Respond to this Article May 1994

Was There More to "Charlie's Angels" Than Just Jiggle?

A media critic thinks so, and her history of girls in pop culture from the fifties, sixties, and seventies nearly proves it.

By Marjorie Williams

It isn't every writer who can defend her discipline in terms as catchy as those of Susan J. Douglas. "If it was important enough to the media to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring us Mr. Ed, Enjolie perfume... and (Dallas'" she writes, "then it's important enough for us to figure out why."

Where The Girls Are
by Susan J. Douglas
Three Rivers Press, $16.00

For at least half of this lively book, Douglas, a professor of media studies at Hampshire College and media critic for The Progressive, makes a good case. One of the great undertakings of academic feminism is to reconstruct and dignify the history lived by women in every age, often scantily recorded or, even where preserved in the private writings of women, accorded little significance by chroniclers of traditional history. It may be a stretch to accord the girls who lip-synched to the Supremes in the sixties and ironed their hair in the seventies the same new respect that has lately been accorded the women of, say, the American frontier. But the best parts of Douglas, book manage to make that stretch.

Douglas wryly notes that elements of male teen culture from the fifties on have been elevated to art, while the pop passions of teenage girls are so much flotsam. As a combination of new technologies and boomer self-involvement brings us endless retrospectives, "What gets looked back on and celebrated as pathbreaking--James Dean, Elvis, the Beatles--are the boys," Douglas writes, whereas "what film and TV recorded girls doing during these years--teasing our hair, chasing the Beatles, and doing the watusi in bikinis--was silly, mindless and irrelevant to history... Girls and women come across as the kitsch of the 1960s--flying nuns, witches, genies, twig-thin models, and go-go boot-clad dancers in cages."

It is the generous mission of Where the Girls Are to consider this trashy history in a kinder light, giving us a detailed, often funny look at exactly what messages were contained in all those now-bizarre bottles, from "The Flying Nun" to "Policewoman," and from Breakfast at Tiffany's to those annoying quizzes in Cosmopolitan.

Douglas claims the bubblegum of her own generation as a culture with a surprisingly nuanced legacy: Despite its ditsy beach bunnies, its ubiquitous douche advertisements, and its micro-mini skirts, it also whispered intermittently of empowerment, of sexual freedom, and of a new future. She makes a spirited argument that the post-1960 pop culture that followed Donna Reed--from "Shindig" to "Bewitched," from Splendor in the Grass to, yes, even "Charlie's Angels"--contained the seeds of feminism, even if it looked very much like the chalky soil of the status quo. And in the process, she actually manages to explain why it made a weird kind of sense to us that "The Patty Duke Show" featured girls who were identical cousins.

One of the book's best chapters is "Why the Shirelles Mattered," about the "girl groups" which appealed so strongly to adolescent girls: the Dixie Cups, the Shangri-Las, the Chiffons, the Angels, the Supremes. They represented, Douglas argues, one of the few parts of the culture that legitimized the voice of the adolescent girl, that "glamorized and dignified" her anxieties. But beyond that, the music reflected all the tensions--between purity and desire, between passivity and assertiveness, between masochism and aggression--that pulled at teenaged girls. This was just one aspect of sixties culture that presented defiance in an attractive light--right alongside the conformity it also promoted.

Moving up to the present, Douglas, book explores how popular media and corporate America learned to capitalize on the women's movement. By the seventies, shows like "Charlie's Angels" were beginning to incorporate the more palatable parts of feminism while still affirming the most traditional "feminine" values. Through the eighties and nineties, the media learned ever-slicker ways of using feminism and female strength as sales tools--while holding up an apolitical and increasingly individualistic, even narcissistic, model of what constituted the New Woman. The concepts of liberation and equality, writes Douglas, "were collapsing into distinctly personal, private desires" for achievement and physical perfection, as represented in ads for everything from hair dye ("I'm worth it") to the exercise videotape Buns of Steel.

I couldn't help feeling, as the book went along, that it might not be a good idea to stop and think too hard about what I was reading. Do I really need to know why "Charlie's Angels" was a more socially constructive influence than "The Bionic Woman"? (Hint: The angels did it without phony extra-human skills, and could be construed as offering a faint--a very faint--argument that sisterhood is powerful.) And while I like Douglas for admitting her addiction to "Dallas," I'm proud to say that I can admit to the same thing without falling back on the defense that it was really Sue Ellen Ewing's implied critique of patriarchy that drew me in. I knew Douglas had overdosed on old videotapes when I came across this sentence: "'I Dream of Jeannie, differed from (Bewitched' in crucial ways that already suggested a backlash against the earlier show's discourse of empowerment."

