Sometime during Kindergarten I got the flu and had to stay in bed for two weeks. I was miserable at the time, obviously, and a good amount of my hair fell out (maybe this was more than a flu? The plague, perhaps?), but I look back on those two weeks fondly, because I spent them watching “Bye Bye Birdie” about five million times, and, consequentially, received my first crash course in love.
I”m sure a good amount of this movie went over my head as a five year old, but I remember coming away from it with a new understanding of love as a romantic endeavor, versus a built-in feeling you have for your mom and dad. My head spun with new concepts: kissing and dating and flirting and jealousy…it was like leaving a candy store with an empty bag. I still had a lot to learn, and everything to experience, but here are three lessons about love that I learned from watching “Bye Bye Birdie” at five years old:
When you”re “in love” with someone, a big part of it is you liking the way that person looks. When Kim first gets “pinned” by Hugo (meaning he has given her his pin signifying they are exclusively dating), we get to see her as a swoony, starry-eyed schoolgirl who goes as far as to say “until today, it”s like I was nothing.” She goes on to sing about the joys of becoming a woman, which mostly means becoming attractive to men. She sings, “how lovely have a figure that”s round instead of flat/ whenever you hear boys whistle, you”re what they”re whistling at”. Oh boy, I”m surprised my ultra-feminist mother let me near this propaganda.
Romantic love, as it turns out, is supposed to be between just two people. If you make a commitment it is generally frowned upon to engage in romantic behaviors outside of that partnership. That”s why Kim”s “steady” boyfriend Hugo is mad that she has agreed to kiss rock sensation Conrad Birdie in front of millions of Americans on the Ed Sullivan Show. She tries to convince him that no man will ever come between them by singing “One Boy”, in which she pledges “one boy to laugh with, to joke with, have coke with. One boy, not two or three.” This reassures him, but only temporarily. At the time, I couldn”t understand why he would care that she kiss another man. I mean, did no one ever teach him about sharing?
In case you haven”t seen “Bye Bye Birdie”, which, by the way, is the best musical of all time, the basic plot is that pop star/rock star Conrad Birdie is being drafted to the army, and regular-girl Kim McAfee is chosen at random to give him his farewell kiss. A symbolic kiss from all of America”s girls. In front of a live audience. Even though she has a boyfriend. When she first gets the news she is beyond ecstatic, and she then spends the rest of the movie preparing for the big moment. However, when the moment finally comes, and the whole country is watching, she gets scared and doesn”t want to go through with it. Because this is an outdated and ultimately sexist movie, Hugo shows up at the last minute to punch Conrad Birdie in the mouth (in today”s version, Kim would be fully capable of saying “no thanks”, and that would be that). This part of the movie confused me more than anything. I remember asking my mom, “I thought she wanted to kiss him? What happened?” My mom explained that it doesn”t matter why she changed her mind, what matters is that you”re always allowed to change your mind in that kind of situation. The lesson that should be learned here is that no boy can make you do something you don”t want to do, even if he is an international star. Even if the whole world is watching and even if the whole world (minus Hugo) wants you to go through with it, you still have free will, and you can still say no. What a serious message for such a light and fluffy movie!
That summer, after I recovered from my sickness, I took all of my new knowledge and went on vacation with my family to Fire Island. Long story short, I met a boy who was also five and spent the whole month trying to get him to kiss me (out of his own free will, of course). He never did kiss me, but we went to the movies together a few times and shared ice cream, which is more than enough romance for any five year old.