Accomplished academics have written about how “Charlie’s Angels” – “jiggle” television that it was – has its place in feminist history, pop-culture division.
I’m not an accomplished academic _ or any kind of academic _ just someone who’s watched an inordinate amount of 1970s television. So what I offer here, in tribute to the passing of Farrah Fawcett, are a few thoughts about “Charlie’s Angels” and the concept of teamwork.
When “Charlie’s Angels” debuted in 1976, there really had never been a television show quite like it. Three women who were, obviously by choice, devoted to their careers and not married. Nor were they even the slighest bit worried about that. They were in a dangerous profession, but they never seemed too concerned about that either.
We’d seen women on TV shows as competent, smart and brave police officers/detectives/spies before “Charlie’s Angels.” But they were always paired with at least one man; think Mrs. Peel of “The Avengers” or 99 from “Get Smart” or Pepper Anderson of “Police Woman.”
What made “Charlie’s Angels” SO different was that it was three women working together – and they really liked each other. The characters were all youthful and beautiful, but they never exhibited jealousy or competitiveness toward each other. When one was in trouble, the other two were going to do everything possible to get her out of it. Even if it meant risking of their own lives.
Had a television series ever presented this kind of friendship between women before? I really don’t think it had.
Sure, “I Love Lucy” had Lucy and Ethel as true buddies. No matter how much she would protest Lucy’s outlandish schemes, Ethel would always be there for her. If Lucy was out on a ledge, by damn, Ethel was somehow going to end up out there, too.
But they weren’t young and glamorous, nor did they have careers. They had grumpy, controlling husbands who on a daily basis sabotaged their hopes and their self-esteem. Lucy and Ethel had become friends mostly because of shared circumstances, proximity and … loneliness. They didn’t have anybody but each other who really listened to them.
Thanks to brilliant writing and performances, all this was highly successful in passing as comedy. And we still laugh at it now, making peace with the show’s withering sexism _ and, frankly, its horrible depiction of marriage _ mostly because Lucy kept bouncing back undaunted, as if the previous week’s humiliation had never happened.
There was the friendship of Mary and Rhoda on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And at least by the early 1970s, two women on TV could bond as pals without being driven to it out of desperation born of crappy marriages. However, Rhoda mocked her job, was obsessed with getting married and was, at her core, tragically low on self-confidence.
Still, these were TV examples of female friendship where the camaraderie felt substantial and lasting. But they were comedies. What about dramas?
You can certainly suggest that “Charlie’s Angels” was to drama what toast is to the culinary arts … but if it had to be classified as something, it was drama.
There was plenty on “Charlie’s Angels” to cringe at, starting with Charlie, who seemed to live a sort of Hugh Hefner existence, surrounded by bikini-clad women who were always depicted in mute servitude to him. A contrast to the Angels, in fact.
The plots were moronic, the crooks were cartoon-character “evil,” and the Angels (save the exquisite Kate Jackson) seemed to be wearing bathing suits an inordinate amount of the time while investigating crime.
But … the Angels always had each others’ backs. They teased Bosley, they mock-griped about Charlie, and they never failed to solve the cases.
People watching “Charlie’s Angels” saw different things, of course, depending on their age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. … but no viewers would have said the Angels ever fit that loathsome stereotype of “catty rivals.”
Even if the creators (Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) and producers (Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg) of “Charlie’s Angels” were not necessarily trying to make any grand social statement on female friendship and teamwork – and I would assume they weren’t – it was nonetheless a meaningful and redeeming element of the show.
Credit has to go to the actresses – Fawcett, Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd (who replaced Fawcett after season one but still acted alongside her in those episodes in seasons two and three when Farrah’s contract forced her to be a guest star) – for convincingly making those on-screen relationships seem so genuine. And as we saw in their response to Fawcett’s illness and death, they really did care for each other.
In the show, the Angels had to work together and trust each other, sometimes even in situations of life and death. If one failed, they were all in trouble … and had to depend on teamwork to get out of it.
Teamwork. Again, think about this word. In the mid-1970s, how many televised examples of women working as a team – in sports or anything else – did we see?
In 1976, women’s basketball on a collegiate level was really just getting started, at least in the form we know it now. Women’s hoops didn’t have its Olympic debut until that year. None of this got much airtime. I know there were some appearances on TV, but the fact is I don’t actually remember seeing a televised women’s basketball game until 1982.
Growning up in the 1970s, I may not have consciously realized how starved I was to see women as comrades who could count on each other and accomplish goals by working together. But in retrospect, I can very clearly see that. Especially in how strongly I reacted to anything that suggested “women” and “teamwork” – even if it was a goofy TV show that stretched every reasonable boundary of plausibility.
It seems easy to laugh at “Charlie’s Angels” now and dismiss it. Or proclaim it relevant only because, for a brief period, it was insanely popular. But that’s not all there was to it, and I know I’m not alone in thinking that.
“Charlie’s Angels” debuted when I was in sixth grade, and I didn’t identify it as “Jiggle TV” then. Of course, I thought they were gorgeous _ especially (sigh) Kate Jackson _ but that, in and of itself, was not what had me so completely hooked. (Although I won’t deny it was a factor.)
But it was something so much more profound. It was that they were heroic female friends, doing a danger-filled job, who never let each other down. They were a team. A team of women.