Cross-posted from About.com with the permission of the author. Opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not necessary The New Agenda.
Farrah Fawcett’s death would have been big news last week if Michael Jackson hadn’t unexpectedly died approximately five hours after she did.
It was an ironic ending for this pop culture icon — once regarded as the quintessential all-American pinup girl — to have her thunder stolen by another pop culture icon who was anything but all-American. Yet Farrah and Michael both labored under the burden of a public image that ended up swallowing them whole. Both spent a lifetime trying to emerge as someone different.
To some extent, Farrah Fawcett did manage to forge a new image for herself. And that’s why she mattered…first to men, and later, in a very different way, to women.
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Back when she initially made it big on the TV show Charlie’s Angels, millions of teenage girls resented Farrah Fawcett…yet struggled to curl their hair each day in her trademark feathery-waves style to impress the millions of boys who had her poster hanging up in their bedrooms.
Although she was on Charlie’s Angels for just one season, her blow-dried image followed her for years. Wanting to be regarded as a serious actress, she quit the show hoping to play more challenging roles. She soon learned that credibility and respect would take years longer to achieve than fame.
Did She Help or Hurt Women?
Considering the fact that Fawcett was one of those impossible-to-live-up-to female images that feminists rail against, there’s been surprisingly little commentary about her passing or about her role in pop culture history from feminist circles.
Did her blonde pin-up girl perfection oppress teens and young women who felt pressure to try to look like her? Was the TV program Charlie’s Angels subtly promoting feminism by showing girls they could look pretty and kick butt at the same time, as some have claimed? Did Fawcett represent every beautiful woman who isn’t taken seriously, and was her later stage, screen, and TV work validation of her talent as an actress?
An American Feminist Icon?
One online article getting a lot of attention claims that Farrah Fawcett was “an American feminist icon.” Written by Lisa Westerfield for Examiner.com, it argues that Charlie’s Angels was one of the few TV shows that inspired girls:
[T]he idea for girls who watched the ‘Angels’ religiously was that we could bridge the cusp of playing with Barbie to cops and robbers. We could have a fantastic wardrobe AND shoot the bad guys – seriously folks; it was a win-win. ‘Charlie’s Angels’ demonstrated that girls could grow up to be women who controlled their own destinies without looking like we just mowed the lawn and scrubbed the floor.
Still Expected to Cook Dinner
Westerfield doesn’t make this point, but Fawcett’s marriage to actor Lee Majors (who played the Six Million Dollar Man) was more of the same old ‘Cinderella marries the Prince’ story than a fresh, modern tale of a strong woman controlling her own destiny. (Westerfield, however, does acknowledge that Fawcett had to leave the show in time to go home to make dinner for her husband each night.)
Sorry, but this is not the stuff that feminist icons are made of.
Not the Standard Feminist Resume
Writing in the LA Times, Mary McNamara does a better job of describing the conflicted image of women that Fawcett embodied, and the legacy she leaves behind. McNamara notes that it was Fawcett’s prettiness that made her character in both the play and the film Extremities — a rape victim who tortures her rapist — somewhat palatable to audiences, and that her victim-empowerment roles in her later career were in part a sign of the times:
This isn’t to say one should confuse Fawcett with a feminist. I have no idea if she identified as one or not; she did appear in Playboy twice, not part of the standard feminist resume (although the second time was when she turned 50, which one could argue was a post-feminist statement of a sort). But certainly she embodied, in her rather brief career, many fairly significant shifts in how women were viewed, on television and in the culture….
What Men are Saying
Is it good or bad that her iconic poster accompanies most online observations of her impact on society and pop culture, and that the majority of them have been written by men? Her passing appears to solidify her status as a man’s woman, as her death seems to resonate much more with male commentators who invest her with far greater powers than any female commentators care to credit her as having:
* Glenn Garvin at the Miami Herald: “[I]n in their own jiggly, half-baked way, the Angels were feminist. They were television’s first frankly sexual female characters, women who could be hunters as well as prey.”
* Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes.com: “I say this with only a trace of exaggeration: Farrah Fawcett was, in her heyday, a most potent ambassador for America, without so much as setting foot in many of the countries where she had her seismic cultural impact.”
* James Ledbetter at Slate.com: “You were supposed to have a favorite Angel…In truth, there was no competition—it was Farrah, always Farrah. Why?..[F]or me…it was for the most innocent reason of all: She was married to Lee Majors, the “Six Million-Dollar Man”….And so I think [she] functioned as a kind of transitional crush, from the young boy’s fascination with physical strength and cyborg powers to the preteen’s need to branch out into a social exploration of sexuality.”
What Women are Saying
While men praise her, women seem to straddle the fence. Discussions of envy, jealousy, and the comment, “I loved to hate her” crop up not only in commentator Songweasel’s remarks at the Open Salon site but in response to her post.
If the hate was there, it was fleeting. Of course we compared ourselves to her and found ourselves wanting when we were younger and more readily self-denigrating.
As we grew older, we saw reflected in her struggle for recognition and respect our own drive to be taken seriously. If we didn’t embrace her as fully as we should have for her work playing victims fighting back, it wasn’t because she didn’t deserve our approval.
More Than a Pretty Face
It’s an impressive feat to move from TV commercials to roles worthy of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and to face anal cancer with dignity and courage. She doesn’t need to be pumped up and promoted as a feminist icon to earn the respect of women.
Farrah Fawcett simply did what so many of us do every day; she refused to rely solely on her beauty and sexuality to further her ambitions, and was determined to prove that her talent trumped her looks.
Let the guys remember her for that male-fantasy-inducing poster. There are better ways for us women to honor her memory and keep alive the image she would have preferred and worked a lifetime to earn.