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The Never-Ending Quest to Make ‘Charlie’s Angels’ Feminist

Since the show’s premiere in 1976, critics have derided the material’s sexist depiction of hot babes solving crimes. A new reboot is the latest attempt to add an element of female empowerment, with mixed results

William Froug was a prodigious television writer-producer of the 1960s and 1970s, working on everything from The Twilight Zone to Gilligan’s Island to Bewitched. He also wrote for a dopey show about three attractive female spies. “Between producing gigs, I’d write a Charlie’s Angels episode,” Froug recalled in his memoir How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island. “It was good pay for a week’s work. We all approached the series as a bubble-headed comedy where corny puns were the substitute for wit.” He was friends with Charlie’s Angels creators Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, whom he felt confident “created Charlie’s Angels as a what-the-hell-it’s-only-TV idea.” 

The late 1970s were a different time, long before “peak TV,” when the medium seemed inferior to movies. It was also a period when feminism was trying to gain a toehold in the American mainstream, with varying degrees of success. Charlie’s Angels, which debuted in 1976, was perfectly geared to the era, for both reasons. Each week on this disposable, cheesy program, three beautiful women (played by Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith) were sent on assignment, a la the old Mission: Impossible TV series, to solve a crime or stop some bad guys. And if the women happened to show off their beauty (and bodies) while completing their mission, well, no one was going to object.

Charlie’s Angels became a hit, even if critics dismissed it as “massage parlor television” and “voyeurism,” while writer Judith Coburn declared the program “one of the most misogynist shows the networks have produced recently.” Of course, other women found the show empowering. In her essay “Beyond ‘Jiggle TV’: ‘Charlie’s Angels’ at 25,” commentator Whitney Womack noted, “[T]hese critics largely overlook what I saw and identified with in the show as a child: images of female intelligence, strength, solidarity and community.”

For straight men, Charlie’s Angels has always been fraught in a different way. Both the 1970s series and the big-screen adaptations starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu proudly paraded its gorgeous women, with the movies especially pumping up the winking sexual innuendo. (Referring to her home’s mail slot, Diaz’s character, scantily clad, memorably informs a horny male, “You can just feel free to stick things in my slot!”) The idea behind the movies was, yes, Charlie’s Angels is lascivious, but the women are in on the joke, so it’s all good, right? As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott put it in his review of 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, the movie “is dedicated to the proposition that you can have your cheesecake and eat it too. Its three heroines … are meant to appeal both to teenage girls, who will admire their professionalism and fighting spirit, and to teenage boys, who will find other things about them to admire.” 

Since 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, there was a short-lived TV reboot, and now we have a new movie, which seems determined to finally give the Angels the agency they deserve. It’s a laudable goal, but the film, directed and written by Elizabeth Banks, feels hamstrung by a seemingly unsolvable problem: The entire “appeal” of Charlie’s Angels was its old-fashioned, outdated sexism. By trying to strip that away, Banks removes what made the material unique in the first place. Is Charlie’s Angels anything without its cheesecake?

The movie introduces us to Sabina (Kristen Stewart), Elena (Naomi Scott) and Jane (Ella Balinska), who must work together to stop a powerful but dangerous new energy source from becoming a weapon of mass destruction. Whereas the previous versions of Charlie’s Angels found the Angels working with a male handler named Bosley, this reboot has the spies being led by a female Bosley (Banks), who’s more like a comforting big sister than a patriarchal figure. The Angels very occasionally use their feminine wiles to get what they want from clueless men, but for the most part their attractiveness isn’t something for the (male) audience to gawk it. They’re not meant to be sex objects simply because they have breasts. 

This is a conscious change from the giggly leering of the 1970s TV show and the Diaz-Barrymore-Liu films. In place of shots of heaving cleavage, Elena goes undercover in a heavily guarded lab, instructed by a male security guard that she ought to smile — a loaded expression that’s become synonymous with a sexist attitude about how women should behave in public. Banks has talked about wanting to lace her Charlie’s Angels with “sneaky feminist ideas,” and it’s in small moments like that where we see how, despite being world-class spies, these characters never forget how degradingly men think of them.

Banks’ eyes-up-here approach has rich comedic potential, but the problem is that, without the sexism, the Angels aren’t particularly interesting. Stewart, Scott and Balinska have a lively rapport — their characters are smart, not airhead-bubbly as was the case with some earlier Angels — but Banks’ script doesn’t move too far past the notion that, hey, maybe Sabina, Elena and Jane shouldn’t be objectified. That’s a worthy idea, but the characters don’t have much in the way of personality — almost as if Banks feared that, by letting these women sparkle, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. And so we’re left with an action-comedy in which the quips tend toward the lame. 

What’s especially disappointing is the fact that Banks was part of the Pitch Perfect franchise, which understood how to make movies with mostly female characters that could be silly but also progressive. (Banks’ feature directorial debut was Pitch Perfect 2.) That might seem like a low bar, but remember that we’re only a few years removed from Bridesmaids, which proved that a female-driven comedy could be a huge hit — and even fewer years removed from Wonder Woman, which proved that a female-driven superhero movie could resonate with audiences. While it’s mildly notable that this new Charlie’s Angels is a female-driven action-comedy, everything from Spy to Atomic Blonde to Ocean’s Eight to Girls Trip to Captain Marvel has demonstrated that female protagonists can lead commercially successful films.