There's such a thing as retrieving pop culture a mite too emphatically from the trivia heap. And it must be said that Douglas plows, in passing, some very well-worked ground. The reader doesn't really need reminders that "The public activism of young people was one of the biggest ongoing stories of 1968."

But for anyone who has some compassion for the teenager who lives on in her memory, there's value in at least pausing to consider the messages that have bombarded young American women. It is interesting to remember that the mid-sixties, the time when the women's movement was about to take shape, saw a rash of hit shows that included female witchcraft or magic: the aforementioned "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," as well as "The Munsters" and "The Addams Family," all of which Douglas sees as offering some effort either to explore or to contain the gathering force of female dissatisfaction. And the retro symbolism of "Jeannie" is, in hindsight, staggering: As Douglas notes, the "master" for whom the airheaded Jeannie makes trouble is that ultimate symbol of sixties male authority: an astronaut.

Women may especially enjoy Douglas, fine exegesis of the key concept of perkiness, as exemplified by "Gidget" and "The Patty Duke Show" ("Here we had teenaged girls possessed by an almost virulent strain of perkiness"). It was "an absolutely critical mask for girls who wanted to take an active role in the world yet still be thought of as appealing... It was usually (perkiness'--assertiveness masquerading as cuteness--that provided the middle ground they needed to get their way and get male approval, two goals which were often mutually exclusive."

She also explores the ways in which the news media covered the reality of the women's movement. There's some valuable material here: We probably can't be reminded too often of the sheer hostility that greeted feminism, or how recently news heavyweights tended to respond with chuckling on-air comments about how long it would take the army to mobilize if women were to be drafted ("At least one-half the regiment could simply never be ready on time," snickered ABC's Frank Reynolds in 1970). The more significant point is that coverage of the women's movement continued to divide women against themselves, validating a part of the message (women probably should get equal pay, male opinion leaders would say reasonably) and then acting as if these economic pieces of the women's agenda could be neatly severed from the domestic and sexual parts, all the while reviling the messengers as radical, unnatural whiners. It was this deft surgery, Douglas argues, that gave rise to the great defensive female mantra of the eighties and nineties: "I'm not a feminist, but..."

Sadly, though, the value of Douglas, book declines with every step she takes away from the pop culture of the sixties and seventies. The book loses its focus and becomes a rack on which the author hangs an assortment of gripes with the media, corporate America, and anti-feminism in general. The note of analytic fondness gives way to a sweeping, almost sophomoric anger, distinguished by arguments every bit as sloppy as those she accuses her targets of. For example, she huffs, a propos of Hillary Clinton's being forced to bake cookies during the '92 campaign, that America is "the most conservative industrialized nation on the globe," which suggests that she hasn't lately given much thought to the status of women in, say, Japan.

Douglas' writing is weirdly inconsistent: Informal and witty in its best passages, it is in others downright cloying. On the sexual revolution she observes that "Most young women... in the early and mid-1960s still kept their undies on until they were married." And women, she writes, "are really getting the fed-up-skis" over advertisers, obsessions with youth.

But there was a deeper reason for the dyspepsia I felt when I closed this book: As a professor of media studies, Douglas tends to see everything as a function of media behavior. One problem with this point of view is the familiar curse of Boomer Solipsism: Like others of her generation, Douglas tends to write as if only the mass media of the second half of the 20th century ever had a molding influence on their audiences. This is the mindset that decries the poor role models in Disney movies without mentioning that our great-grandparents knew some of the same powerful archetypes from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Beyond that, however, is the more troubling assumption that we lead our lives exclusively in reaction to the messages we receive from the media. While Douglas probably wouldn't literally make that argument, it's implied in much of her work. One of the mass media's main legacies for American women, she writes, has been "the erosion of anything resembling a unified self. Presented with an array of media archetypes, and given morality tales in which we identify first with one type, then another... women have grown accustomed to compartmentalizing ourselves into a whole host of personas which we occupy simultaneously."

Well, sure. But it isn't only the mass media that lure women into the fragmentation of self. There's also... life. Teachers and parents, lovers and friends. Douglas's outlook forgets the larger truth that integrating one's warring wants and selves is the task that every woman (and man) faces. And ultimately, it confers on the media a power they would never dare claim for themselves, suggesting that if only pop culture could fashion the image of a whole woman--Maude without the stridency, Mary Tyler Moore without the self-abasement--we'd have all the problems of female identity licked.

Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.


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