Having it Both Ways

“Prime time Porn.” “The first women to carry an action show.” “A hand grenade in the feminist movement.” “Feminist trailblazers.”

Has a show in the history of television ever elicited such powerful yet wildly varying responses from critics and fans alike? I’m thinking no, but Charlie’s Angels did, and continues to be held up as an example of everything that is wrong - and right - with the portrayal of women in prime time.

The producers behind Charlie's Angels, Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, were very quick to accept praise over the years for creating a show in which “women were in control,” thus considering themselves feminists. Wonder what Kate Jackson thinks about THAT.

Truth be told, the producers and the network were able to have it both ways since the show began. To their credit, even before Charlie's Angels hit the airwaves, Spelling/Goldberg did have a history of having strong/smart females in the casts of some of their hit (and not so hit) shows.

From Honey West to Julie in The Mod Squad to future Angel Kate Jackson in The Rookies, Honey, Jill Danko or Julie were nobody’s bimbos. That being said, they were still 3rd and 4th billed co-stars on male dominated shows; except for Honey West which ended after just one season. Charlie’s Angels would be the first action show that featured all the leads as women. From the very beginning, the looks of the Angels were very important because, let's face it, they are women. They have an extra special obligation to be drop dead gorgeous, which seems a bit unfair considering the condition of the male detectives running around prime time at the time. Columbo, Ironside and Barnaby Jones were not what most would consider the male ideal. Overweight, out of shape and old may work fine for a private dick but TV was simply not ready for any average-looking female leads. At least not until Murder She Wrote. The female detectives had to be everything their male counterparts were and more. Smart, capable, upstanding citizens and on top of that ... at all times gorgeous.


Townsend Agency original article by Greg September 29, 2010

So the network cast three drop-dead gorgeous women in the lead roles. Kate Jackson had no problem selling herself as a capable detective. She already sold herself as a smart, lovely, capable nurse slash cop's wife on The Rookies for years, so this was not much of a stretch. The character of Sabrina was also written as the most down to earth Angel - sensible, smart and turtleneck-clad. If Sabrina was acting in any way like a bimbo, it was undercover and on purpose. With Jackson’s smarts and drive I doubt the producers could portray Bri as a bimbo even if they tried. Her screen persona is the opposite of that. So when it comes to Sabrina Duncan, the producers can very well take credit for creating a strong female leader of the team who owned and used her sexuality as she saw fit.

It’s among the other five Angels where lines begin to blur.

Male TV writers for years, since the dawn of the medium, seem to think there are only three types of women. The brain, who can’t be blonde; the ditz/diva who HAS to be blonde; and the “other” one - usually not blonde, usually not smart, who is the receptacle for female angst and emotional problems (see Kelly). With Charlie’s Angels it seems the producers stuck to this template, especially at first.

Season One Jill (Farrah Fawcett) in the first five or six episodes was indeed capable but she was also presented as the dumb blonde, there only to ask obvious questions and make the smart brunettes seem smarter. She was also at times portrayed as rather vain, flighty and shallow. Kelly (at first) was portrayed as overly emotional during times of stress (as female detectives tend to be). It is apparent that these were mandates from writers and producers, not an extension of the actresses, because as time went on and the actresses put more of themselves into the characters, both Jill and Kelly became smarter and more competent.

Charlie's Angels' Legacy

So what is the legacy of Charlie's Angels? The critics called it Jiggle TV. Magazines like TV Guide and People penned scathing snarky articles calling the show and its portrayal of women shallow, blatant and sexist. The producers did nothing to dissuade such speculation by making comments to magazines like “we like to keep them wet” and “of COURSE they are not believable as detectives”.

Wow, how progressive.

One wonders what the show might have been like without Kate Jackson’s (and to a lesser extent Smith's, Fawcett’s, Ladd's) demands of less skin and more substance. The critics at the time pretty much agreed that the show insulted and objectified women. But does this really mean anything to the show's legacy? Most girls (and boys) who were, like myself, grade school age children when the show was in its heyday noticed none of that. We saw three women who could out-fight, out-drive, out-think and and out-shoot the guys. The bikinis and dumb questions were simply tools to throw the bad guys off and get information. If the guys could use their brawn, why couldn’t the girls use their boobs? Use what you've got to get what you want. Even after Jackson left in 1979, the show didn’t disintegrate into a season-long Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. In fact, some of the most notorious episodes cited as misogynist (Angels In Chains, Angels In Springtime, Marathon Angels) were filmed while Jackson was still an Angel.

The simple fact was Sabrina, Jill, Kelly, Kris, Tiffany and Julie, despite being at times scantily clad and asking obvious questions, were just too smart, too likeable and carried themselves with too much pride to ever be mistaken for one of Charlie's bimbos or a Hee Haw Honey. Despite the efforts of the producers and networks to make them nothing more than the sum of their parts, the talent and likeability of the actors won out. To kids at home they were almost like super heroes, cunning detectives who happened to be chicks. And that, it seems, is the legacy that has endured.

I mean who shops at Sears, anyway?