Arts·Anne-iversaries

All the women who independent: How Charlie's Angels celebrated finding your own unique feminism

Throw your hands up at Anne T. Donahue's revisiting of the film 20 years later.

Throw your hands up at Anne T. Donahue's revisiting of the film 20 years later

Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels. (Columbia Pictures)

Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).

I have two distinct memories from my first screening of Charlie's Angels. At some point mid-movie, I looked at my best friend in horror and ran from the theatre, believing we were late to meet my dad (even though her mom was picking us up). The second involves a sudden romantic appreciation for Sam Rockwell (his character may have been a villain, but dude could move to Marvin Gaye).

But one thing I don't remember is appreciating how unique the movie's brand of feminism was. After all, in an era that favoured overly simplistic portrayals of gender equality (I'll love you forever, Spice Girls, but "girl power!" doesn't stand for much when applied to Margaret Thatcher), Charlie's Angels touted the power not only of female unity, but of individualism. The trio's friendship is the culmination of what happens when originality and independence is celebrated instead of stifled (pause for the playing of "Independent Women, Pt. 1" — all the women who independent, throw your hands up at me!), and it comes together for a movie about the cultivation of successful relationships after acknowledging one's unique strengths and flaws.

Especially when you add in the humour (I will never not laugh at the three women posing as a German singing telegram, complete with tuba), the strangeness (Crispin Glover's creepy villain's affinity for hair-smelling changed me), or what's otherwise defined as the completely bananas (Tom Green as "The Chad"). In fact, Charlie's Angels is very funny and very weird. And it's those factors working together with the trio's love and appreciation for one another that make it a solid watch and one worth remembering.

Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels. (Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

After all, in real life, we don't tend to bond with our coworkers in a way that cancels out our own independent identities. (Minus retail — doing that was the only way I survived four holiday seasons.) Charlie's Angels sees its leads explore their own quirks and eccentricities in a way typically reserved for male-centric movies like Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job. (Which hail from an iconic genre: guys who are very different from one another find common ground by taking a job and then never speaking again — until the sequel.) Very quickly, we learn that Alex, Dylan, and Natalie are very different people with different skills and different interests. And while it might have been helpful to offer more of a backstory for each so that we could better understand their motivations for crime-solving, it's not like the plot suffers because we don't know more about Natalie's childhood. Instead, it makes the Charlie's Angels dynamic even more realistic: most of us don't spend a great deal of time getting to know our coworkers so intimately that we understand what propels them.

Ultimately, Alex, Dylan, and Natalie are simply allowed to function as people. They're allowed to come to work as themselves without losing their identities to being part of a packaged deal. The Charlie's Angels trifecta hinges on the presence of three independent women, not a value-pack in which the only viable traits are "We're all best friends!" We know they're friendly with each other, but it takes the movie's full run-time before that friendship fully evolves into what feels like a familial dynamic. Specifically, each of them have to almost die before their bond moves from the workplace to the beach, where they end the story vacationing as pals instead of as collaborators. And it's not like their work fell short because they weren't manifesting squad goals: the three saved Bosley, Charlie, and literally the rest of the world as they let their individual strengths shine (Natalie and Alex can crack codes and mastermind rescue missions like no tomorrow) and reconcile with choices that could've put the team at risk (such as Dylan hooking up with Eric Knox, a.k.a. my newfound love Sam Rockwell). Their friendship, like all true friendships, is bred from lessons learned and experiences endured.

Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels. (Columbia Pictures)

And that's a strong message to send, particularly to the tweens of the Y2K era. Don't get me wrong: it's awesome that the angels stick together, and it's wonderful to watch those moments of sisterhood manifest over the course of the film. But what makes it worth remembering is its celebration of independence. Dylan, Alex, and Natalie don't bleed into one another as characters in a writerly attempt to create a team; instead, we witness the magnificence of following your own path until it brings you to people who fully understand you. And that's better than shouting "girl power!" and pointing to female friendship as an indicator of feminist ideals. Especially since it's hard to exercise those ideals if you're not an independent woman. [pause for applause]

About the Author

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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