The Absurdity of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and Hollywood’s Tiresome Brand of Toothless ‘Feminism’
“Feminism is not about lowering the bar for behavior so that we can all attain the status of wealthy white, able-bodied cisgender heterosexual men,” writes Cassie da Costa.
In a recent radio interview between Charlie’s Angels director Elizabeth Banks and KPCC host John Horn, Banks explains that she was drawn to Charlie’s Angels as a young woman because it offered a compelling depiction of professional women on TV. Her mom had a job, she would have a job one day, too, and here were some “fabulous, butt-kicking women working together,” a portrayal that felt “very revolutionary” to her. I was struck but not surprised by the absurdity of this so-called revolution, and that it would result in a movie as entrenched in the trappings of the status quo—though inhabited by butt-kicking women—as Banks’ reboot.
Charlie’s Angels, in all of its forms, has always been a series about sexy, international violence. In the latest version, one of the Angels is former MI6, and all of them are bathed in luxury, with great clothes, apartments, and high-grade weapons. Charlie’s Angels is essentially women having fun together whilst excelling at their professions as contract spies and hitwomen. All good fun when the people making the fanfare understand how non-revolutionary this premise actually is.
The first Charlie’s Angels reboot, starring comedically adept actors Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, took pains to turn fight scenes into elaborate gags, and fashion the Angels’ personal backstories into melodramatic farces; it was a trilogy that laughed at itself. Conversely Killing Eve, the BBC show formerly run and now executive produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, doesn’t go to pains to exact a feminist sisterhood through its sartorially on-point assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and the MI5 agent, Eve (Sandra Oh), who is hunting her down. Their relationship with each other as well as with other women in the show are either demented or stilted, shrouded in a mix of twisted admiration and deep mistrust, which makes sense for people who must spy and kill for a living. Comer and Oh both also possess an incredible range from goofy to deadpan to disturbing, and can run through every inflection point in a single scene. I wouldn’t call the show “feminist” (though it endlessly passes the Bechdel test) but who cares—it’s a smart, dark show that gets real about the ugliness that can come with wild ambition.
This is all to say that the value proposition for a spy narrative starring multiple women need not be one of revolutionary sisterhood. Still, mainstream Hollywood at large is currently obsessed with the idea that it might refashion old narratives into a poorly-defined set of feminist values. This Hollywood feminism is ripped from the rib of Sheryl Sandberg’s lean-in feminism, in which saucy professionalism, workplace dominance, and tasteful wealth is seen as women’s rightful place in society. It’s not hard to see through this cut-and-paste job, in which the desired dominance of neoliberal women is pitched as an earnest tale of gender equality. Avengers: Endgame went for it by having the superheroines band together at the finale to fight the bad guys; Booksmart had its Ivy League-bound BFFs praise the Notorious RBG en route to their first wild high school mansion party; Bombshell, about the female Fox News professionals who accused former executive Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, seems to cast multimillionaire conservative pundits as unlikely #MeToo figureheads.
Feminism is not about lowering the bar for behavior so that we can all attain the status of wealthy white, able-bodied cisgender heterosexual men—but many, from lean-in feminists to wealthy gays, continue to try to fashion social-justice brands out of their social and economic climbing. Equality, according to Hollywood feminism, is about letting more women helm multi-million-dollar franchises, fighting for female representation of successful capitalists on screen, and making sure that actors like Jennifer Lawrence or Jennifer Lopez earn just as many millions as their male colleagues. It’s a bizarre set of goals if your real interest is in equality and community, the achievement of which will actually require many people—even women—to actually give things up rather than claim their seat at a king-size throne.