How The Patty Duke Show Made Space For Complicated Women On TV

In the spring of 1994, a TV battle was brewing in a Central Florida suburban home. Each week, my 15-year-old sister would sit on the edge of her seat, waiting to see if the cult teen drama My So-Called Life would be renewed or canceled. Five years her junior, I preferred the 1960s sitcom The Patty Duke Show. I drove my family crazy singing the damn theme song. At the time, her love of the angsty Angela Chase seemed at  odds with my enthusiasm for the zany Patty. Little did we know that, in a way, we really just wanted to watch the same show.

In 1963, Patty Duke, who passed away last week at the age of 69, brought teenage girls to the forefront of television programming for the first time with The Patty Duke Show on ABC. While lauded for the split-screen technology that allowed 16-year-old Academy Award-winner Anna Marie “Patty” Duke to portray identical-twin cousins, the show was pioneering in another, more significant way: It laid the groundwork for complex, confused TV heroines such as Angela Chase, Buffy Summers, and Veronica Mars.  Prior to the early 60s, show-runners avoided focusing on teenage girl protagonists, seeing their ever-changing tastes as too incomprehensible and unpredictable to portray in a way that engaged young female viewers.  The Patty Duke Show solves this dilemma by making disrupted identity the central narrative of the show. Now, viewers could identify with their preferred version of the protagonist or with different aspects of each lead.  Showing the same young woman as simultaneously outgoing and reserved, goofy and sophisticated, confident and insecure, legitimized all of the types as aspects of teenage personalities and acknowledged the complicated realities of teen life during a period that would come to be know as the “Youthquake.”

Although essentially a family sitcom, The Patty Duke Show focused on the teenage daughter and her interpretation of the world. Highlighting typical teen preoccupations with fragmented identity and personal style, Patty is confronted with a literal alternative version of herself in her “identical cousin” Cathy, a coincidence explained by the young women being children of identical twin fathers.  In the essay collection The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, scholar Mona Luckett states that the rock-and roll loving- Brooklyn Heights resident Patty Lane and the more refined, well-traveled Scottish Cathy Lane illustrate the conflicts and schisms in teenage identity that surface in even the most conventional “perky, white, blond versions of girlhood.” That these characters were played by the same actress furthers the concept that they’re two parts of the same complex individual instead of two separate characters.

The production designers ofThe Patty Duke Show used Cathy’s and Patty’s hairstyles to create a visual differentiation between the two characters. The conservative Cathy maintains her bobbed hair with a simple turn-under style, while the “wilder” Patty wears a more of-the-moment flip. This trendy style sported by Patty aligns her with the rock-and-roll hot dog loving American youth, not Cathy’s taste for “a minuet, Ballet Russe and crepes Suzette.”  Similarly, in the pilot of My So-Called Life, Angela Chase dyes her naturally light brown hair “crimson glow,” because, as she states, “When Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair: she was talking about my life.” Like Patty/Cathy before her, the 15-year-old narrator is playing with ideas of identity and appearance and criticizing how teen girls feel like they need to, as Angela says in the pilot, “agree to have a certain personality or something, just to make things easier for everyone.”

The connection between the two shows and characters is never more explicitly stated than in My So Called Life’s “The Zit,” an episode centering around the students reading The Metamorphosis. As Angela struggles with a pimple, and her mother tries to get her to enter a “mother-daughter fashion show,” her mom (also named Patty) is offended when Angela tells her their dresses make them look like “some warped version of the Patty Duke Show.”

Plenty of TV shows from the 1960s to 1990s focused on social life in high school. But few have taken on issues like bullying and isolation beyond a few tidily resolved and pedantic “very special” episodes. However, The Patty Duke Show tackles these issues head-on.  Much of the conflict stems from the rivalry between Patty and classmate Sue Ellen Turner, eternally locked in competition over boys, grades and other typical high school concerns. But, the real anguish and soul of the show lies in the complicated bond and friendship Patty shares with her foreign cousin. As a new student in a new school in a new country with  American relatives she barely knows, Cathy is a literal outsider. And high school, as Angela Chase would later say, was their “battlefield.”

In 1997 the WB, home of the coming-of-age introspection of Dawson Leary and Felicity Porter, took that concept of high-school-as-war-zone to the next level with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While previous leading ladies might have felt like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders, Buffy is actually responsible for preventing the apocalypse and saving the world time and again.  Every night Buffy sneaks out of the house to tend to your typical teenage-girl things: Battling the demons threatening the unknowing residents of quaint Sunnydale, California and also hang out with her centuries-too-old-for-her vampire boyfriend. Many of Buffy’s conflicts with the bullying “monsters of the week” are easily resolved in a standalone episode, but her struggles with the more mundane realities of high school and teen life – mean girls, an absentee father, feeling like an outsider in a new school – constitute arcs that take whole seasons to resolve. As the Slayer, Buffy can see herself as a strong and capable woman, but that doesn’t prevent her from also seeing herself as an incompetent social pariah at school. Like Patty/Cathy and Angela before her, she’s just a teenage girl trying to figure out who she is.

The contrasting presence and absence of Patty and Cathy’s identical fathers shaped the world ofThe Patty Duke Show. Veronica Mars’ relationship with her father and how it defines her world is a central theme on the high school noir Veronica Mars. Initially,Veronica Mars might seem more indebted to a certain teen sleuth from 20th century fiction. But beyond an impulse to solve mysteries, the privileged life of Nancy Drew couldn’t be further from the gritty underbelly of Neptune High that Veronica confronts in the aftermath of her best friend’s murder. After the investigation leads to some unpleasant truths about the elite community of Neptune, Sheriff Keith Mars is forced to resign and set up shop as a PI while his formerly popular daughter is cast out by her affluent peers. Throughout the series, she questions if she made the right choice by supporting her father over her former friends’ more wealthy and powerful parents.  The elfin Veronica also maps onto Luckett’s “perky, white, blond version of girlhood,” but her exclusion from the in-crowd causes her to confront issues of race and class divisions influencing the lives of the students that many previous and contemporary high school shows failed to capture.

Teenage self-image is still under construction. Personalities are still unfinished and unfixed; so while identity is not meaningless, neither is it as meaningful as adults sometimes perceive it to be. But for young women, seeing themselves in both mundane and fantastical iterations on TV is crucial. Since the 1960s, depictions of teenage women on TV has progressed but we still have quite a ways to go before all types of young women find their day-to-day lives reflected in popular culture. With a trick of the camera, The Patty Duke Show created a space on TV for young women to take on the world, experiment with their identity and, in the words of Angela Chase, assert “That when you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they’re actually…beautiful. Possibly even me.”