Tasty, not tasteless

"Charlie's Angels" is about cute butts kicking butt, and that's just fine with me.

By Amy Benfer

Published November 16, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

In the past month, my friend and I have made a habit out of going to chick flicks. Both of us are writers, and we had become jealous of Maxim and Esquire when we noticed that they were doing smart trend pieces on chicks in flicks. We wondered why we hadn't noticed Lara Croft first. Then we got it: We thought we hated those movies, but maybe we were boycotting for specious reasons. So we started to go. We didn't exactly give up on being vicious and snarky about the whole genre -- we even began calling ourselves the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) Club -- but now we knew whereof we spoke.

On the night we went to see "Charlie's Angels," we were chastised by a mutual friend, a hardcore feminist who told us both, "I hope you're slumming." The next evening, after we had come out of the theater kickboxing our way down Market Street, I settled in with a cigarette and glass of wine on my front stoop. I consider my front stoop both my living room (it's where I go to smoke) and my community sounding board (it's where I go to test out my theories of the day by talking to the neighbors).

Most nights, I'm talking about the election or the next party or whatever new book or magazine I'm reading. That night, I couldn't stop talking about how much I loved this fab new movie recycled from a '70s TV show about three jumpsuited women at the beck and call of a disembodied male voice.

"Saw it, loved it," said my 22-year-old tough-chick neighbor who gets kicked out of parties for beating up on boys and supports her acting career by working for a San Francisco Realtor and as a makeup artist. Another neighbor, a 40-something intellectual who often quizzes me on what I've read this week, in, say, the New York Review of Books, looked appalled, then concerned. "But you can't be serious? I would think you'd find it deeply offensive."

Me, too. The trailer -- which featured Cameron Diaz jiggling her booty in her Underoos (but hey, they were Spiderman Underoos with a fly) and inviting her UPS man to "Stick something in my slot anytime," and Drew Barrymore covering her lush naked body with plastic pool furniture while demanding help from two saucer-eyed little boys -- seemed like nothing so much as an outrageous flesh fest, with neither irony nor intellect. When I noticed that the promo posters had replaced the famous angels' silhouettes of three babes with guns with three babes with Kung Fu hands, I was a little irked: What, Dirty Harry gets a big gun, but Dirty Harriet has to make do with the moves she learned in women's self-defense class? But damn, those fight scenes looked cool.

As it turns out, I loved it. It had nothing to do with the plot, which, like most action movies, is as skimpy as Diaz's bikini and disposable as a used hand grenade. And I could write an essay about Charlie as the voice of patriarchy, the trio of hotties as objectified inflatable sex dolls and questioned why all the angels' crime fighting had to be done in revealing jumpsuits. (I was once a women's studies major.)

But 20 years does a lot to change the role of a crime-fighting bimbo. First of all, they get to be more butch: Where a vintage Angel might have defused certain situations with a police revolver and a hearty "Hands up," the new (and yes, improved) Angels get five-minute action sequences synchronized with thumpy electronica, during which they kick, punch, throw and ram (as in two girls hoisting the third to use her body as a pummeling device) villains like the effete Crispin Glover or the leather-clad dominatrix/CEO Kelly Lynch. Unless you count the zip-off catsuits, there's not a cat fight in sight. (Glover is an exception to this rule -- he's the hair-puller, but he does it mostly to satisfy his weird erotic cravings.)

But they also get to be more femme. Sure, the original Angels came frosted with pounds of hairspray and lip gloss. But they have nothing on these new girls, who demonstrate their pussy power by vamping, mocking and altering their femininity at will. They wear wigs and makeup, serve up cleavage like a meal and display their asses like plumage. They wake up in men's beds. And this in no way diminishes their credibility as crime fighters or their likability as characters. They play to an audience that gets it, that understands that straight women appreciate other women's bodies (I was riveted by the sight of Diaz unzipping her wet suit to her navel), that sex workers and sluts deserve some respect and that there is nothing wrong with being a sex object if your objective is to have sex. These girls are definitely looking back in something other than anger, and winking too.

The best thing about "Charlie's Angels" is how liberally it steals from two clichés: the male action hero and the Hollywood vixen. It's like fusing GI Joe and Barbie.

This movie is targeted, like a heat-seeking missile straddled by a pinup girl (an image mocked by Lucy Liu, who straddles a heat-seeking missile toward the end of the movie), straight at the chicks who grew up in the '70s; it's loaded with '70s schtick: lip gloss, jumpsuits, baseball shirts, a soundtrack that resurrects disco and Juice Newton. Cameron Diaz even gets a cameo on "Soul Train."

Here's the thing: Many of us girls (well me and many girls that I know) have been reading boy stuff for years. We played with Star Wars action figures and video games and read comic books and watched "their" after-school programs and the "Dukes of Hazzard." We also played with Barbies and watched "Wonder Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" and traded nail polish. We were the daughters of Second Wave feminists, and for the most part, we had parents who encouraged us to play with boys' toys. It's just that we couldn't get the boys to play with ours. So we learned both parts.

