“Charlie’s Angels” & “Cagney & Lacey”: Women Crime Fighters

Posted: April 28, 2011 in In-Class Screenings
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During class on the week of April 4th, we watched episodes from two popular shows from their eras:  Charlie’s Angels & Cagney & Lacey.  While both programs are about women crime fighters, they take two different approaches in portraying the image of strong, independent women.

Cagney & Lacey takes a very direct approach in presenting the two main characters as strong, independent women.  Christine Cagney is a single woman who makes some direct references to the feminist movement.  When she discovers that she and her partner, Mary Beth Lacey, are teamed up with a new woman brought in, she becomes frustrated.  To show her frustration, she is quoted as saying “just because we’re women means we have to stick together?”  This quote is a direct blow at the antifeminist movement, where a common theory was that all women stuck together no matter what.  Cagney appears to have a different set of beliefs and feels that the new girl should earn her place within the workplace in order to gain respect.  Mary Beth Lacey is a married woman that seems to be the more level headed one of this duo.  Lacey shows that she does everything by the book and makes an attempt to work with the new girl, who appears to jump to conclusion without taking the proper measures.  In the episode, you can see that Lacey is in a very loving relationship with her husband; but this remains separate from work.  The inclusion of the scene with Lacey and her husband outside of work also works to combat some antifeminist beliefs as well.  Another belief of antifeminism that Douglas mentions in her book is the fear that women are looking to reverse the roles within the home and effectively take all of the power held by men.  This scene, however, gives viewers the idea that the two are equal partners.  Douglas sums up this show perfectly in her book by saying “Here were women who wore guns and mascara, who loved each other and fought with each other, who told sexist men where to get off and sued their butts for sexual harassment, and who consciously changed the masks they wore as they changed roles throughout the day.”

Charlie’s Angels takes a different, and possibly more effective, approach in presenting the main characters as strong, independent women.  To quote Douglas “here, feminism and antifeminism stood in perfect suspension.”  The program has three exceptionally attractive women in lead roles, unlike Cagney & Lacey where the lead women appeared to be average looking women.  Throughout the course of the show, the three women, especially Farrah Fawcett, are looked at as sexual objects by both men and women.  Another surprising thing discovered in this show, was the sex of the “bad guy.”  Throughout the show, viewers are drawn to the conclusion that the warden of the prison, who is running a prostitution ring using the inmates as prostitutes at special cocktail parties, is a man.  The biggest curveball in the show is that the warden is, in fact, a female.  This unconventional villain also symbolizes a strong, independent woman mainly by her position, but also the way she is treated by the people working under her.  Both the male and female guards as well as the sheriff appear to treat her with nothing but respect.  The character Bosley plays a critical role in this show, because he appears to work with these women equally.  Charlie, however, is presented in this program to have direct power over the three women.  He assigns the women to some especially dangerous cases sometimes without their approval.  Although, at the end of the episode Charlie is seen negotiating with the women about doing another case in a women’s prison.  The end scene may contradict original assumptions about Charlie, because he is seen negotiating with the girls about another possible case.  Douglas perfectly describes this show, by saying “Charlies Angels pulled off a neat trick:  while it reinforced traditional male power through Charlie’s faceless voice and agenda-setting instructions, it also tried to pretend that there was no such thing as patriarchy, at least the way feminists had characterized it.  Instead there were just a few bad men, isolated deviants, and if only these guys were exterminated or locked up, women would have nothing to fear.  There wasn’t a system that oppressed women, only a few power-hungry bad guys.  And if women worked together to ferret them out, all would be fine.”

Both programs present strong, independent women in a variety of ways.  While some of these portrayals may be in a negative fashion, like the warden in Charlie’s Angels, it is the idea that these women are shown in predominantly male roles doing the same things men do that speaks volumes for feminism.


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