The following piece contains spoilers for the original Charlie's Angels film. It's been out for over 2 decades and, in all honesty, nobody has ever watched this film for the plot.
Growing up with parents who work in film I had quite an eclectic viewing catalogue. As a result my favourite films from childhood include Singin’ in the Rain, Princess Mononoke, Bend it Like Beckham and perhaps most bizarrely, the 2000 film Charlie’s Angels. They recently put this last one up on Netflix and so, having not watched it in about a decade, I decided to revisit the film, having no expectations whatsoever.
To my surprise I discovered that this silly action piece worked as a more effective vehicle of feminism than most media marketed as possessing ‘girl power.’ The film isn’t excellent in technical standards, it does basically what it says on the tin: an action filled romp with women looking good and kicking ass. However the lead trio somehow wind up displaying admirable traits that are all too hard to find together in most female characters.
The Angels in question, Natalie (Cameron Diaz), Alex (Lucy Liu) and Dylan (Drew Barrymore) not only fill the roles men would usually fill, but they do it without pretending to any kind of masculinity. They drive fast cars, seduce a myriad of men, take part in montages of science and tech and perform stunning feats of fighting prowess, all without losing their femininity. At no point in the film are they displayed as being lesser than men or as if they are being tolerated as women doing a man’s job. They’re smart and sexy, funny (or at least able to crack dumb jokes with the best of them), and tough in their own right. They’re totally comfortable in their femininity and they're not trying to make up for it or apologise in any way.
During all of this they have total bodily autonomy. They use their sexuality, sure, and they use it to their advantage, but they’re in control the entire time. In scenes of seduction, the women are never helpless and, even if the scenes are a little silly and over the top (the image of Drew Barrymore licking a steering wheel is actually vaguely traumatic) it’s tongue-in-cheek and doesn’t feel like the women are being forced into anything. When Barrymore’s character hooks up with Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell), the seemingly shy tech nerd, the revelation of his villainy is met with outrage on her part, naturally. The difference is she isn’t turned into some kind of ghost of spurned love; she’s pissed off at the betrayal on a professional level. Knox has double crossed them and all the while they thought they were trying to save him while really unwittingly leading him to Charlie, the man Knox believes killed his father. Once again, some plot holes I do realise, but the point is that Barrymore isn’t turned into any of the typical spectres of spurned affection and her anger isn’t demeaning or pitiable in any way.
The male characters also provide a useful foil for the trio. Boswell (Bill Murray) is the slightly bumbling, paternal boss figure. He’s not sexy or even terribly smart, he’s reliable and the women seem fond of him. He doesn’t take advantage of his position of authority, he seems like a genuinely decent boss and even provides the much needed ‘damsel-in-distress’ role in the final act of the film as the women scramble to save him. The women’s respective partners and love interests as well, are refreshing. Liu and Barrymore are introduced next to gormless, slightly boring but nice enough men. They’re no match for the brains or looks or general chutzpah of the women, (this is even pointed out helpfully by one of the Angels 20 minutes into the film: ‘You don’t want to be with a man who’s intimidated by a strong woman anyway.’) Diaz’s love interest, Pete, is depicted as being genuinely sweet and caring, without falling into the dreaded category of ‘Nice Guy’. Sure, he’s a little on the bland side but hey, if Diaz is happy with him then who am I to judge?
The figure of Charlie is an interesting patriarch. The women have never actually seen him, and it’s never explained why they’re working for him in the first place. His bodiless voice works to recall the idea of an unseen God (hence the Angels bit, I suppose) but there’s nothing outwardly sleazy about him. Not having a physical presence eliminates some of his threat and apart from supplying information about their missions, he leaves the Angels to do their job without interfering. Going on the textual evidence that the film provides, for now I will throw him into the category of eccentric but ultimately harmless.
I think part of the reason I liked this film so much as a child, even if half the jokes went over my head, is I was seeing a different kind of female character than I was used to, and even as a child this registered with me. Also, this is the first time I remember seeing an actress of Asian heritage who wasn’t either a hyper awkward nerd or an infantilized sex object. There is no mention of Lucy Liu’s ethnicity throughout the film, and her skills with technology are not exclusive to her; the other women also demonstrate scientific and technological prowess. She is not painted as being either frigid or helpless. There is none of the sickening, helpless sexuality about her that is present with so many other onscreen Asian women. There is no need for her character to be Asian, the role could be played by any race, but there is something so satisfying in seeing her up there, on par with the White women regardless of the way she looks. I think subconsciously as a child, even though I’m not even fully Asian and not Chinese, I was so thrilled and surprised to see an Asian woman playing that role that it helped feed into my fondness for that film.
The film isn’t original. It’s incredibly cheesy, riddled with plot holes and requires a massive suspension of disbelief. But that’s the norm for action flicks. It’s aware of its own fluff and it’s not trying to be anything it isn’t, which is part of the charm. In an age where a huge section of the public is crying out for diversity and representation, you need silly films like this that display the variety you’re looking for. Whether it’s actors of colour or just having female characters that aren’t helpless, frigid or sexualised, films like this help normalise these onscreen presences without patting themselves on the back for their diversity.