Do-Me Equalism

It's an action movie, stupid: Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels

Los Angeles--

In Drew Barrymore's first production of her Flower Films company, the undercover journalist-turned-high school dork she played spent Friday night driving around in a station wagon and belting out lyrics from Free to Be You and Me. Flower's glammed-out, pumped-up sophomore effort might have traded the station wagon for a speedboat, but today--despite a sunny L.A. locale--the three Charlie's Angels costars are situated squarely in that same land where the horses run free and you and me are free to be you and me. Two weeks before the film's release in theaters, gender equality is a carefully foregone conclusion, and emphatic evenhandedness is the order of the day.

"We're equalists," says Cameron Diaz, who plays with Lucy Liu's hair for the duration of the press conference in the Four Seasons' South Ballroom. By which she means: as opposed to feminists. It comes off as practiced good sense.

"Maybe it's that we all grew up as tomboys," says Liu, "but I've never thought of women as anything other than beautiful and fabulous and fantastic."

For her part, Barrymore is careful to append the phrase "as a human being, man or woman," to nearly every statement. She plays down any notion that a $90 million action film of, by, and for females might be noteworthy. "I think this opportunity is incredible for any human being, let alone [us three] young women. But we made this film for boys, too. I love boys. Even if this is a woman-oriented movie--[although] it was completely made for women and men--there are also the most extraordinary men in it."

Free to Be You and Me and the original Charlie's Angels both debuted in the 1970s at roughly the same time that these three angels were making their earthly debuts. For the moment, let's accept the proposition that both events were harbingers of gender equality. Forget "jiggle TV," a phrase coined to denote the Farrah-Kate-Jaclyn brand of detective work, which involved hanging around bordellos, steam rooms, and nude beaches, and scooping up the inevitable revelations delivered by men who simply couldn't help themselves. Forget the fact that, particularly in the early episodes, the Angels didn't think for themselves, but were instructed by an omniscient male voice in a squawk box. Forget the fact that they fell down a lot and had a bad habit of getting tied up and needing rescue.

A quarter-century later, bra burning is out. The tactic, it seems, both onscreen and in person, is to proceed as if certain things are true and ignore the rest.

For example, Indisputable Fact #1: The most revolutionary thing about the original Angels was their ability to remain sexy, beautiful women while sidestepping the glass ceiling. "Men liked [the show] because they saw women being capable, driving the cars that guys liked, having fun," says Barrymore. "As much as they were in touch with their femininity and their sexuality, they weren't feminist, male-bashing ladies."

Indisputable Fact #2: The power in that jiggle outweighed the indignity of being ogled.

Indisputable Fact #3: The glass ceiling is a relic of a bygone era, as relevant as the corset. Where the original show featured women rescued from dead-end jobs as crossing guards, the newest Angels would have been brilliant and successful even without Charlie. "[Drew and I] stripped the notion of the glass ceiling from the film because it seemed wrong to perpetuate the notion that women were being suppressed when it didn't represent our own experience," explains co-producer Nancy Juvonen.

Indisputable Fact #4: Girls can kick ass and crash cars with the best of them--in this case not as human beings, men or women, but as superheroes with a gift for hand-to-hand combat.

Indisputable Fact #5: Either gender will pay money to watch.

There's something to be said for this glass-is-half-full approach to feminism--or equalism, as the case may be. For one thing, it's much more attractive than shrill protest. For another, it eschews talking in favor of doing--and watching beautiful women doing extraordinary things is much more fun than a lecture. And whether the desired conditions are fully true or not, assuming that they are--and making them fun and sexy and thrilling--happens to be a slick sales tactic. Besides, it's hard to keep something from someone who's not asking permission. Forget all that earnest "If you let me play sports" nonsense. Would you care to try to stop them?

Still, all this good-natured equanimity discounts the film's subtext, which is all about negotiating access--beginning with the Diaz character's ditsy pronouncement, "You can stick things in my slot anytime!" It also overlooks some subtle adjustments. While these PIs go undercover as geishas, singing-telegram fraüleins, and dominatrixes, donning hot pants or drag as it suits them, they're never reduced to a series of pieces in the manner of their small-screen counterparts. We never see a breast without a face attached to it, and the first time we see an ass, it's a full-body shot from the woman's point of view, as a dancing Diaz shakes her Spider-Man Underoos at her own reflection.

So, too, a film that had nothing to prove would probably not have included a scene in which Barrymore bests five men with her hands tied behind her back. Interestingly, something of this defiance makes a cameo appearance in the garden court of the Four Seasons following the press conference. As journalists line up to collect their Charlie's Angels dolls(!), Barrymore breaks away from her entourage and makes a beeline for one middle-aged male scribe. "Are you the one that asked me about why Dylan slept with all those men?" she asks him. "I've been thinking about that." One hand is on her hip, the other is pointing at him, and her jaw is cocked. "You know," she continues, "James Bond slept with all kinds of people and nobody said anything about it." She's not strident, exactly, but she is exasperated. Clearly, if these walls could talk they would say: "It's an action movie, stupid. It's a fantasy. What kind of idiot made up your rules?"

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