Charlie’s Angels

A clever headline to the New York Times review of Charlie’s Angels read “Sleek, Tough, Frosted? Must Be Empowerment.” The irony is meant to be a gentle one, as is that of the film itself, which in true postmodern style tries to make a virtue out the patent preposterousness of the kick-fighting, acrobatic babes of the 1970s TV series, now doing their obligatory turn on the big screen with (of course) new personnel—Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. But you would think that feminists would be troubled. Female “empowerment” made into a joke in this fashion is really a confirmation of female disempowerment, isn’t it? You can’t make it look real, so instead you revel in its unreality, making it as much like kandy-kolored TV-reality as possible and hoping that everyone will “get” it. Indeed, it marks you out as a long-headed sophisticate if you can appreciate such clever ironic humor.

The trouble is that it is way too cheap an avenue to sophistication. Anyone can get it, even the dimmest of the pubescent girls to which the CA concept—where it is not merely a T-A concept for the equally dim boys—has always chiefly appealed. In fact, their knowledge that the Angels myth is related to feminist ideology and its influence on one of the cheesier chapters of TV history is almost a corollary of their knowledge that it is not related to reality. Pretending that the girls are just like the guys is so much a part of what young people today spend their time doing—at school and in their social lives as well as when they consume popular entertainment—that making fun of the pretense in an affectionate sort of way could be taken as the means by which they mute the cognitive dissonance that it must inevitably set up in them.

That is as near as I can come to an explanation of why such a spectacularly awful movie is so spectacularly popular. Its awfulness, though not productive of anything like so much unintended mirth as the best awful movies, seems to me to be not only its point but a point worth making quite emphatically in the view of those who are going back to see it again and again. Presumably it is comforting, even (dare we say it?) empowering, to be reminded so insistently that it is the action-hero stuff—the girls’ effortless, acrobatic kick-fighting with and vanquishing of large and heavily armed men—which is the fantastical part of their lives and the typical-girl stuff which is the real part.

Thus at one point in the film the bad-girl played by Kelly Lynch (there is a bad-guy as well, but he is chiefly bad for enticing Miss Barrymore into bed with a hurt little-boy act and then announcing with a Snidely Whiplash crow of triumph and a gun in his hand that “I don’t think it’s going to work out between you and me” ) sends a couple of her plug-uglies to beat up Miss Diaz. When, instead, Miss Diaz beats them up, Miss Lynch, looking fantastic enough to be a (fallen) angel herself, sighs with exasperation: “Never send a man to do a woman’s job.” When she arrives with mayhem in her heart to find Miss Diaz’s character chatting happily on her cell phone to a new boyfriend (who of course has no clue as to this superbabe’s superpowers), she breaks the phone, terminating the conversation and so inspiring her opponent to new heights of pugilistic skill. Sitting astride her victim after yet another victorious tussle, the latter cries: “Do you know how hard it is to find a quality man in Los Angeles?”

Now there’s a new-womanly sentiment that young girls can understand.

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