11/03/2010 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Mouseketeers Taught Me About Feminism

The bizarre mouse-ear-flapped beanies that the 1950s Mouseketeers made famous were, as it turned out, a bit of a reverse-sexist proposition. They brought out the vainest impulses in the teen boys in the cast who'd slave over their pompadours daily only to have their coifs ruined by the ridiculous head-wear. "All the guys hated the ears," Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr says in my history of The Mickey Mouse Club, Why? Because We Still Like You. "[Producers] would always want us to wear it like a monk." Adds Mouseketeer Tommy Cole, "All of us boys had full manes of hair, and they wanted none of it showing. The girls all still looked pretty because they had these waves of hair flowing down, but they wanted to make the boys look like little bald people!"

In fact, looking prettier wasn't the only way the girls outshone the boys on the mid-'50s kiddie sensation. Though producers struggled to keep gender parity in their fluctuating cast of up to 24 kids, finding pre-teen and early-teenage boys trained in dance was no easy feat in the alpha-male-dominated Eisenhower Era. The core group of the most popular male stars -- Lonnie and Tommy chief among them -- came with loads of talent. But keeping the cast fully stocked with singing and dancing boys proved a constant challenge, while incredibly talented girls were often shoved to the background or dismissed altogether.

And yet, despite this female-dominated atmosphere, it was the girls -- breakout star Annette Funicello and her female co-stars -- who still somehow suffered disproportionately, at least when it came to facing adolescence in the spotlight. Breasts became a particular obsession on the show, both behind-the-scenes (where producers asked the girls to bind their bosoms to keep the program as chaste as possible) and in front of it (where the binding fooled none of the boys who'd gleefully tune in to "watch Annette grow!"). Panicked Disney memos asked costume designers to "try larger sweaters" and cameramen to "keep from shooting the girls in profile." Curvy Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey would later tell an interviewer that executives requested she and Annette wear "silly tight T-shirts under our sweaters to try and flatten us out. Naturally, we used to punch holes in the right places."

The girl Mouseketeers became early test cases in what's now an accepted part of being a female adolescent star: The dichotomy of the particularly intense (and pervy) scrutiny of the male public gaze and the pressure to remain a virginal role model. From 12-year-old fans to grown men, the reaction always seemed to be the same. Doreen recalls an incident in which she and Annette ran into Walt Disney and some of his executives one day at Disneyland. Just after the girls respectfully said hello and wandered past, they overheard one of the men say, "What do you think of the girls? They're turning out to be very nice young ladies." Disney's jokey retort: "They're more for the fathers than the kids on this show." Doreen, wise in Hollywood ways beyond her years, recalls thinking, "Oh, wow, we're growing up, we'll get a bigger and better part."

Though the show itself would end soon after that, Doreen would prove correct about which of the girls' attributes would get them noticed in showbusiness at large. And it wasn't their impressive dance skills. Annette, of course, would become an icon thanks to a series of 1960s Beach Party movies featuring her making eyes at Frankie Avalon while wearing various bathing suits. Her mentor, Walt Disney, famously asked her to keep her navel covered to protect her reputation, but one look at Annette in a bathing suit shows it was hardly her navel that boys were flocking to the theaters to see. Doreen, meanwhile, dropped out of the national spotlight while she got married, had a baby, got divorced, sung to troops in Vietnam, and got a job with Frank Zappa -- but couldn't resist returning to pop culture consciousness in 1976 with a flashy nude spread in men's magazine Gallery (complete with Mouse ears and little else on). When this move went over poorly with Disney executives, she did it again two years later -- this time posing defiantly in a trench coat in front of Disney Studios.

Both Annette and Doreen grew up to be amazing women in their own ways. Annette is a universally loved star who, by all accounts, never wavered from the sweet, shy, demure girl she'd always been despite her success. Decades after her Beach Party days, she bravely shared her struggles with multiple sclerosis with her millions of fans after being diagnosed in 1987. Doreen lived an absurdly full life, touring with rock bands, writing songs, trying out competitive weight-lifting, and never apologizing for her sexy photo shoots -- all the while raising a son and remaining independently single for most of her life. You have to love a lady who, at 67, says, "I've been trying to get a memoir done for years. But then a new chapter arises and I go, 'Oh, no, it's too early.'" My suggestion for her next act? Teaching budding Mileys and Lindsays a thing or two about Hollywood life for young starlets.

For more on the Mouseketeers' lives on The Mickey Mouse Club and beyond, check out my book Why? Because We Still Like You. For more detailed information on the book and the Mouseketeers' lives today, visit To read the original post at, click here.