With the passing of movie star Doris Day May 13 at her home in Carmel Valley, California, at age 97, much has been made of her goody two shoes image on film in the 1960s and the way it was pooh poohed in subsequent decades when attitudes toward women’s sexuality were expanding in the advent of feminism. (It was an image that Day, who had a number of troubled marriages, herself dismissed on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” and indeed she often played complex wives, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and as the torch singer Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me.” )
In recent years, however, we’ve come to understand Day’s onscreen persona as that of a working woman defending her integrity, perhaps more so than the mores of her time, in romantic comedies in which Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and James Garner served as her rakish foils. She was, to borrow from Jungian analyst M. Esther Harding, author of “Women’s Mysteries: Ancient & Modern” (1936) “a psychological virgin,” one who is “one-in-herself” and “does what she does – not because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself; not because of any desire to gain power over another, to catch his interest or love, but because what she does is true.”
In the 1962 rom-com “That Touch of Mink,” Day’s Cathy Timberlake pursues Grant’s Philip Shayne not because she’s looking for a man or because she finds him attractive and worthy — that comes later — but because his Rolls-Royce has splashed her dress as she prepares to cross a New York City street on her way to a job interview and she expects restitution, or at least an apology. Sure, it’s a meet cute, but it establishes her as a woman with a sense of herself that need not be subjugated to a man’s agenda. It’s ironic that feminists of all people saw her persona as that of a conservative Eisenhower-era throwback, when that very virginal persona spurred her to be a career woman. After all, if you’re not sleeping with a man as an audition for the job of a wife who’ll be taken care of, then you better have a real job yourself.
But it was more than that. I think it must’ve been a relief to Day to portray a career woman who only marries on her own terms, because in real life her marriages were disasters. Her first husband beat her and wanted her to abort their child (the future record producer Terry Melcher). Her second left her, because he didn’t want to be Mr. Doris Day. The third, who adopted her son, embezzled her money. (A fourth marriage also ended in divorce.) It’s not surprising then that her greatest performance is probably as Etting, the 1920s torch singer whose manager-husband was a mobster, in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955).
She is remembered most, however, not as wife and mother but as a single woman, a transition that she made in her TV series, “The Doris Day Show,” over five seasons (1968-73). By then she was portraying a swinging single in keeping with the experimental tenor of the time. But there are those, like The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, who believe she was always a sex goddess:
“Really, though, the whole virgin thing doesn’t even rise to the level of archetype. It’s an artifact of a movie censorship system that was, in the years after the Kinsey Report, rapidly losing touch with the realities of American behavior, and with the rest of popular culture as well.”
Yet the virgin was not only a powerful ancient archetype, it remains a modern one as well in the idea of the psychological virgin as explored in works like “Women’s Mysteries” and Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen’s “Goddesses in Everywoman” (Harper & Row, 1984), in which the Olympian goddesses are metaphors for various personality types. Day was also a psychological virgin in this sense — a real-life Artemis/Diana, the Greco-Roman goddess of nature — who devoted much of her life to animal rescue, and to people rescue, too.. (Her embrace of Rock Hudson as he was dying of AIDS in 1985, a time when the paralyzing fear of the incurable disease caused people and governments to recoil, did as much to humanize it as Princess Diana’s supportive touch of an AIDS patient.)
There’s no need to read more into Day’s life than there is. She was a woman of her time who once said all she ever wanted was to be a wife and mother. Yet she also once observed, perhaps because she was unhappily married, that there is something psychologically satisfying about virginity.
Virgin, wife and mother, psychological virgin most at home with her beloved dogs — Doris Day was always a woman complete in herself.