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Feminist Friday: Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

“Just think of me as your Father,” Bullets (Paul Lynde) tells Sugar Kane (Linda Evans) as he helps her slip out of her wet sky-diving suit, revealing the bikini she wears underneath. This line demonstrates where Beach Blanket Bingo sits when viewed through a contemporary lens: it is incredibly problematic. While the teen film has some interesting elements, these are largely overshadowed by the movie’s numerous problems.

Beach Blanket Bingo opened April 14, 1965, and is the fifth film in American International Pictures’ Beach Party franchise. The series began with 1963’s Beach Party. There were eventually 10 movies made before the series ended with the release of Thunder Alley in 1967.

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Beach Blanket Bingo follows a group of surfers, lead by Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and Dee Dee (Annette Funicello). One day, they rescue a female skydiver from the ocean. In reality, the girl was in no danger. Rather, the rescue was actually a publicity stunt promoting Sugar Kane’s new album, “Come Fall With Me”. Chaos ensues as the surfers squabble with Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motorcycle gang. It seems the bikers don’t want to see Sugar fall in with the band of surfers.

The gendered split between the boys (led by Frankie) and the girls (led by Dee Dee) is immediately clear as the film begins. The boys go out and surf; meanwhile, the girls watch primly from the sand. Even at their beach house, the girls sleep upstairs, while the boys bunk on the lower level. In fact, the boys and girls only seem to talk to each other because they are all in relationships.

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Furthermore, the teenage characters in this film have very little depth. The girls are all searching for one thing: a wedding ring. This film’s idea of femininity feels like a relic of the 1950s… this is the idea that Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique attacked just one year before. In an early scene, as the boys ogle and cat call Sugar, the girls sit near-by, their arms crossed in annoyance. They mumble to themselves at Sugar getting so much attention, but ultimately do little else. Meanwhile, the boys are the very personification of: “Boys will be boys”. They are wild, hyperactive, and while their attention occasionally strays to a beautiful woman, they will always return to their mate.

The female character’s lack of development is extremely problematic. There are a number of moments where the girls feel to be straining against their stereotypical traits; however, they aren’t permitted to break free. The dialogue is demeaning in places, particularly when directed at the girls. Early in the movie, the boys watch the then unknown skydiver with interest. Bonehead (Jody McCrea) smiles as they learn it’s a woman, “Someone must’ve left the door open”. Later, there are a number of scenes where Frankie openly forbids Dee Dee from skydiving. At one point he even says, “Well, boys are just different”. As Frankie and Dee Dee finally prepare to take a solo dive, she pleads, “Please. I need to do this for me”. While he relents, the following dive goes so poorly, it is likely she will never skydive again. As the surfers rescue them from the water, Frankie and Dee Dee kiss. They’ve made up.

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The Beach Party films can’t be adequately analyzed without a discussion of Annette Funicello’s star persona. The actress first rose to popularity when she joined the original cast of The Mickey Mouse Club. She enjoyed a lengthy career in the Disney stable of stars, appearing in dozens of serials and movies even before she turned twenty.

Ultimately, there is a clear denial of Annette Funicello’s sexuality during the peak of her career. Watching the Beach Party series, Funicello is the only actress who doesn’t wear a bikini. The commonly accepted story is that her wardrobe was designed at the behest of Walt Disney. While she was making these films, she was still under contract with the Disney Company. Even while she was making the Beach Party series,  the Disney organization kept Funicello busy. During this time, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones hit theaters in 1964, quickly followed by The Monkey’s Uncle in 1965. Annette’s Disney persona followed her through her career, and ultimately affected the Beach Party series.

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Beach Blanket Bingo came one year after the release of The Feminine Mystique. The fire of second wave feminism had started to simmer in the mid 1960s. The National Organization for Women was established in 1966. While society in the mid-1960s had started in one direction, Beach Blanket Bingo seems to be moving in the other. The film seems totally out of place in the growing rebellion in the 1960s, which would come to a boil just a few years later.

While Beach Blanket Bingo is a fun and entertaining comedy, the teen film is problematic to say the least. The movie crafts very dated and unrealistically cookie-cutter characters. This in turn hampers the relationships between them. Finally, despite the fact that the female characters are smart and intelligent women, they aren’t allowed to step out on their own. Instead, they remain in insular groups watching the action from the sidelines. As such, Beach Blanket Bingo feels like an out of place relic as the progressivism of Second Wave feminism came to a boil around it.

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