Debbie was once hot. She was tasty. She did Dallas.
She was and she did. And then she didn’t.
* * *
“Good Morning to You!” Debbie Reynolds (née Mary Francis) warbled in 1952 as the bubbly ingénue in Singing in the Rain. Debbie epitomized youth and vibrancy and vim. Debbie was now. Debbie was do.
From that rainstorm, new Debbies sprouted everywhere.
Half a century ago, Little Debbie® snack cakes made their debut. “Unwrap a smile,” the packaging promised. “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”
Named in 1960 by O. D. McKee, founder of McKee Foods, after his four-year-old granddaughter, Debbie was the essence of innocence. She was sweet and wholesome. She was cookies and milk, oatmeal and cream and honey and good cheer, all wrapped up in cellophane. In the convenience food era’s infancy, Little Debbie® was packaged happiness.
Forty-seven years ago my parents named me Debbie. The birth certificate says Deborah, but the intention was always Debbie. They said the name was unusual at the time, and that their choice had nothing to do with Debbie Reynolds. It was a good Jewish name—but not too Jewish. It just felt right.
It felt right to a lot of new parents, all seeking a unique—but not too unique—name for their newborn baby-boomer daughters.
Debbie was one name for the zeitgeist. But zeitgeists are notoriously restless.
”Given a person’s first name, most observers can guess her approximate age with an accuracy well above chance,” Steven Pinker writes in his 2007 book The Stuff of Thought. “An Edna, Ethel, or Bertha is a senior citizen; a Susan, Nancy, or Debra is an aging baby boomer; a Jennifer, Amanda, or Heather is a thirty-something; and an Isabella, Madison, or Olivia is a child.”
Names, like words, commonly cycle in and out of fashion, but the enigmatic and interweaving forces causing these cycles are difficult to trace and impossible to predict, as Pinker demonstrates in his chapter “What’s in a Name?” Pinker notes in passing that while names don’t inevitably rise and fall, “there is always some turnover, and the rate of churning shot up in Western countries in the twentieth century.” It’s fastest, I suspect, in consumer-capitalist cultures that run on the cult of the new.
But what happens to the names—the Debbies, for example—that get spun out of this centrifugal whir?
* * *
In girlhood I looked like O.D. McKee’s granddaughter without the curls and straw hat. I was a duller, flatter Little Debbie.
The Little Debbie® logo dogged my young girlhood. My mother was an early health nut, so while my friends found Little Debbie® Swiss Rolls or Hostess® Twinkies in their lunch bags, I found celery and roasted soybeans. I got all the teasing that the moniker of Little Debbie provoked—especially when my breasts failed to fill out like the other girls’—without any of the eating pleasure.
My one deliberate act of self-definition as a child occurred when I was 8 years old, and I announced to my parents that I was changing the spelling of my nickname from Debbie to Debby. My orthographical revolt was an attempt, in part, to distinguish myself from Little Debbie®, whose epithet I couldn’t shake.
But the unshakeable Debbie’s shelf-life seemed eternal. She was sweet and crunchy and sparkly and ever-fresh. Debbie was forever.
* * *
There were always at least two other Debbies in my class. Debbie Davis was black and lived down the block. Debbie Friedman was another white Jewish girl like me. We both played flute and tennis, had big noses and ran for student council. We got Bat Mitzvahed within a month of each other. But I spelled my name with a -y.
In 1978—the year after Debbie Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fischer, became virginal-sexy Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie—the porn film Debbie Does Dallas, starring Bambi Woods, opened to an instant cult following. The Debbie of the movie, to whom my male classmates unfavorably compared me, was buxom and bouncy and blond. She was a cheerleader, and did she ever draw cheer. This Debbie was desirable and desired. Still cute and perky, Debbie now had a naughty, knowing side. Debbie had developed.
I had not. In my painful, flat-chested adolescence, it was Debbie Does Dallas that belittled me.
When I went off to college, my still undeveloped body refusing to live up to my name, I thought about shedding Debbie/y altogether and going by my middle name, Ann. Ann was nondescript, a blank slate. I could be anybody.
