Some people say The Bachelor is the most sexist show on television. Have these people ever watched the original Charlie’s Angels?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the show’s premise: Three badass women solve crimes at the behest of mysterious millionaire Charlie Townsend. At least that’s how I remembered it, when I wasn’t recalling the fashion. I recently decided to re-watch it. And I realized something: Um, Charlie’s Angels, a show where women finally got to be the ones kicking butt and taking names, is incredibly, can’t-believe-this-aired sexist.
The only glimpses we get of Charlie feature him doted upon by an interchangeable, rotating cast of (often bikini-clad) women. Inevitably, Charlie makes some excuse for not being able to meet the Angels in person that lends itself to a pervy double-entendre involving the aforementioned bikini-clad babe. Sample: “I plan to be up to my ears on the one I’m locked in on,” demurs Charlie as a blond in the background dives into a swimming pool and beckons him to join.
Aside from the constant objectification of all the women on-screen, what really grossed me out upon re-watch was the way sexual harassment and even violence against women was portrayed in such a casual and light-hearted manner. In nearly every episode at least one Angel is threatened — either violently, coercively or simply suggestively — with rape. Worst of all, when this happens, everyone’s all like, Welp! What can ya do?
In one particular episode, “Night of the Strangler,” the Angels go undercover to catch a serial killer targeting — of course — bikini models. Naturally, Kelly (played by Jaclyn Smith) and Jill (played by Farrah Fawcett) assume the roles of scantily clad models (a job’s a job after all!), while the requisite “brainy one,” Sabrina (played by Kate Jackson), goes undercover as a stylist. In one scene, Sabrina is attacked by a fashion photographer after she asks him about his “predilection for pornography.” As he rips her blouse and bends her backward over the couch (while she shouts protests and bats at his face with her hands), Kelly comes to the rescue — but instead of telling him to stop, you know, the attempted rape, she throws a fit, claiming that he had made a date with her that night. Afterward, Kelly and Sabrina leave together and have this exchange:
Kelly: Are you okay?
Sabrina: Uh huh. Just a couple of broken ribs. You know, if it had been a couple of seconds later I would have been defiled by that creep!
Kelly: Now, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you complain about that!
Sabrina: Hey! He wasn’t exactly Robert Redford, you know. If he had been Robert Redford I might have said, “Defile away!”
Hahahahaha, see, if only he were a little more handsome! I am sorry, what? I’m tallying it on my fingers: There’s objectification of women; careless, casual portrayal of violence toward women; and then lines written for said women to minimize // pretend like the above violence never happened. What the hell did that teach the audience?
The worst episode, however, has to be “Angels in Chains.” In it, the Angels get themselves arrested in order to be sent to a small town prison that their client suspects is corrupt. Because this is Charlie’s Angels and everything leads back to either money or sex, the prison is, in fact, operating as a brothel for the town’s rich men. It feels more like the beginning of a soft-core porn film than a primetime television show, complete with a voyeuristic forced-strip scene, dominatrix-y prison guard, and — of course — yet another attempted rape.
Charlie’s Angels. What the hell? This is the show I used to remember as an entertaining retro watch packed with inspiring clothes and ways to wear them. (Even the prison outfits were good: ass-hugging bell-bottom jeans with matching chambray shirts that you wouldn’t be shocked to see on the runway at Chloé.) Which leads me back to what originally attracted me to the show in the first place: the fashion.
It was a shitty thing to come to terms with, that a show I once loved as a source of inspiration — both in terms of clothes and empowered-or-so-I-thought-heroines — has been rendered unwatchable by virtue of my current-self’s feminist principles.
While it’s certainly good for on-point late-seventies fashion — and great hair, too — maybe the ultimate lesson of my walk down memory lane is the reminder that no matter how imperfect mass media is today, we’ve still come along way in the forty years since Charlie’s Angels first aired.
Photos by Michael Ochs Archive and Sunset Boulevard via Getty Images.