Like many homosexuals over the age of thirty, my childhood was saturated with the films of Hayley Mills. From Pollyanna to the Parent Trap to her role as Miss Bliss on the first season of Saved By the Bell, she seemed to be everywhere. One may recall her girlish charms and jaunty British-ness and draw the conclusion that she was harmless and benign. This was the genius of the Disney company and their diabolical scheme to create a society reliant upon therapists, antidepressants and extravagant theme park vacations.
If you are not familiar with the work of Ms. Mills, let me fill you in. She was Walt Disney’s blonde sweetheart of the 1960’s with a vague English accent that never made sense in most of the American film roles she landed. She was relentlessly cast as an innocent young girl placed in troublesome predicaments that were cleverly resolved in the end with the aid of catchy musical numbers and ill-founded hope. Hayley made being a teenager look like a wholesome and light hearted endeavor. Whether it was discovering a long-lost twin at summer camp, solving mysteries on the beaches of Greece or climbing mountains with explorers in search of a missing relative, she promoted an illusion that anything is possible for those with the right outfits and the belief that “things just work out.”
Let’s examine some of her notable films:
Pollyanna is a misguided young girl who suffers from delusional thinking. She is, of course, an Orphan sent to live with an estranged miserly aunt played by Jane Wyman, who built a career on perfect posture and crisp diction. Pollyanna’s dead parents were voluntarily destitute missionaries who taught her to always find the silver lining, which they had to do often since they had no money and Pollyanna never even had a doll to play with (which becomes a central plot point later in the story). A series of very dull things occur that I don’t really remember, but the main takeaway is that the horrible aunt doesn’t like the little girl, and the little girl just wants love and approval and a doll to play with. She does everything she can to please the aunt, but it’s never enough, and instead of choosing to appeal to a new target audience, Pollyanna continues to make every attempt to gain the affection of this woman who really needs to get over herself. Somehow the little girl finally acquires a doll at a church carnival, but due to a clever plot twist, the doll falls out of a window and into a tree. Pollyanna then attempts to rescue the doll and predictably falls out of the tree, becoming a paraplegic in an age before public accessibility standards were in effect. Her positive attitude falters for a brief moment, but it is immediately restored when the people of the town all come to visit her in her wheelchair and the aunt finally decides to give up and be civil.
Moral of the story: if you are persistent enough with people who don’t deserve your respect, you can eventually wear them down and force them to like you.
The Parent Trap (1961)
This is perhaps Ms. Mill’s most famous role. Using the magic of primitive trick photography, one actress is able to play twins named Sharon and Susan who were separated at birth and never made aware of each other’s existence. Through a twist of fate, both girls are shipped off to the same WASPy summer camp for affluent white girls. Self-internalized misogyny runs rampant and the twins become enemies instantly after discovering one another. The girl-on-girl drama escalates, elaborate pranks are performed and eventually the pair is forced to live together in isolation as punishment for causing so many camp disruptions. Rather than having a mud wrestling fight to the death, the two girls acknowledge the obvious fact that they are sisters and form an alliance. They spend the remainder of their time at camp engaging in an elaborate espionage scheme to trade identities and manipulate their divorced parents into getting back together. More drama ensues, the parents finally catch on that they’ve been played, and everyone reunites in time for Ms. Mills to perform an upbeat duet with herself that inspires frivolity and re-kindles a spark between the estranged lovers. A few final complications occur, causing the viewer to doubt the effectiveness of the hair-brained scheme, but in the end, all is made right and the girls’ plan is a success.
Moral of the story: If you prey on the emotional weaknesses of others, it is possible to manipulate everyone around you into denying their own experiences and adopting new patterns of behavior to meet your own selfish needs.
Summer Magic (1963)
Set in the ragtime era, this period comedy must have been pieced together from remnants of other failed ideas as fulfillment of an obligation to feature Hayley in a musical. In this film, Ms. Mills is poor again, and forced to abandon city life, following her widowed mother to begin a new life sequestered in a small town in the country. Burl Ives shows up to sing a few songs while helping the family fix up the run-down (but giant) house they are squatting in. Just as the family is starting to feel comfortable, tragedy strikes again, and they are compelled to take in a recently orphaned cousin with chronic PMS. The two girls dislike each other at first, but then bond over teaching a younger girl how to please a man by appearing to be weak and useless in a musical number called “Femininity.” The newly bonded cousins combine feminine forces to beguile wealthy men at a Halloween party in hopes of exchanging their youth and beauty for the resources hoarded by the aforementioned wealthy men.
Moral of the story: If you perpetuate unrealistic gender biases that promote female objectification, you too can escape a cycle of poverty.
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Perhaps the rational conclusions to be drawn from these facts are obvious, but just in case, I will break them down. Hayley Mills acted as an agent of the Disney company to lie to generations of American children, setting up unrealistic expectations that made growing up more tedious. Some have reacted to this betrayal by spending unnecessary hours in therapy talking about their feelings. Some have been driven to drink or abuse prescription mood enhancers. Personally, I decided to become a New Yorker, which has been the healthiest of possible outcomes. If you have been wronged by Ms. Mills as so many others have, know that you are not alone.