"Charlie's Angels" is one girl toy that the boys definitely will want to play with. In fact, boys and girls both think this movie is aimed at them: In a recent Chicago Tribune column, writers Mary Scmich and Eric Zorn debated the question of whether or not "Angels" was a chick flick (Scmich: "It's one big self-aware, sexy wink. It's cleavage as camp") or a dude flick (Zorn: "It's a cross between an action comic book and Maxim magazine. Guys will be taken ... with ... the numerous shots of the rear ends of the female stars").

But this movie defies gender identification. If Zorn is looking at the rear ends, he does so at his own risk. There is no question that these girls are babes, but anyone who is blinded by their cleavage had better be prepared for their karate chops. In fact, men who are lured in by sexiness and taken out as sexist are the revolving joke of the movie: The girls dress as geishas to fleece a computer mogul, as belly dancers to collect fingerprints, as singing-telegram Swiss lasses to obtain a retinal scan.

At one point the villain (who has screwed Barrymore's character, literally and figuratively) offers his henchmen a bit of "angel cake" in the form of a bound Barrymore. She spreads her legs in a suggestive V to stop them in their tracks and then proceeds to describe in a flirtatious, girlish voice just exactly how she's going to dispose of them. Then she does -- striking poses and concluding with, "And that's kicking your ass." She does this all with her hands, literally, tied behind her back. (As for the paramour, well, he's taken care of: She kills him.)

(Vastly different interpretations of this scene are possible -- and have been made. Anthony Lane, for example, wrote in the New Yorker that he was troubled by the "rape fantasy" suggested by Barrymore's stopping the action with implied action. Maybe it's a question of where you insert yourself into the fantasy.)

What is so refreshing about "Charlie's Angels" is that it directly translates boy action movies: It cribs from kung fu movies, "The Matrix" and "Mission Impossible." (Diaz breaks into a room with a pressure-sensitive floor à la Tom Cruise, except that she, perhaps borrowing from a stint as high school cheerleader, escapes detection with a series of back flips and handstands.) The angels get punched in the face, survive no less than four exploding fireballs, dangle from helicopters, skydive and jump off cliffs.

The fight scenes are pure physical and sexual spectacle, all long legs and rock-hard abs. Of course they have flat stomachs and Barrymore can joke that all three burgers, fries and Cokes are for her: They are probably burning about 10,000 calories a day and they need those stomach muscles and biceps to do work -- like support them when they are dangling over chasms. Watching Diaz leap through the air, you don't just think about the grace of her ballet-dancer limbs, you think, "Wow, having legs that long must really help out in a street fight."

The Angel body taunts the self-conscious women's fitness craze launched in the early '80s by the likes of Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John. That vaguely feminist campaign was about slimming, not building muscle in order to inflict pain on those who deserve it. Even the "empowering" accessories to the fitness fad -- equal access to organized athletics for girls and hardcore self-defense classes for women -- firmly placed female followers in the victim role -- a constant and moving target of the male rapist. The angels, meanwhile, are into kickboxing (the aerobics of the new millennium), not so much to stay trim and safe but because they might want to fuck someone else up, simply for the pure, aggressive pleasure of it.

The one false note in the movie comes when Kelly Lynch, after watching Diaz take out a posse of thugs, scowls at us and says, "Never send a man to do a woman's job." (She then proceeds to viciously beat up Diaz on and off for the next 20 minutes.) This caused the boys sitting in back of us to hiss. I'm not worried about them, I groaned too.

The delight of this movie is its lack of self-consciousness. The angels don't talk about the clichés of being superheroes, they don't take pains to insert girl as a modifier, as one would say, "female doctor." They show, don't tell.

In fact, the only "feminist" lines in this movie come from Liu, who debates about whether to tell her boyfriend, a failing movie action hero, that she is not really a aesthetician (which he refers to as "a bikini waxer.") What is she supposed to do, she asks herself, tell him: "I'm one-third of an elite crime-fighting team backed by an anonymous millionaire" or quip, "You play an action hero on TV, I get a lot of action?" The problem, she laments to her Angel pals is, "They come on all lovey-dovey until they find out you can break a cinder block with your forehead."

Contrast that to, say, "Thelma and Louise." We were supposed to like Thelma and Louise, remember? That was girl bonding -- holding your girlfriend's hand while you drive off a cliff. In "Charlie's Angels" you hold your girlfriend's hand while you jump off a cliff, fall a couple hundred feet, fuck up your hair, scratch the shit out of your shin and land, right side up, like a cat, and run into the bushes to decimate some bad guy.

"Thelma and Louise" was, at heart, a "woman's movie." But it was all too real: Thelma's pizza eating, braying, control-freak husband, the lover who gives her an orgasm but steals her money, both women's minimum-wage waitressing gigs. Sure there were a few big guns, but they were all used for bitter retaliation -- necessary tools to act out against the reality of sexism. There is a place for that, but "Charlie's Angels" points out that chick rebellion does not have to be limited to gritty, social realist stories of female oppression.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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