But when I got to my freshman dorm room and saw the name Deborah already on the door, I resigned myself to my name. It was my fate. It was my destiny.
* * *
Devi, he called me, lips vibrating the hard /b/ into a fricative to turn my name into the Sanskrit and Hindi word for goddess.
Rajiv and I met in graduate school. He would become my friend, my lover, and, for 13 years, my life-partner.
Devi comes from the same root as diva, divinity, and deity.
“Don’t make me a goddess for godsake,” I laughed him off the first time he said it. “If you put me up on a pedestal, I’ll only fall.”
He curled his lips into a wry smile but didn’t stop his sly pronunciation. One could do worse than be a goddess. hose 13 years were divine.
But we are all too human. Rajiv died of cancer three days after turning 38.
Devi died with him.
* * *
In 2002 I became Widow Debby. Newly bereaved, I was a downer to be around. I connoted death.
My name, too, had already peaked and begun its descent. Debbie didn’t yet, however, have the taint of obsolescence, the whiff of Oil of Olay, that she would soon acquire. But already the perkiness was gone. Debbie no longer bounced or led cheers. She had begun to sag.
As an English professor, I’ve gone through many rosters of student names. Over time, the Debbie population exponentially declined.
When you don’t have children of your own but teach in a university, it’s hard to keep track of your age. The students around you are eternally 20, with agile bodies and smooth skin and white teeth. One day I woke up to find myself the age of their parents.
These days, my students can’t bring themselves to call me Debby. Sometimes they call me “Professor.” Mostly just “Ma’am.”
“Debby is a put-down,” one student explained.
In 2004, Debbie’s 180-degree turn from the upper she once played was confirmed when Debbie Downer appeared on Saturday Night Live. Played by Rachel Dratch, Debbie Downer sounded a lot like the person I’d become, with her chronic concerns over inclement weather, natural disasters, the exploitation of third world labor, GI tract infelicities, and feline AIDS, “the number one killer of domestic cats.” Wah-wah, went the brass accompaniments to her complaints.
According to the Urban Dictionary, Debbie’s epithetic possibilities are numerous. In addition to Debbie Downer (a killjoy, as in “I don’t mean to be a Debby Downer, but your dog died”), there is a Debbiefuck (who betrays her benefactors), a debbie dip out (who blows off commitments), and Debbie Downsyndrome (chronic and incurable downness). Wah-wah indeed.
These days I work out in a “ladies” gym, where mostly middle-aged and older women move in a circle from machine to machine. Our names betray layers of history. A decade older than me are the Nancys and the Lindas, and beyond them are the Marilyns, the Glorias, the Agneses, and the Gladyses. (Is Debbie the future Gladys?) The oldest gym member, at 88, is Hazel.
One of my favorite dogs in the dog park, a two-year-old pit bull, is also named Hazel.
In our interval training, cycling around our machines for 30 minutes, we make two orbits around the gym’s perimeter—always clockwise, the way of all flesh. When our trainer tries to shake it up and have us go counter-clockwise, many of the ladies resist. We just cannot go against the clock.
On our own individual machines, many of the movements ask us for a range of motion “from 10 to 2.” We imagine ourselves ensconced in a clock. At the center of the face, we are the hands, pointing. We pretend to tell time. But time tells us even sooner.
How does a whole lifetime go by so quickly?
Many of us are widows. A few have remarried or met a new partner. Most of us are still looking—or rather, waiting to be seen. As leftovers past our “best used by” date, we’re invisible beyond the doors of the gym, displaced by the Brittanys, Ashleys, Kaylas and Chelseas. And they’ll soon be nudged out by the Madisons and the Harpers, who know that they would never do something so irresponsible as age.
“But age, alas, that all will envenime,/ Hath me beraft my beauty and my pith,” says Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, lamenting the venom with which age poisons (envenoms) youthful beauty. But then she quickly dismisses the thought: “Let go, farewell, the devil go therewith/ For I have had my world as in my time.”
