Hanging Five with the Girl That Inspired Gidget

'Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story'

by Christel Loar

16 October 2011

A biography of the original Gidget, Kathy Kohner, but also a behind-the-scenes look at the rise and endurance of a cultural icon, and a love letter to the sport and lifestyle of surfing.
cover art

Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story

Director: Brian L. Gillogly
Cast: Kathy Kohner, Sally Field, Jorja Fox, Cliff Robertson

US theatrical: 27 Sep 2011

Mention Gidget and most people will think of the television show that gave us Sally Field as the spunky surfer girl. Others might think of the 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee, or the subsequent films starring Deborah Walley or Cindy Carol. Still others call to mind the 1957 book by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Frederick Kohner, Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas. Until rather recently, few outside of the surfing community were aware that there is a real life Gidget.

Kohner’s daughter Kathy is the original “girl midget”. Kohner’s books were based on the stories Kathy would write in her diaries and the adventures and lingo she would tell her father about as a 15-year-old girl hanging out and learning to surf on Malibu’s Surfrider Beach at a time when not only was it unusual for girls to surf, but when surfing was still something of a secret confined to small, close-knit communities of young people. Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story tells Gidget’s tale, as a mini-biography of Kathy Kohner, as a behind-the-scenes look at the rise and endurance of a cultural icon, and as a love letter to the sport and lifestyle of surfing.

Narrated by Jorja Fox (CSI) and featuring interviews with several surfing legends, friends of Kathy Kohner’s upon whom other iconic characters were based (like Moondoggie and Tubesteak), current pro-surfers and many of the actors, filmmakers and producers involved in the various Gidget movies and television productions over the last half century, Accidental Icon moves with easy fluidity from Kathy’s personal experiences to the way in which she—and the character modeled after her—inspired generations of young girls while simultaneously introducing the world at large to surfing.

The documentary does not entirely consist of reminiscing about Gidget the girl or Gidget the Hollywood image. That is there, of course, as we see Malibu locals talking about Kohner’s unique personality or her ubiquitous presence back in the day, or as we see how strongly Field (or even Caryn Richman, who starred in The New Gidget in the ‘80s) is still attached to the character. However, director Brian L. Gillogly also includes clips of people talking about how much they resented the book and the films for the way in which the surfing lifestyle was inaccurately portrayed, or for the fact that the attention made surfing so popular that the beaches became crowded with Gremmies.

Accidental Icon also features lots of excellent vintage footage of legends like Mickey Dora riding the waves.  And there are scores of female surfers showing their skills and paying homage to the original Gidget, whether they first encountered her on their TVs, in reruns, in movie theaters, in mythic stories, or on the beach at Malibu.  Several interviewees talk about Gidget as a feminist symbol, because she showed that it was possible for a girl to hang five with the boys out on the waves during the day, and still go out on the town with a guy for date at night. 

Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story is an intriguing look at a moment in time, at a cultural movement in the making, and at the real person behind an American legend. It will delight surfing enthusiasts and Hodads alike. The DVD features an extended ending with more on Kathy Kohner today and a few more interview clips, and an outtake, as well as a couple of excerpts from other surf productions.

Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story


Extras rating:

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Essays on Topics in Culture; Present, Past and the Speculative Future

// Announcements

"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…

READ the article