Why We Loved Farrah Fawcett

Slate's Culture Blog
June 25 2009 2:58 PM

Why We Loved Farrah Fawcett

The Big Money Editor James Ledbetter offers this remembrance of Charlie's Angels icon Farrah Fawcett, who died today of cancer at age 62:

It must be next to impossible for anyone under the age of 30 to understand that there was a time when Farrah Fawcett Majors was actually cool. Looking now at that iconic mid-’70s poster, anyone can see the surface attractions that propelled her to fame: perfectly feathered hair , impossibly confident smile, and—particularly if you were a seventh-grade boy like me, staring for too long at that red bathing suit image masking-taped to the wall—the unabashed alert nipples.

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Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

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Yet there was a whole other layer to her mystique that eludes today’s eye (to say nothing of the fact that her subsequent crises buried the real person along with the persona). Tits-and-ass primetime programming reached a kind of apogee in the mid-'70s, and while our parents rolled their eyes and tried to switch the dial to PBS, my friends and I devoured it with a pre-adolescent mixture of innocence and titillation. No matter what anyone might try and claim today, Charlie’s Angels was an abysmal way to kill an hour. The inevitable scene in which one or more Angels would get wet could barely justify the ludicrous plots, ritual explosions, and truly crappy acting. Even then, I knew it was bad.

The show, though, wasn’t the point. (At least that, I suspect, today’s youth would understand.) Watching Charlie’s Angels , having the FFM poster on your wall, clipping magazine pictures of the Angels in their bikinis and hanging them on the inside of your locker—these were more like badges, a way of participating in pop culture with as much sexual knowing as you could muster. Actually, as best I can recall, it wasn’t just a boy thing. I would not go so far as to say that the Angels were pillars of feminism, but girls watched the show.  Charlie’s Angels was our version of a croquet match in an Edith Wharton novel—a way for almost-men and almost-women to play together politely, pretending to talk about one thing when actually you were checking one another out.

You were supposed to have a favorite Angel—some debased version, perhaps, of once having to have a favorite Beatle. (Kate Jackson was the smart one, but I can’t remember what the distinguishing factor between FFM and Jaclyn Smith was supposed to be, nor did it matter.) In truth, there was no competition—it was Farrah, always Farrah. Why? Blonde prejudice, for some, perhaps. But for me and, I suspect, most of my peers, it was for the most innocent reason of all: She was married to Lee Majors, the "Six Million-Dollar Man," the bionic hero whose cred had been established way before hers, or at least two ABC seasons before. And so I think FFM functioned as a kind of transitional crush, from the young boy’s fascination with physical strength and cyborg powers to the preteen’s need to branch out into a social exploration of sexuality.

When she left the show after the first season, I don’t remember any of my friends watching it any more, and by the time she and Majors split in 1979, the girls I wanted to spend time with had more dimensions than that poster. I imagine for her, the poster was something she wanted desperately to transcend, but for millions of American boys, it was itself a kind of transcendence.

—James Ledbetter