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Friday, May 18, 2007

Autumn angels are not always what they appear

Charlie’s Angels premiered september 1976 and was an instant hit (only the Superbowl attracted more viewers). The Angels Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith en Farrah Fawcett were on the cover of Time Magazine within a month. Whitney Womack wrote a sociological piece on the show. Yes, that’s right. You can do that, about this show.
It’s a typical show for the controversial last bit of the seventies. Autumn timeframe, in my book. The curious mix of sexual tension, beauty, suspense and feminism attracted not only women, but also college graduates and teenage boys. While critics denounced the show as pure schlock, feminist were competing for airtime to open fire: “a backlash against feminism. Charlie dispatches his streetwise girls to use their sexual wiles on the world while he reaps the profits. The Angels are being shoved back into the kind of subordinate and sexualized roles from which feminists had worked to break free.” Others objected to the virtually unattainable ideal of thinness and beauty that the Angels represented. Then again, Whitney, a young female fan at the time of the show, primary saw “images of female intelligence, strength, solidarity and community. Importantly, the Angels led independent lives. Kelly and Jill were unmarried and Sabrina was divorced, yet none of them seemed particularly obsessed with finding a husband or “settling down”. With their own money, they bought hip clothes and fast cars, including Jill’s white Cobra with black racing stripes.” While we look at it now as 70s stupidity, it worked it’s magic in that timeframe!
Exactly the delicate balance between feminism and anti-feminism made the success of the show. Controversy abound, but still something for everyone, and therefore an icon for success in an autumn timeframe. There’s so much to learn from popular culture..

And, interesting enough, the movie remake stems from another autumn period: 2000. Only: sooner than a remake, the 2000 film version is an over the top parody, according to Whitney: “While claiming to pay homage to the original series, the film instead exaggerates and mocks the series’ excesses and retains virtually none of its feminist sensibilities. Feminism is replaced with a sort of watered down, Spice Girls brand of substanceless “girl power” that in many ways promotes rather than undermines traditional gender codes. While the original series is predicated on a hard-fought challenge to the patriarchal power structure of the police department, the new Angels aren’t even trained police officers. Further, the film focuses far more than the series on the Angels’ private lives, especially their romantic relationships, and emphasizes their feminine attributes and even their domestic skills - returning us in many ways to the Angel in the House model of womanhood.” Drew Barrymore, who brought the 2000 version to the screen: “I became interested because the Angels “weren’t feminist, male-bashing ladies. And that’s refreshing”. In another interview she says she’s “not a torch-carrying feminist”, because she wants to be “sexy and fun”. So much for feminism at the start of a new century: feminism is definitely non-sexy. It could be in the 70s, though! In the original series, men never got away with sexist remarks. In the new version, the Angels do not dare tell their boyfriends that they’re Angels and instead try to bake muffins..

The 2000 Angels resort to the opportunistic, superficial side of autumn: just plain hedonism and no message to be found anywhere, all links with reality are deliberately eliminated: “It’s fantasy and just a bit of escape....It’s a fun, just ode-to-joy, kinda pop-a-wheelie kind of movie”, says director Joseph McGinty Nichol. The bonding consists of lots of hugging, giggling, playing with one another’s hair, and giving boyfriend advice, whereas in the 70s series there were hardly any boyfriends, much more focus on work and, believe it or not, almost never sexy underwear: the girls walked around in the typical female career suits of the time.

No, if I were Whitney, I would not be satisfied with Charlie’s Angels 2000. But we can console her a little bit. In other TV series of the last few years, women do pick up the line the 70s Angels planted. In police shows like CSI en NYPD Blue, for instance, but one could also see teenage shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena as examples of feminism and anti-feminism balanced out to mass appeal. And in the audience will be a new Whitney Womack, getting the right clues.

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