Banks wants to empower the Angels but, in a small sign that maybe Hollywood is making slight progress, that conceit alone isn’t enough anymore. Even misfires like Terminator: Dark Fate are espousing feminist attitudes these days. The new Charlie’s Angels celebrates female friendship, and surely it’ll be inspiring for girls in the audience who are too young to remember the jiggle-crazy earlier iterations of the property. (And for boys, it’ll be proof that they can be impressed by female characters beyond their physical beauty.) Banks redeems these objectified characters, but she struggles to make them stand out in a world that, suddenly, actually has several superb cinematic heroines. Charlie’s Angels was born as a vehicle for shameless voyeurism — more than 40 years later, the reboot still feels like it’s trying to catch up with the times.

Here are three other takeaways from Charlie’s Angels

#1. Who asked for a Michael Strahan cameo?

In the new Charlie’s Angels, it’s established that the Townsend Agency has gone global, with many different Bosleys supervising different teams of Angels. Early on in the movie, one Bosley, played by Patrick Stewart, is getting ready to retire, and so the other Bosleys throw him a surprise going-away party. It’s then that we discover that one of the Bosleys is played by Michael Strahan… who never shows up again in the movie. 

Movies have oddball cameos all the time, but this one is particularly egregious. Since all the other Bosleys are unfamiliar faces, Strahan just sticks out. Why is Strahan playing a Bosley? Who thought it would be good to have him in Charlie’s Angels?

Strahan’s post-NFL career is a mystery to me. He was a menace on the field, one of the league’s best pass rushers of all time. But since then? He’s pivoted to Adorable Gentle Giant, taking over for Regis Philbin on the morning talk show Live With Kelly and Michael before jumping over to Good Morning America. Nowadays, he’s a smiling cheese-ball lobbing dopey questions at celebrities. Not to mention, he goes to bed super-early to prep for his early-morning gig. What happened to the vicious Michael Strahan I used to know?

Charlie’s Angels is hardly Strahan’s first film appearance. He also had a cameo in Magic Mike XXL, where he played a stripper. (Elizabeth Banks also had a small role in Magic Mike XXL, which might explain why he shows up in her new movie.) It seems pretty obvious that the guy is a big hit with female viewers — listen to how the Kelly and Michael audience reacts to his anecdote about being in Magic Mike XXL — and so it makes sense that he’d show up in Charlie’s Angels.

Sure, he still does Fox NFL Sunday, but it’s funny how cuddly he’s become since leaving the NFL. That said, I don’t think the guy can act. And he’s on screen so long in his scene in Charlie’s Angels. Blessedly, it’s over early in the film so you can quickly move on. But I spent the rest of Charlie’s Angels feeling a bit anxious: Strahan’s not gonna come back, is he?

#2. Let’s remember Bill Murray’s miserable time on 2000’s ‘Charlie’s Angels.’

For years, there have been rumors that Bill Murray was a bit of a nightmare on the set of the 2000 big-screen adaptation of Charlie’s Angels. He played Bosley, giving the movie a bit of hipster cool. But from the start, things didn’t go well. During casting for the film, which was directed by McG, Murray seemed to be dropped from the part, with Variety reporting that the actor went “AWOL for the last few weeks and [became] all but impossible to reach.” Murray’s famous for doing his own thing, so that’s not entirely surprising.

But once production began, things got worse. He supposedly got into a feud with Lucy Liu. There were rumors that Murray questioned why she had been cast in the movie, which supposedly prompted Liu to punch him. Then there was the claim McG made that Murray head-butted him, which Murray denied: “That’s bullshit! That’s complete crap! I don’t know why he made that story up. He has a very active imagination. … He deserves to die!” (McG, asked if Murray was a prima donna, replied, “Naaah. He’s a serious actor, though. People don’t realize he is this earnest, studied funnyman. I got along with him okay.”)

By the time of the 2003 sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, though, it was clear Murray wasn’t coming back. He was replaced by Bernie Mac, although McG insisted it wasn’t because of the friction the first time around. “Bill is serious about taking a character to the highest level — which can lead to heated conversations,” the director said at the time. “I welcome that. I didn’t try to get him back, though, because I wanted the film to be a platform — a way of showing that, if you pick yourself up from the bootstraps, you can make things happen. … Mac is from a tough Chicago neighborhood and has experienced tragedy. He has a different pedigree, and I wanted that voice to come through.”

This is a very weird way of explaining why you’ve decided to go with another actor. In hindsight, it’s probably stranger that Murray decided to do Charlie’s Angels in the first place than that he didn’t come back for a second one.

#3. Watch this Kristen Stewart movie instead.

Much like her former Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart has been on a phenomenal roll since that franchise ended. And like Pattinson, she’s moved into indie films, which have allowed her more dramatic possibilities than when she was the moody Bella. Clouds of Sils Maria, Certain Women, Still Alice: It’s an impressive résumé of smart roles in which she’s worked with world-class directors.

But the best of the bunch is Personal Shopper, a French psychological drama that cast her as Maureen, an American in Paris who works for a famous model. Maureen is grieving the recent death of her twin brother, who died because of a rare heart condition — the same condition Maureen fears may fell her. Maureen is convinced, however, that she might be able to make contact with her deceased brother, and so Personal Shopper becomes an unusual ghost story. She begins to receive odd text messages. Are they from her brother? A stalker? Someone else?

The movie is about trying to make sense of grief, but simultaneously writer-director Olivier Assayas increases the suspense and anxiety. Maureen can’t simply mourn her brother because she becomes convinced that her own life is being threatened by phantom forces. Personal Shopper has a terrific unresolved ending that may frustrate some viewers, but it perfectly articulates grief’s difficult limbo: We can’t escape, and we don’t know how it will end.

Stewart is perfectly fine in Charlie’s Angels, but anyone who’s seen her more adventurous work of late will realize that this new movie is beneath her talents. If you’ve been sleeping on Stewart, Personal Shopper is an excellent place to start. The movie’s not scary, per se, but you may want to leave the lights on when you watch it.