget that she’s a good girl at heart by trying to seduce her. He gives her beer at her urging, starts reciting poetry, and is close to kissing her. But Kahuna cannot taint Gidget, seeing her inexperience as a sexual figure. He urges her to leave before he “forgets it’s a game.”
What’s unique about Gidget as a film, though, is that Kahuna refuses to sleep with Gidget yet understands why she’s made the attempt: to make Moondoggie see her as a sexual object. With that, he allows Gidget to leave while implying to Moondoggie that the two have crossed a line; he opens his shirt and ruffles his hair, calling Gidget a “very good sport.” Gidget is never blamed for being seen as promiscuous. Her parents ground her for the brawl between Kahuna and Moondoggie, as well as the knowledge she was drinking, but her sexual history — real or imagined — is never held against her.
Moondoggie and Gidget’s eventual reconciliation and romance can only exist with their love of surfing. And it is Gidget who has to urge Moondoggie to declare his love for her, after he finds himself unable to describe the “strange feeling” he has for her. Once again, Gidget is the instigator of romance and the only one aware of her own feelings, seductively saying “Moondoggie” as the boy struggles to find his words. Surfing takes a backseat, and would be all but ignored in the series’ two sequels. But if Gidget had not learned about sex through the surf, she wouldn’t become the knowledgeable, self-aware, and sexually confident woman she is at the end.
Kristen Lopez surfs (the Internet) in Sacramento.