After watching the five DVD set Charlie’s Angels: The Complete First Season, I feel like an expert on Farrah Fawcett’s nipples. To be sure, all of the funky ‘70s costumes are eye-catching, but no sartorial decision is as noticeable as the fact that, as Jill Munroe, Farrah never wears a bra.
Of course, this was a crucial part of Charlie’s Angels‘s “feminism.” In 1976, women’s liberation on the small screen amounted to women being free from wearing bras. And that’s a basic problem with the television show: it imagined itself as representing strong, independent, and resourceful women, when in reality, it offered the same old sexist stereotypes and objectifications. Despite their varying talents, the Angels’ ultimate power was based in their sex appeal.
Any given episode in the series, which aired for five seasons, has one or more of the Angels going undercover to solve some mystery (often in some “woman’s” field, such as modeling). Inevitably, they need to coax information out of villainous men, by seduction. Flash a little cleavage and flip some hair, lean in close to deliver breathy whispers and men crumble. The Angels never followed through, of course. Even though they were sexpots, they were also, ultimately, “good girls.” They were sexual objects and conventionally moral, so much for “liberation.”
The trio did have other resources, most notably Sabrina’s (Kate Jackson) impressive intellect, though it had little currency in the world of the show. Charlie’s Angels sets up an inverse relationship between beauty and brains. So while Jackson was just as beautiful as Fawcett or Jaclyn Smith, Sabrina was never allowed/shown to be as desirable as Jill or Kelly. While Jill proudly displays her nipples for all to see, Sabrina wears turtlenecks. Apparently, smart girls can’t be (conventionally) sexy.
Add to this the fact that the Angels work for a sybaritic, reclusive millionaire, whose conversations are littered with lewd innuendo about how he is always “hard at work,” and who dispenses orders from afar while scantily clad beauties hand him cocktails. Watching Charlie’s Angels today makes one wonder just why the show has the reputation it does among many as progressive and empowering for women.
This is a question addressed by the DVD collection’s “special featurette,” “Angels Forever,” which isn’t so much a documentary as a series of hard-core Angels fan testimonials. Identified by occupations like “Farrah Hairdo Survivor” and “Joint Owners of Farrah Swimsuit Poster,” these fans wax on about their favorite show. They demonstrate how audiences at the time could read against the grain and, despite the show’s obvious sexism, find moments of inspiration and autonomy. Claims for the Angels’ assertiveness, athleticism, career focus, and rejection of traditional patterns of heterosexual coupling are common. As one fan observes succinctly, Charlie’s Angels represented an “escape from traditional feminine constraints, at least as far as ‘70s television was capable.”
This interpretation of the show also directly informs the films. In interviews, producer and Angel Drew Barrymore has talked about her own relationship to the television series in the same terms as the fans on the DVD. The show was all jiggle and cheese, yet she still came away with the belief that girls could do and be anything they wanted.
Barrymore and the other writers and producers involved in the films clearly know their Charlie’s Angels lore. One delight in viewing The Complete First Season is finding those moments that made their way directly into the film. The episode “Hellride,” for instance, gets repeated in the film in a racetrack scene (though in the show, it’s stock car racing rather than Formula One). The intro titling of the film also includes re-shoots of many of the episode snippets included in the television series’ opening, most recognizably the image of the Angels chained together, slogging across a wooded field, lifted from Season One’s “Angels in Chains.”
This is my personal favorite episode on the DVD, with the Angels inside a women’s prison, where they confront sadistic guards, and a warden who seeks to prostitute them. The queer undercurrents of this Charlie’s Angels version of the women behind bars film are pure camp fun, especially Mary Woronov’s total butch top guard Maxine.
The episode “Night of the Strangler” runs a close second, though. Here the Angels are on the hunt for a strangler who dispenses his victims with a creepy clown rag doll. Insofar as the episode is so clearly tied to ‘70s anxieties over serial killers like the Son of Sam and the Gemini Killer, it demonstrates how even a frivolous show like Charlie’s Angels was directly influenced by and reflective of real world events. Sure, it seems more than a bit paranoiac today, but surely, for instance, last spring’s episode of Smallville that attempted to take on the U.S. “war on terrorism” will look just as ridiculous in 20 years.
There are other pleasures to be had in Charlie’s Angels: The Complete First Season. There are a number of cameos by then up and coming actors who have by now fully arrived, and far eclipsed the fame that the stars of the show ever achieved. Tommy Lee Jones in the “Pilot Episode” and Kim Basinger in “Angels in Chains” are a pleasant surprise, if only because they look very young. So does Tom Selleck as Kelly’s boyfriend, Dr. Alan Samuelson, in “Target: Angels,” whose role is the template for Matt LeBlanc’s in the films (as Alex’s boyfriend). Alan feels that Kelly distances herself from him, he wants to get married; she insists she’s not the marrying kind, but we know it’s only because of her secret.
The fact that the Angels couldn’t reveal their occupation to those closest to them has never really made a lot of sense to me. Their secrecy is supposed to protect their ability to go undercover, I suppose, but it hardly seems necessary. More likely, the Angels’ secrecy is to protect not them but their families and lovers from the “truth” of their womenfolk and the “threat” of their independence. If Dr. Alan knew that Kelly was an ass-kickin’ Angel, would he feel secure in his place in their relationship, would he even still be attracted to her?
The greatest fun here, however, is the show’s counter-sexist dynamics. While the Angels are sexist caricatures by today’s standards (and on occasion, those of the late ‘70s), the men in the show come off much worse. With the exception of Bosley (David Doyle), who is largely inept, avuncular, and libido-less, all the other men in Charlie’s Angels are complete horn-dogs. When any villain catches an Angel red-handed (usually rifling through their filing cabinets, the bulk of their detective work), all the Angel has to do is press up against him and any suspicion (or any thought at all) runs south in a hurry.
For all its attention to women’s bodies, then, the show really subverts the myth of male authority and rationalism. All these men would be much more successful criminals if only they could keep it in their pants, and the Angels know this. Charlie’s Angels‘s most pointed political project is not so much women’s empowerment as it is a critique, or caricature, of patriarchy. Kelly, Sabrina, and Jill most definitely had talents and abilities in excess of their sex appeal, but in a world populated by sexist, Neanderthal men, they hardly had the opportunity, or need, to use them.