June 30, 2009 / Uncategorized

Farrah Fawcett Was No Feminist Icon, But She Mattered to Women…and Men

by

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.

farah_fawcett000x0297x410Farrah 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.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

  • lahana

    She, and the show, may not have been the most feminist, but I think you have to compare them to what else was happening at the time. In a competing show — Police Woman — Angie Dickenson played Sargent Pepper Anderson (??? – not sure of the name) — but somehow she was always needed to go undercover as a prostitute or scantily clad lounge singer — and then at the end of the episode she was saved from peril by her male lieutenant. Charlies Angels never missed falling into a lake or mudpond to show off their assets, but they did not play prostitutes, and they saved themselved.

  • Bes

    Well I have no opinion of Farrah. She lived and then she died, that is what people do. I didn’t watch the show, I tried to but I realized it was not aimed at me and never could seem to remember to watch it. It is good that men liked her and she seemed to represent something to them. But men do not get to choose who leaders among women are. If I had to pick a TV character feminist it would be Roseanne. No one else comes to mind. Men are “the Powers that be” in Corporate media. Actresses can not kowtow to the male “powers that be” and maintain credibility with women and girls. This is a reality that dooms Corporate Americas “women’s content”

  • I am surprised the author tries to work in a feminist meme with Farrah. She never came out as one, didn’t seem to profess to be one, and lived a life largely in the Hollywood sphere, where feminism is a bad word. It’s like trying to relate Dave Letterman and United Auto Workers. It just doesn’t go together.
    On the other hand, as a pre-feminist tween of the late 70’s, I wanted to BE her on Charlie’s Angels. All my little girl friends did. The angels were tough, crime-fighting gun-wielding (read, man’s world) hotties – what’s not to want to emulate??? They made me feel like a woman could kick butt and still be gorgeous…which no longer seems to be true today, so in that regard, it’s sad that embracing feminism seems to be synonymous with not being able to be a sexy woman. I say that as a feminist, who’s thinking of leaving the tribe because it’s too restricting, narrow, and judgmental of women slightly outside the mold. This author goes in the opposite direction, of trying to extend Farrah into feminism, and it doesn’t work. Farrah was just Farrah.

  • Janis

    She wasn’t a feminist icon nor an anti-feminist icon. She was one human being making a living. Case closed.

    Jesus, can we stop it with this? We’ve trying to get above and beyond whether abortion rights is even something we should bond over, and here we are scruitinizing this woman’s goddamned hair.

  • Bes

    Well the real deal is a woman who men were hot for died and so women writers are trying to act like they gave a rats a$$ about her too so they can gain points with their male peers and bosses. And they are trying to act like Charlie’s Angles was some sort of inspirational show for girls and women when it wasn’t. I am not one to fake it for male approval ( I feel the men in my life appreciate that about me) and most of us aren’t, that is why we don’t work in media and that is why we don’t consume Corporate Media. Seriously, which part of Oxygen media did you find most off putting, the condescending shows or the tit and ass advertising? So it is 30 years post Charlie’s Angles and corporate media are still coughing up the same old formula and wondering why it fails. When all they ever needed to do was study what real women respond to and feel rewarded from and quit asking men, both gay and straight what women want (and also don’t ask any women who gain economic benefit from kissing the hairy a$$ in front of them what women want from media).

  • Janis

    I don’t give a crap what “some women” are doing, and I don’t find it edifying from either side.

    “I’m not a feminist but” drives people up the wall. So does “She’s not a feminist but.” So what say we knock it off. And we can start now.

  • Kathleen Wynne

    Let’s try to remember what the 70’s were like for women. Most women could only get jobs as teachers and nurses for very little pay.

    The fact that Farrah left the show after one season speaks volumes about her desire to break out of the box beautiful are always placed in by Hollywood and to be who she was outside of her beauty. Women actors are still fighting this same battle today.

    It took an amazing amount of strength and character for her to expose her battle against cancer in such a raw and unedited way. That’s the kind of quality one rarely sees today, especially in an Icon.

  • Kathleen Wynne

    One last thing that I wanted to mention…it was a total act of feminism for her to leave a widly successful show after one season. In fact, it was unprecedented back then and by doing so, jeoparized her career because women had very few substantive roles back then and Hollywood was even more sexist than it is now, if you can imagine that!

    The roles she sought after leaving the show were one’s that did not focus on her beauty, but her acting ability. In fact, these roles required her to look plain — “The Burning Bed”, “Extremeties” and “Small Sacrifices”. All roles for which she was nominated for an emmy. The problem for a beautiful woman in the ’70’s was to be taken seriously as an actor. She defined the odds and proved herself.

    She was unpredictable, a free spirit and had a mind of her own. What’s un-“feminist” about that?

  • Janis

    I just don’t see why the hell we have to determine whether this one little baboon is a member of our troop before we can say anything. That’s what’s ticking me clean off right now. Here we are talking about “unity” or whatever, and the FIRST GODDAMNED WORDS in this article are “SHE DOES NOT SMELL LIKE US, however … ” WTF? If we’re not going to factionalize about abortion or party membership, by god we’re gonna find SOMETHING to play us and them with. Apparently now it’s hair.

