How The 'Charlie's Angels' Franchise Became An Accidental Ode To Feminism And Female Sexuality

With the arrival of a new millennium, Hollywood believed they had to go further with their filmmaking. Gone was the simplicity of '90s filmmaking and in their place stood films that epitomized the nature of the word "extreme," flash and whizbang with messages that were going to get inside your head even if they had to be beaten in. Or maybe that was just the experience of watching McG's Charlie's Angels. In 2000, audiences got a new take on a trio of beautiful women backed by an anonymous millionaire who solved crimes. The Charlie's Angels of the 2000's was loud and fiery and also took a ton of flack for its presentation on women. It's sequel, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle in 2003 received a similar response. So when director Elizabeth Banks decided to tackle the property with last week's Charlie's Angels, it was meant to be a rebirth for a franchise often perceived as misogynistic.And yet, the Charlie's Angels universe is one that, at least to me, has always felt subversive and unique. McG, a man so associated with masculinity his last name sounds like a high school nickname, unwittingly crafted a film series so audacious in its presentation of relationships, sexuality, and, in some cases, kink, that it becomes a positive for women.

This post contains spoilers for the new Charlie's Angels movie.

The Men We Hate to Love (and Love to Hate)

To preface, the Charlie's Angels film franchise, for better or worse, has always attempted to stand for the presentation of strong, independent women. A generation of girls will argue just as fervently that in spite of McG's penchant for dressing the Angels in porn-fantasy clothing, there's a sense of empowerment to them. And there is, though maybe not in the way anyone originally intended. Each iteration of Charlie's Angels, including Banks' new take, present the women as physically and athletically otherworldly, but the driving interest for female viewers has been in the Angels' relationships, both to each other and to the men who litter their landscape. It sounds ironic to discuss a female-led franchise through its male characters, but the Charlie's Angels franchise, at least in the films, has always utilized male characters to illustrate the misogyny surrounding the title characters. At the same time, the series has presented a safe space for female audience members to indulge in male objectification, questions of kink, and the owning of female sexuality. And honestly, I don't believe this is necessarily intentional on the part of the filmmakers. In McG's take on the material, there is a heavy dose of male fantasy that's layered over everything. But the high camp nature of everything pulls it around to actually calling out the things it initially reinforces.

Drew Barrymore as the Angel to Rule Them All

A prime example of the '00s films' presentation of sexual dynamics and feminine overthrow of oppression is the plotline of Drew Barrymore's Dylan Saunders. Dylan is the bad girl of the Angels with a background, told in light flashback, filled with aggression and an IDGAF attitude. It's a personality trait that comes through in the first film, but through looking at Dylan's relationships, the film tracks her growth as a character and a woman. In Charlie's Angels, she falls for the trap laid out by the bad guy, Knox (Sam Rockwell), believing he's a simplistic nice guy. This nearly gets her killed. This pattern follows the character into Full Throttle wherein her character is confronted by her past personified in her ex-boyfriend, Irish mobster Seamus (Justin Theroux). In the first feature, there's an air of slut-shaming to Dylan. She is punished for sleeping with the baddie but she's also punished for being the sexual Angel in comparison to the doofy Natalie (Cameron Diaz), who is in a burgeoning relationship with a guy who is her equal, and the overly logical Alex (Lucy Liu) whose boyfriend Jason (Matt LeBlanc) is too dumb to be long-lasting. But Full Throttle twists the dynamic a bit and instead of persecuting Dylan again for her sexuality, it causes her to confront her own connection to relationships in general. In Full Throttle, Dylan isn't just grappling with her past but it informs her present as she worries about Natalie getting married and thus the Angels, her only family, changing. For her, the romantic relationship that is hinted at is the love between Dylan and Natalie and, by extension, the way of life of the Angels themselves.When the trio are reunited at the end of the film, it's more satisfying than any romantic subplot. More importantly, where Dylan's sexuality was punished in the first feature, she isn't seeking redemption for it in the sequel. Instead, she overcomes her past, destroys an abusive boyfriend who would seek to own her, and comes out a more stable person on the other side.

