Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Annie Oakley Calls the Shots

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
Gail Davis as Annie Oakley
There she was every Saturday morning, blazing larger than life (okay not larger) across our 12-inch RCA TV screen. In my mind, she was my present and future self, Annie Oakley!  Annie could out-ride, out-shoot, and outwit anyone. She saved the stagecoach, caught the bad guys, and in nearly every episode rescued her little brother, Tagg (Jimmy Hawkins).  She dignified the fringed and skirted outfit that set her apart from the boys. Even better, Grandmother told us, Annie Oakley was a real person.
The year I discovered Annie Oakley, the TV series starring Gail Davis, 1955, I was eight. It was the year my ragtag family–single mom, little brother and I–had moved into the one-room garage apartment behind my Grandmother's house. I didn't know we were a 1950s anomaly. Childhood is just childhood when you're in it. Your family is just the people you live with. If there's no Dad there's no Dad. That's only really troublesome for the three weeks surrounding the "Father & Daughter" banquet. Of course, all of our cousins and school chums lived in houses with two parents, but the people we dreamed of being lived on-screen on Saturday morning in anything but two-parent families. 
Penny from Sky King lived with her uncle on a ranch with horses and an airplane and all manner of ranch hands. Annie Oakley lived with her mostly absent uncle and her little brother Tagg. She captured outlaws better than the best. 
Rusty lived at Fort Apache with Rin Tin Tin, Lt. Masters, and Sgt. O’Hara. All the others seemed to live with “sidekicks.” The Cisco Kid had Pancho. Wild Bill Hickok had Jingles. Tonto had the Lone Ranger.  Even Roy Rogers spent more time with Gabby than with the insipid Dale Evans. Who could blame him, really? 
In an era of strict conformity, 1950s Saturday morning TV with its configuration of "outsiders," saved me. Maybe it was because all those blacklisted Hollywood commies were working in television.
Much later it occurred to me that Gail Davis in Annie Oakley had done more than save me from a childhood of loneliness and shame. She had validated my personhood. She helped me believe that I was equal to anyone–that I could excel–that I could be straight-shooting, hard riding, and not wait to be rescued. That was something I needed nearly every day in the real world.
Now, I think that Gail Davis’ Annie Oakley fostered a generation of girls who wouldn't settle for being the sidelined Dale Evans. Annie told us we could be in the center of the action–that our lives could be heroic. In the late 60s, those pig-tailed girls eagerly awaiting Saturday morning became the radicals of the burgeoning Women's Movement. 
Gail Davis as Annie Oakley riding Target
It may be a bit much to say that Gail Davis' portrayal of Annie Oakley was responsible for the Second Wave of Feminism. Many things conspired to create a movement–the bravery of the women in the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, a slightly earlier generation's boredom with suburban housewifery. Still, Annie Oakley proves, for me, the power of role models in popular culture and the power of pop culture to shape reality. 
In 2004, Gail Davis was posthumously inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Davis' exhibit there recalls her impact on young girls:
"Back then I knew the show was having a positive impact, especially on little girls. It wasn't until years later that I realized just how much. Little girls had turned into influential women, thanking my portrayal of Annie for showing them the way.”
Daedalus Books has Annie Oakley, TV Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2 as well as The Cisco Kid: Collection 1 through 4. 

Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker and writer. She's currently working on a screenplay about growing up queer and clueless in the 50s & 60s.

12 comments:

  1. Dear Ms Thornburg

    Outstanding article. I loved watching The Cisco Kid when I was a kid! Even better, I had (and still do) a very cool older sister who got me interested in some other gems across various media = The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce, Legendary Lynda Barry, Matt Geoning, my Life Coaches Akbar and Jeff, the list goes on. Now back to you as I noted with admiration your profile on IMDB, my second favorite site - after this one, of course! This welcome destination is like a digital soul sister to The New Yorker in tasty morsels. Roz Chasz Rules, Just Like You and Your Fellow Phenom JP
    Fervent - nay, Fawning - Admiration,
    Baron Von Mugenhausen

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    2. Dear Baron,
      As always, you do make me smile!
      Linda

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  2. Makes me want to watch! Alicia

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    1. Thanks. I think you'd like the show!
      Linda

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  3. Thank you for offering your experiences with Annie Oakley with all of us! I need to buy these DVDs from Daedalus to find out just how wild and powerful Annie is for myself!

    I wonder what trouble Tagg was getting himself into during the show!

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    1. Like all little brothers, he went wherever he was told not to go.
      Hope you like series!
      Thanks,
      Linda

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  5. Your article also makes me want to check out the series, thank you! Coming from a history background, I truly appreciate how you relate the TV show to the time period and its involvement in women's rights.

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    1. Thank you. I appreciate your reading and comments.
      Linda

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  6. Wonderful article! Thanks for the insights.

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    1. Thank you, Bird. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

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