Sandra Dee and Britney Spears

Posted: Feb 26, 2007 12:01 AM
Sandra Dee and Britney Spears

Long ago and far away
In a land that time forgot,
Before the days of Dylan
Or the dawn of Camelot,
There lived a race of innocents And they were you and me,
Long ago and far away
In the land of Sandra Dee.

The playful poet Leland Waldrip captures the nostalgic significance of Sandra Dee, the poster girl for the grandparents of the Britney Spears generation. Britney was a Mouseketeer; Sandra played Gidget. She was the original wholesome girl next door. Her real life was anything but -- she was anorexic, and had "issues" with alcohol and drugs.

But for the teenagers who grew up with her, she was "queen of teen" demure, perky and radiating innocence. That was then and this is now, and it's harder to be a symbol of inexperience when no one has any inexperience.

We hadn't seen enough of jets
To talk about the lag,
And microchips were what was left
At the bottom of the bag.
And hardware was a box of nails,
And Bytes came from a flea,
And rocket ships were fiction
In the Land of Sandra Dee.

Every generation has its heroes and heroines reflecting the culture. Celebrities once worked to be part of that reflection. But everything runs at double time now, and Sandra Dee was in the public eye a long time ago. Cultural expectations ain't what they used to be.

A Newsweek cover story asks: "Girls Gone Wild: What Are Celebs Teaching Kids?" Well, probably not much. The entire media is saturated with sexual images that would have put a blush on Sandra Dee's perfect cheek, leaving celebs with nothing new to say. Britney attracts attention by showing the whole world that she's not wearing panties, but the appeal to vulgar sexiness is only one small drip in the drip, drip, drip of influences gone wild.

High-tech images have outrun the cultural groundings that were once part of what "All-American" was all about, even when honored mostly in the breach. Privacy was a virtue, and of course there were girls in Sandra Dee's high school who did "it," but they were terrified that someone might find out about it. Now girls advertise their sexuality on Internet websites, detailing intimate details of their lives to faceless strangers.

Such premature exposure in public changes the context for growing up. Authentic experience pales in a virtual world writ large in word and image. Transparency and nudity become interchangeable. Such tawdry homemade celebrity eliminates the need for discipline or talent. Baseline standards for aesthetic and moral measurements disappear. Notoriety is all.

Internet diaries of young women include all manner of sexual experiences, described with no inhibitions in word and few in action. Instead of simply running at the mouth, these young women write barely coherent run-on sentences to create cut-and-paste relationships.

In "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," Laura Sessions Stepp of The Washington Post describes a searing picture of sex life in college today. "Young woman have changed not only the way they relate intimately to young men, but also the way they think about intimacy." The young girl who once yearned to be told "I love you" by her boyfriend now wants anything but that. Intimacy equals impermanence, a dichotomy that spills over into goals for jobs and life plans. A hookup does not hold a lock on love, but if it did, the passkey would be passed around (and around). Even middle-school girls offer guys oral sex to be "liked," not loved. They usually don't get either.

College students and young women in their 20s are described as "girls" because that's how they refer to each other, particularly in middle- and upper-class families who have been protected and coddled to the point that they can't (or won't) think of themselves as adults. Adulthood requires passing through certain life stages, which definitely includes moving away from the protection of family, into a job, with thoughts toward making a family of one's own. Postponed milestones beget postponed adulthood.

New York magazine tells of adolescent adults who take pleasure in being known through their online diaries and posted photos. They have grown up with computers, and many see themselves as public figures, virtually if not literally. The generation shift is huge.

Oh there was truth and goodness
In that land where we were born,
Where navels were for oranges,
And Peyton Place was porn.
For Ike was in the White House,
And Hoss was on TV,
And God was in his heaven
In the Land of Sandra Dee.