Camp and Sexuality

That being said, because of the history of Charlie's Angels being a work of male fantasy (predominantly behind the camera), it's no surprise that the prevalence of sexuality is high. But it is presented in such a silly and over-the-top fashion that it takes on the air of camp. Watching Theroux and Barrymore tussle with fighting styles that mimic sexual positions leaves the audience, which tends to be predominantly women, both laughing and intrigued. There's an air of desire and kinkiness to the movies that lets women indulge safely while still laughing at how hokey it is and that they're interested in this film in the first place. Where the first two Charlie's Angels films presented the big bad as the dangerous boyfriend who you know is bad, the movies themselves are that same boyfriend. So it makes sense that the series has thrived on creating villains who the female audience is both drawn to and repelled by, who they can objectify and also cathartically watch get their comeuppance. In the 2000 Charlie's Angels, Sam Rockwell's Eric Knox sells himself as the prototypical nebbish scientist but who is actually petty and deceitful. More importantly, his plan to seek revenge on Charlie is situated as the ultimate daddy issue. And yet at the same time, Rockwell's character only comes alive once he's evil, when he's able to dance and spout evil one-liners. He is only fascinating because he's a villain making his demise all the better because he's just (to quote Kristen Stewart) "so desperate."The interrelationship between sexuality, male objectification, and the Angels comes through clearest in Full Throttle. Rockwell's villainy was presented as sexy, but not him specifically. In Full Throttle, the first to have a script co-written by a woman, goes full tilt on the camp and kink with Seamus O'Grady. Sexual fighting styles aside, the film tries to situate his character as powerful when it comes off as humorously pandering. His character spends a majority of screen time without a shirt and while the Angels don't comment on it, the audience must. The man walks through fire shirtless! This, again, isn't necessarily the intent of the original film. The gaze is rearranged through the viewing audience consuming the movie, but it gives us a place to start. 

All the Women, Who are Independent 

This all comes back around with Elizabeth Banks' interpretation of the series. Having both a female director and screenwriter allows the gaze that McG kept in the male position to properly transition to its female leads and the female audience. Though the film doesn't particularly focus on the changes in female relationships like Dylan's problems with Natalie's relationship, it does emphasize a larger unity between women. More importantly, it tries to attack the history of the male gaze that has surrounded the series since 1976. Banks herself plays Bosley, the only Angel to transition into a mentor/leadership position. This puts her at odds with Patrick Stewart's retired Bosley (the moniker has become a codename for all team leaders), who believes that women are not built for the position. Sexual relationships aren't established in the new movie, in favor of making fun of the few males at the center, free of romantic complications. Noah Centineo, the internet's boyfriend, plays a scientist named Langston, a colleague of Naomi Scott's amateur Angel, Elena. His only reason to be in the feature is to flirt with the hard-hearted Jane (Ella Balinska) and be the damsel in the third act. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) has an on-going back-and-forth with criminal mastermind Australian Johnny (Chris Pang), who constantly spouts romantic one-liners that aren't charming, but hollow and sad. Where romance defined character arcs and transformations in the original film, they are non-existent in the reboot. This isn't a detriment. Where the previous movies used romantic relationships to highlight societal expectations of women through men's eyes, Banks' movie looks at how women are seeing through the artifice of male personality traits and how they respond to women.The new film also plays down the sexual camp of the previous movies, relegating it to Jonathan Tucker's silent assassin character, Mr. Hodak, himself drawn from Crispin Glover's Thin Man of the other two features. Jokingly confined to a suit three sizes too small, the film doesn't objectify him as much as Theroux's O'Grady, but it is similar. His character is there to allure women through the franchise's blending of the villainy and desire. When Hodak has Elena on a leash in a dog collar – yet she's perfectly made up – it seems to hearken back to the kinkiness of the previous films. It's problematic and simultaneously taboo in a fun yet safe way since the villains remain defeated and the women always retain the upper hand, even in moments of peril.Charlie's Angels, no matter the film, will always be a guilty pleasure movie. The distinction lies in what those guilty pleasures are. They remain interesting studies in how directorial intent can be showcased, the nature of the gaze, and make us question the taboo elements within us all.