    Here’s a guide for anyone looking to “take a position” on the fact that one of six billion little monkeys just died. Here’s how NOT to do it:

    1) SHE IS A MEMBER OF MY TRIBE and I hereby express poetic grief at her death.
    2) SHE IS NOT A MEMBER OF MY TRIBE and I hereby express grudging, conditional grief at her death.
    3) SHE IS A MEMBER OF MY TRIBE and I will now write a 63-page overblown screed on why my life is over because she died.
    4) SHE IS NOT A MEMBER OF MY TRIBE and I will now write a 63-page screed mocking in ironic hipster fashion the people in category 3.

    Why the hell is the FIRST THING we have to say about her an observation on whether she’s US or THEM? Christ, women just do not bond. The first goddamned thing we have to do is figure out whether she’s a shirt or a skin before we can even open our goddamned mouths. I’ll give everyone a guide. Print it out yallz and tape it to your computer. You can use it for when the next female celebrity pops off. Here’s the right way to say it:

    “XYZ died? What a shame. And what an awful way to go. I hope she’s not in pain anymore, and I hope her loved ones are coping as best they can.”

    There. See? It’s ACTUALLY POSSIBLE to express grief adn compassion toward a dead baboon without first determining whether it was a member of your goddamned troop.

    *headdesk*

  • Kathleen Wynne

    Janis,

    Excellent points!

    Sadly, women do not bond because from birth, we are conditioned not to bond with other women, no matter what.

    That’s how the majority of the population (women) still do not hold an equal number of representatives in our government. You see the male baboons figured out a long time ago how to keep us in line — “divide and conquer”.

    You’d think we’d learn!

  • Janis

    We ain’t learned for a million years. I see no reason why we’re going to learn anything in the next million. It’s the simplest thing on Earth — the ultimate litmus test. If she’s got a vag, she’s in our troop. Period. And yet it won’t happen.

    Are men welcome? Sure, as long as they aren’t going to whine that I will support anyone and everyone running for office who has a vag. If they’re behind that, fine. It really is that simple, and women will go to any lengths to avoid coming to that one simple conclusion. It’s pathetic.

    That’s what we need and what will never happen: FUCK “waves.” FUCK labels. “Is she a proper feminist?” Yeah, who gives a crap. IS SHE A WOMAN? That is ALL we need to determine. If we’re not willing to do that ebcause we want to get our noses out of joint and pretend how elevated and marvelous and postfeminist we all are, then I hope we all like it here at the bottom of the ladder, cuz that’s where we’re staying.

  • Alison

    I’m surprised people are getting ticked off about this. It’s not like the media is waxing on and on and on about Farah as they are doing to Michael Jackson, which is certainly annoying. But Farah certainly was an icon of the 70’s who did two important feminist works and was also a really great and underrated actress. Why not take 3 seconds to acknowledge that?

    Besides, Charlies Angles influenced me as a girl. Sure, they were scantily clad. But they also ran around looking pretty damn competent and powerful. I remember wanting to be a police woman when I was a little girl because of that show. How many little girls today dream of entering a male dominated profession? More likely, they want to be a princess because of Disney, a prostitute because of Disney or a 1st Lady.

    So give Charlies Angles a little slack. Puh-lease!

  • Janis

    alison, it just irks the hell out of me that this woman’s death can’t even go without mention on a women’s blog without the first comment being that she was not One Of Us. She sure was “one of us.” She was a woman.

    It also steams me that the whole reason she is deemed Not Feminist is that, to be blunt, she was very pretty and men wanted to have sex with her. That’s a pathetic reason to exclude her from the Sisterhood, as if she woke up every morning and put on that face and body just to make other women hate themselves. She was hardly bad for women just because she had the random luck to be born looking like that. It’s as if she just walked around and somehow exuded patriarchal pollution purely just by existing.

    And for one lousy year in a TV show! Let’s conveniently forget everything else she did in her life. She was too pretty for a little while and that’s enough to kick her out of the club. Let’s forget her other work, let’s conveniently act like “Burning Bed” and “Extremities” didn’t exist, because as the Sisterhood determines, no apology is sufficient for looking like that.

    And it galls me that the first determination that needed to be made in this article was that she Wasn’t One Of Us, like making that clear was needed before anything else could be said.

    It’s not whether she passes the Feminist Smell Test or not. It’s that we still feel the need — on a blog devoted to an organization that wants to do away with litmus tests — to engage in them.

  • Janis

    BTw, I don’t mean comment like blog comment. I mean that the first words of the article are SHE IS NOT A FEMINIST BUT. How much more up front about a smell test can one be?

  • Charlie’s Angels was a show that featured women bonding with other women. It showed women taking an ethical stance. It showed women winning. It taught women and girls how to bond with one another to promote good, to behave with dignity and sent a positive message that women can be winners.

    As a child I viewed Charlie’s Angels as a female empowerment show and other women and girls were inspired to respect women by watching this show from reviews I’ve read. Also, I prefer women detective shows where the women win by primarily using their brains and social skills and use minimal violence because that is a distinction between men and women in that women have a better ability than men, perhaps because of socialization, to solve problems by using the minimal amount of violence..Studies of police officers show that women cops get the job done as well as men cops but with less violence and with much less citizens complaints against them.

    Charlie’s Angels created positive portrayals of women because it featured strong women helping each other and also because it sent the message that the women’s way of using minimal violence is a winning strategy. Feminist shows make women feel proud of being women.