In the mid-1980s, every day at 4:30 I watched “I Dream of Jeannie.” I wanted her outfit, her bottle, and her ability to disappear. I loved her because she had all the control whether Major Nelson knew it or not. She was beautiful and powerful, all that I wanted to be.
My parents’ divorce made me feel like I had zero control over what was happening in my life. My parents never got along and I was stuck in the middle. I didn’t fit in at home and I definitely didn’t fit in at school. I spent time in the nurse’s office trying to get sent home for the day, but no blood and no fever got me sent right back to class. I was happiest at home, where my dress-up clothes were waiting.
There was no bullshit in dressing up. I was the Dungeon Master and I won every time. For years all I wanted to do was play wedding. I tied my blankie around my neck as a cool cape/veil and I wore my bride dress into a rag. After so many weddings I finally made the leap into wife and motherhood thanks to a maroon dress worn by my sister in the school western. I got some good use out of that one.
Eventually, I grew tired of my Ma Ingalls dress. I was in the market for a new identity and I needed look no further than UHF channel 34. Jeannie was breathtaking. She was never ashamed of herself, she never felt the hot flush of shame down her back when she spoke up and she was perfect and beautiful with the greatest costume ever made.
Straight away I asked my mom to take me to Hancock fabric. She made that maroon dress so surely she could make me a Jeannie costume just as easily. It paled in comparison, naturally, but I loved it nonetheless. When my mother made me wear a coat over it for trick-or-treating I damn near had myself emancipated. She made up for it though by buying me a decorative stopper-bottle from the Lillian Vernon catalog.
When that costume fell apart I began cobbling together a new one. I found some lavender parachute pants. Perfect. Not having access to a super-cute bolero jacket I pulled the tail of my t-shirt through the neck hole for what I called a “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders Top.” I found some scarves in the dress-up closet and draped them artfully around my face, doing all I could to hide my drab, Fantastic Sam’s haircut.
Right before the show came on I would arrange every pillow in the house into a lounging area like Jeannie had in her bottle. I could have been watching “Double Dare,” instead I cried if I missed a 25-year-old, canned-laughter sitcom about a sex pot and an astronaut. There weren’t too many other fourth-graders who were into this kind of thing.
Supernatural abilities aside, “I Dream of Jeannie” wasn’t like any of the other family-centric sitcoms that I knew of. There was no stern but loving father, or stay-at-home mom (a concept that took me ages to figure out), or brat kids mugging their way through lame punchlines. Major Nelson had enough to juggle with Jeannie on his hands so there was no place for kids on that show. I found I much preferred watching the adults interact in a fantasy Florida with astronauts and evil sisters (who are also genies).
When I watched “Grease” as an adult I realized that what I remembered as an innocent high-school romp with a rockin’ soundtrack was in fact a filthy movie. Re-watching “Jeannie” was just like that. My kid-self missed a lot.
In 1965, when the show debuted, “I Dream of Jeannie” was some highly raunchy stuff. Much was made of Jeannie’s belly button censorship, but they seldom mention all the time she spent wearing nothing but Tony’s crisp dress shirts. Jeannie had to pull out all the stops because Majors Nelson and Healey were regularly getting more ass than a toilet seat. They were forever going out on double dates with stewardesses and astronaut secretaries. Every one of those girls was hopped up on birth control and looking for any reason at all to disappoint their dads.
Knowing that Hayden Rorke (who played Tony’s nemesis Dr. Bellows) was an avowed homosexual also colored my vision of the show. This is due entirely to my own slash goggles rather than Rorke’s tour-de-force performance. I’ve read and written so much fanfiction that it’s damn near impossible to not wonder if the characters are secretly boning.
What I noticed most about the show was that I had things all wrong. For years I thought Jeannie’s wacky hijinks were because she was afraid that Tony would leave her, or give her away to some other man.
I don’t know why I thought Jeannie was desperately trying to prevent Major Nelson from abandoning her. She certainly was not a girl trying to figure out what she’d done that was so bad to make her dad move out. If I had her power I would have been able to, if not put things right, (I knew that was a lost cause) to master what was going on around me.
Everyone has that one thing in their adolescence that forever makes a profound mark on his or her sexuality. It’s uncomfortable to talk about and impossible to explain. When I watched “I Dream of Jeannie,” I thought I had things pretty well figured out. Girls should be beautiful, I wanted to be beautiful. Girls should be upbeat and positive, never whiny or ashamed. I was whiny and ashamed. Those are the kinds of girls that boys like. Never mind that I was foolishly wrong about these ideas.
I was 11 years old, what the hell did I know? Tony and Jeannie seemed like as good a model as any. They lived in sin and had no kids and they were always having a good time. Why shouldn’t I want a life like that? I was tired of pretending to be the bride or Ma Ingalls, a paragon of womanhood. I was ready to flash some skin and get into trouble. Of course, skin-flashing and trouble-making never went further than my living room, at least until I got to high school.
Jeannie gave me a kick-ass personality to carry with me, to make me stronger when I had to work math problems at the board or run races in gym class. I continued to suck eggs at both of those things but I knew deep inside that I was capable of some amazing shit.
You can follow Erin Byrne on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne. There you will find lecherous messages sent to various members of the “Hollyoaks” cast.