Ally McBeal Meets the Coppertone Girl

She sold salt for a living. She was white, tiny, and cute, and I helped make her what she is today. The year was 1967, and I worked on the redesign of the Morton Salt package.

The Salt Girl’s looks were important in persuading shoppers to buy the product. She had already been re-vamped several times since her birth in 1914. My first suggestion–to 86 the little girl–was met with horror from the client and a nervous “She’s a great kidder” from my boss.

For weeks, I churned out little girls. I made over “Mortie” (her office nickname) with long hair, short hair, straight hair, curly hair, varying degrees of femme-y dresses, and sockless or socked shoes–no pants, no boots. When the big day finally arrived, my bosses got stuck in New York traffic, which meant I made the presentation alone. Morton’s board of directors was ushered into our boardroom. The eyes of 12 men, all dressed in identical black three-piece suits, (the youngest pushing 60) were on me as I stood, looking suspiciously like a hippie to them, holding up one little girl after the other. The mood in the room was somber; no one cracked a smile.

After what seemed an interminable stony silence, I heard, “No long hair! She looks like a hippie!” The floodgates had opened. There was no stopping the directors: “She looks like a smarty pants!” “Too Jewish!” “No dark hair!” “She’s too old!” “Looks like a dyke to me!” “She looks easy!” “Not enough leg!” “No puffed sleeves! They call too much attention to her chest!” Her chest? What was she–7, maybe 8 years old? I fought a simultaneous need to laugh and throw up.

None of the little girls was right.

Back to the drawing board, and eventually, like Frankenstein’s monster, Mortie took shape: a head drawn by one designer, a hand from a freelancer, legs from an illustrator, the hair, dress, and shoes from–who cares?–we were all getting paid. Mortie ended up with the requisite cuteness and spunkiness, strutting her stuff in a rainstorm, letting all the product pour out.

I can’t tell you how many guys over the years have confessed their fantasies to me about various little logo girls: the Morton Salt Girl, the White Rock Soda Maiden, the Coppertone Sun Tan Lotion Girl, the Clabber Baking Powder Girl, and more.

My friend Harold spent hours as a boy squinting at the White Rock bottle’s two-inch-high image of the nymph on the rock to see if she had nipples. One day he spied a White Rock truck at the end of his block. The naked nymph was huge on the side panel. Harold couldn’t contain himself; he ran as fast as his little legs would carry him and caught up with the truck as it was pulling out. At six feet high, she still had no nipples. Harold never got over it.

There were rarely nipples–or breasts, for that matter. Except for the ethnic category of logo girls: the Argo Corn Starch Maiden, the Sun Maid Girl, the Contadina Maid, and, of course, Aunt Jemima. These were women who worked for a living. As a child, I was drawn to them and felt nourished by their warm reds and golds, their rich greens and browns. I didn’t know that the images were classist, racist, and sexist. I just knew I liked them better than the little logo girls, who always seemed sort of creepy.

The white logo girls also displayed a guilelessness bordering on unconsciousness bordering on stupidity. Coppertone Girl: “Whoops! The naughty puppy is pulling down my panties!” White Rock Girl: “Help! I’m stranded on this rock at high tide!” Mortie: “I’m strolling though a torrential downpour with an upside-down, leaking box of salt, and I don’t have a clue!” We don’t like our icons to act smart.

One night I was watching Ally McBeal, a program that has the same effect on me as fingernails scraped across a blackboard, and it hit me: little logo girl again! Ally, the same coy-lip-biting-spunky-shy-looking-sidelong-glances girl. Very little and cute, very thin, straight-up-and-down girl body, large doll-like eyes. Logo girls walk among us virtually and electronically. We know them. We crave them. I remember a 1960s MAD Magazine double-page spread of a cartoon cocktail party. This crowd of partying cartoons was inclusive: everyone from Charlie Brown and Lucy to Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr. The characters were uncharacteristically out of character. Mary Worth, a lovable busybody grandma, was drunkenly telling Steve Canyon, a strong, silent, lantern-jawed pilot, to stop whining. She had problems of her own and didn’t give a rat’s ass about his.

I want to go to a cocktail party with all the logo girls. We would let our hair down, overeat, and drink. We would behave badly. We would say whatever we wanted, be loquacious, loose-lipped, lusty.

We would get real.

Bailey Doogan is Professor Emerita of Painting and Drawing at the University of Arizona. For the past 15 years, she has been exploring the body and its language. Her work has been exhibited widely. From Art Journal (Spring 2001). Subscriptions $40/year. (4issues) from College Art Association, 215 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10001

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.