“[A] hatchet [just] came down on my youth.” So wrote my friend Monique in the midst of an e-mail exchange with female friends about the death of Farrah Fawcett, one of the angels that we grew up with. Many women in my Generation X cohort—women in their thirties and forties who, at the very least, had relatively unfettered access to television—have been hit harder than we ever anticipated by her death. A not-unexpected death (unlike Michael Jackson’s), given the breathless media coverage of her battle with cancer, culminating with Fawcett’s own documentary about her battle with cancer and finally in a Barbara Walter’s special that aired the day Fawcett died. Fawcett always forged her own path, refused to be constrained by the status quo, and defied easy categorization. Indeed, this pop culture icon’s real and reel lives offers an opportunity to meditate on change (and the lack thereof) in the lives of American women over the past thirty years and the meaning and shapes of feminism—including feminism as packaged for a popular audience and pop culture.
In 1977, Fawcett left the show that made her a star … after only one season. How dare she? How dare this sex symbol reject her status as such and desire respect and longevity … and a craft. Her New York Times obituary closed with this telling comment from Fawcett: “I became famous, almost before I had a craft.” And so Fawcett developed a craft, despite considerable ridicule for her ambitions and aspiration and even her thoughtfulness as evinced in much of her press (if not in that infamous 1997 David Letterman interview in which she was incoherent). So she defied conventional wisdom as well as the all-powerful Spelling-Goldberg Productions, a bold, arguably foolish move; indeed, this producing powerhouse made Fawcett’s professional life difficult for several years, given her breach of contract. And Fawcett did not become Meryl Streep; her film career never took flight. But she honed her craft, despite the hecklers, and emerged a competent, even skilled, Emmy-nominated actress who tackled an array of roles and gained hard-won respect in the entertainment industry in the early 1980s. While Fawcett’s career choices were not always commercially or critically successful, they were most often also the choices of an individual woman who, while she may never have explicitly called herself a feminist, certainly made choices and took paths that signaled an unwillingness to accept the status quo. These include her rejection of her sex symbol status until she chose to embrace it later in life, her determination to be taken seriously as an artist and her success in doing so, and, of course, her decision not to marry longtime companion Ryan O’Neal.
This choice—to remain single but in a committed relationship—loomed large at the end of her life and in subsequent memorializations. Her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with O’Neal, began in 1982, the year her divorce from her first and only husband Lee Majors was finalized. By all accounts—including O’Neal’s—despite multiple proposals, Fawcett refused to marry him due to her unwillingness to relinquish her independence and identity and to be bound by convention. Yet, as she neared the end of her life, her marital status moved front and center, in part because of O’Neal’s announcement just days before her death that Fawcett had, at long last, accepted his proposal. She was never well enough for a wedding, and it seems fitting that Fawcett died as she lived, in a tumultuous partnership that defied legal or any other easy definition. Fawcett had long rejected the narrative of princess bride: why need she embrace it as a sixty-something, divorced woman with incurable cancer whose only child was incarcerated? (It is hard to imagine a comparable male pop icon being so dogged by a refusal to marry; for example, Michael Jackson might be judged for many actions, alleged and otherwise, but not for his single status.) Even to the end, Fawcett defied conventional expectations and wisdom.
Her reel life also provides dramatic representations of changes wrought in women’s lives over the course of her career. Much ink has been spilled over how to understand Charlie’s Angels: was it a vehicle for feminist empowerment or an example of the hijacking of feminism for financial gain and ratings success even as it re-objectified women? Angels was all of these things. And audience and context is key. Many friends and colleagues who came of age in the New Left of 1960s and early 1970s see Fawcett and Angels simply as retrogressive, pop culture nonsense. For many girls who came of age in the mid- to late-1970s (even in the face of the show’s racial and ethnic exclusivity, a hallmark of the rise of the New Right and the social and political conservatism dawning in this period), the show and its stars gave us active, professional role models. My sister Kelly (lucky girl to share a first name with an Angel!) and I devotedly watched the show and purchased its merchandise, including a Farrah Fawcett hair and make-up head as well as Jill, Kelly, and Sabrina dolls/action figures. Did the merchandise reinforce traditional gender roles and teach little girls to be focused on appearance and upkeep? Yes, but those dolls were also our action figures; tiny representations of athletic, capable women who could do a whole range of “men’s job” as female police officers frustrated by their desk jobs who became private investigators. Our play with dolls was fundamentally transformed. My sister and I also “played” Charlie’s Angels (with dashes of the Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman thrown in for good measure) sans merchandise: our female version of cops and robbers. Indeed, I have no memory of playing cops and robbers before Angels came along. I can still remember when I finally mastered jumping off the top step of our front porch as a key action move: I’ve seldom felt as accomplished or cool. The show and its protagonists allowed little girls across America to imagine themselves in a range of occupations; that range, sadly, included sex workers but it also included electricians and police officers. Our pre- and early adolescent selves did not quite get or care about the “jiggle” in Kelly, Sabrina, and Jill’s personas; we saw endless possibilities for who and what we could be. And we could also be cute and well accessorized while doing it.
But Farrah Fawcett was not a pre-adolescent girl, and she chose at great cost, both financially and professionally, to refuse to inhabit a character she found at best not challenging and at worst degrading to women. In the 1980s, she was able to rehabilitate her career and image by portraying victims of domestic and sexual abuse on television, in film, and on the stage. This particular thematic emphasis in entertainment reflected major changes in the U.S. legal code and system as domestic and sexual abuse was being redefined as punishable crimes against (primarily) women and children. In the television film “The Burning Bed” and in the play (and then film) Extremities, Fawcett memorably—and to critical accolades—portrayed abused protagonists (fictional and non-) who struck back at their abusers—deadly, vengeful twists on the sunny, capable Jill Munroe persona. As has been widely reported, Fawcett then decided to stop playing victims and chose a wider range of roles that included accomplished professional women like photographer, journalist, and author Margaret Bourke-White. One of her finest roles came in her well-regarded turn as a troubled preacher’s wife in 1997’s The Apostle.
But this hard-won professional respect was undermined with her decision to fully embrace her sex symbol status by posing nude in Playboy at forty-eight and then again at fifty, after spending her career turning down such offers. A conundrum, as Fawcett helped pioneer the later-in-life nude pictorial: was this simply objectification at any age or women “of a certain age” taking charge of their sexuality and challenging the cult of youth? Here is yet another example of Fawcett’s iconoclasm and unwillingness to be pigeonholed as either a serious actress or a bombshell: she would have it all. Time and again, Fawcett made very deliberate and personal decisions about her career that reflect and inform the complex realities—feminist and otherwise—of life and career for girls, women, and female performers over the last thirty years. And I thank you, Farrah, for showing this little girl how to be an action hero.