In Southern, New Jersey in the early 1960s, as a pre-teen who wrote stories, liked girls and wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I rarely saw people like me. Even on TV. Most women in life or on screen were wives and mothers who didn’t have jobs. Those who did work were schoolteachers or secretaries. The few single women seemed always to be widows or witches.
Sure, I worshiped Jo March, the sisterly scribe of “Little Women.” But, she ended up married! Holden Caulfield was a boy, and even at 10, I knew Shakespeare was out of my league. Fortunately, Sally Rogers, my first queer crush was there for me. She wore a black bow in her hair, bought herself a fur coat (this was before PETA), belted out “Come Rain or Come Shine” at the drop of a hat and cracked one-liners at the speed of light.
Rogers was the sophisticated, talented, single, comedy-writer character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The series, one of the greatest TV sitcoms of all time ran from 1961 to 1966. (It’s streaming now on Hulu, Prime Video and Tubi, and you can buy it on Amazon or Apple.)
Recently, I’ve been thinking of Rogers. Because her creator, Carl Reiner, the writer, actor and director, died on June 29 at age 98 of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. Reiner, who was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for humor, based “The Dick Van Dyke Show” on his experience as a husband and father and as a writer and second banana on the 1950s TV variety show “Your Show of Shows.”
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” toggles between the home life of Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) Petrie, and the work life of Rob as head writer of the fictional “Alan Brady Show.” Rogers (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) are the other writers. Mel (played by gay actor Richard Deacon) is the frazzled producer. The characters work for Alan Brady, the program’s frenetic, egomaniac star (played hilariously by Reiner).
Today, there’s still gender stereotyping. But at least we speak of it. We call out men who insist that wearing masks in the pandemic negates their manhood. But when I was a kid, there was no talk of gender stereotyping, gender nonconformity or gender-bending. Boys were boys, and girls were girls. Boys became men – who worked, came home to their obedient wives and kids and grilled steaks for outdoor summer cook-outs. Girls could be tomboys. But they grew up to be feminine women who kept house, cooked, gave dinner parties, packed school lunches for the children and dabbed perfume behind their ears.
Above all, girls weren’t supposed to be too strong (independent), funny or smart. “There’s something scary about women who are too cerebral – who wisecrack too much,” my Dad said one night at dinner.
In this pink is for girls, blue is for boys, world, Sally Rogers was a lifeline for me and countless other girls. Rogers is gender-bending. She has a job that she excels at and loves. (She’s one of the best comedy writers in showbiz!) She makes Rob chicken soup when he’s sick, and plays poker. Rogers has her bad days. But mostly Sally, with her cat, lives a full, single life. She dates, has friends, visits her Aunt Agnes and keeps up with the latest in theater. As is the case with so many of us, her friends are her family. As Rose Marie told many interviewers, “Sally was the first women’s libber.”
Sure, Roger’s lonely at times. And today her (sometimes serious, other times, joking) search for a husband is so heteronormative. Yet, she didn’t depend on men financially or for validation. She liked herself.
Without you, Sally, I wouldn’t be writing this. Thank you for helping me and so many others to be ourselves!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.