Like the Wife of Bath, I, too, have had my world in my time. But for such a short time. As my mother kept saying over and over in amazement after my father died, a whole lifetime goes by so quickly.
* * *
Now in her seventies, Debbie Reynolds still looks great. Having maintained her chirpiness to the point of camp, she’s remarkably well preserved. Indeed, enshrined as a gay icon, she’s reached diva-dom.
Other Debbies may not have fared as well.
I wonder what the Debbie who did Dallas is doing now, and what the ensuing years have done to her. But Bambi Woods has disappeared, and her fate is entangled in unverifiable rumors. Some reports have the actress overdosing in 1986. Other accounts have her alive and well and living in Des Moines, Iowa (others say California) as a suburban housewife married to a software engineer.
Did Debbie/Bambi die of an overdose? Or is she living under the radar as a bourgeoisie soccer mom? Maybe she’s working out at a ladies gym, trying to firm up her sagging “angel wings.” All we can be sure of with this aging Debbie is her invisibility.
What about the real Debbie on which the eternally four-year-old McKee logo was modeled? Does she still have dimples in her cheeks, or have they migrated to her thighs?
I started a Google search, but before I found my answer I hit upon a series of Little Debbie® parody logos. Mocking the jingle “Little Debbie has a snack for you,” one anti-logo says, “Little Debbie has some crack for you.” I look back at the Little Debbie image; the girl’s smile begins to appear a bit demonic. She’s a bit too perky, too up. Once you see her this way, you can’t go back.
Little Debbies are still on the shelf, bearing the same five-decades-old logo. In an era of protein bars and smoothies, Little Debbie® snack cakes have the cachet of nostalgia food.
Finding myself in the snack cake aisle of the grocery store, I’m seduced by this nostalgia for a memory that never was. I buy the Oatmeal Creme Pies, the first to be marketed.
Now made with high fructose corn syrup, Little Debbie® snack cakes are no longer advertised as “wholesome.”
I open the packaging and take a bite. My tongue tastes nothing at first, as it works through the textures of Styrofoam and shaving cream. Then, surprisingly, it picks out actual flakes of oatmeal, even though that ingredient is listed well below the corn syrup, enriched bleached flour, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, and sugar. Finally, it registers a taste: a blunt, manufactured sweetness laced with preservatives, and perhaps a slight aftertaste of molasses. When I was a child, the sensation would have thrilled my eager tongue. Now, it’s the taste of once, the taste of did, the taste of done.
* * *
“Debbie! Debbie!” a young female voice calls in the dog park, where I’m strolling with my aging mutts. Nowadays, as my name goes extinct, I’m usually the only Debbie/y in a space. But as I turn to the voice, a Clumber Spaniel bounds ahead of me and runs to the arms of the girl, barely a tweener.
“Her name’s Debbie?” I ask. The girl nods. “So’s mine.” I hold out my arms to the dirty white dog, so ungroomed that she looks like a woolly mammoth. I crouch to Debbie’s level.
Debbie comes to me cautiously, looking through red-rimmed, droopy eyes. I hold out a hand, and she slaps a paw against it. “Nice to meet you, Debbie, “I say, shaking vigorously in an attempt to Debbie-bond, but she yanks her paw away, and busies herself sniffing my feet, then moves on to new ground, dragging the tips of her floppy ears over wet mud.
I suppose it’s the end of the line when your name becomes a dog’s name. But oddly I don’t mind. It may be the closest I get to reincarnation, and the closest Debbie gets to a do-over. I’m at peace with Debbie’s destiny. One could do worse than Clumber Spaniels.
As I return my hands to my coat pockets, Debbie’s pink nose catches a new scent. She lifts her head, locates, and dives into my pocket. She’s right—there’s a treat there, an old, stale, hardened biscuit. I hold it out to her. On either side of her muzzle hang long strings of drool, temporary tusks, sagging a little lower every second. But she pauses for only an instant, and then snaps the treat up with the greedy bite of now.