THE DIALECTICAL MEANING OF "CHARLIE'S ANGELS"
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
This spoof is featured exclusively in The Daily Objectivist; it was first publised on November 8, 1999. Of this essay, journalist Scott McLemee wrote:
"Dear Daily Objectivists: Having written the Lingua Franca piece about Ayn Rand and her academic reception, I got a real kick out of Chris Sciabarra's wickedly precise self-parody. It's a good thing he didn't publish this in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, though, because I might have taken it for a piece of neo-Randian scholarship. Keep this up, and The Daily Objectivist will make it impossible to portray all Objectivists as humorless Randroids. -- Collectivistically yours, Scott McLemee." It is reproduced here in case the Wayback Machine someday loses it!
of "Charlie's Angels"
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
(First published on TDO November 7, 1999)
Some years ago, in an interview with talk show host Phil Donahue, Ayn Rand said that she loved "Charlie's Angels" because it was the only "Romantic" television show of the day. "It's not realistic, it's not about the gutter, it's not about the half-wit retarded children....It's about three attractive girls doing impossible things. And because they're impossible, that's what makes it interesting."
Rand had criticized the "Bootleg Romanticism" of contemporary culture, but in "Charlie's Angels" she found something that compared favorably with the Romantic school of literature. And indeed, there can be little doubt that the three heroines of the story exemplify the true, the good, and the beautiful, as they vanquish the false, the bad, and the ugly. What Rand identified as the Romanticism of the show explains why "Charlie's Angels" was one of the most popular shows of its time. It was, in fact, the number one show of the 1976-1977 season, and the biggest hit for the ABC network. Every Wednesday night, people tuned in to the show in search of objective values and romantic passion and they were rewarded accordingly.
A tacit level
Still, while the Romantic factor cannot be overlooked, there were certain methodological and cultural forces at work in addition that surely affected Rand on a tacit level, and which inexorably led her to champion this show. These subconsciously-absorbed forces help to explain why Rand had such a deep affinity for the Angels. That affinity was due, fundamentally, to the show's deeply feminist, sado-masochistic, and dialectical subtexts, as most profoundly evidenced in the full-bodied triadic duality of the angelic bosoms. In Rand's response to the Angels, we thus see a full vindication of the theses presented in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand and my own Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. These claims require some elucidation.
First, I should note that I personally never watched "Charlie's Angels," but did hear about it. One need not actually inspect a text to come to definitive conclusions about its content and meaning. (I did see the commercials for the show, and I have been told by sources that I regard as authoritative that they provided a fair precis of the content.) I have an objective warrant for this oversight, however. In September and October of 1976, I was busy watching the New York Yankees speed toward their first American League Pennant in over a decade. When not watching Yankee games, I was engaged in important cultural research on the influence of primordial beats on the most recent generation of culturally bankrupt, drugged-out teens. This important research often took me to discos, where I could observe first-hand the culturally decadent atmosphere and take notes on the morally impoverished mating rituals.
I knew Farrah Fawcett---whom many thought would portray a magnificent Dagny Taggart in a screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged---more from her famous swimsuit poster, which appeared in the movie "Saturday Night Fever," than from her short stint on the ABC series. Yet this poster incarnates all the complex dialectic virtues of the show, or so I gather. And with 70s nostalgia reaching fever pitch now---"Saturday Night Fever" is back (this time, on Broadway), and Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz are set to appear in a big-screen adaptation of "Charlie's Angels"---an analysis of the Angels phenomenon is both timely and necessary. Luckily, The Daily Objectivist has confirmed that my scrupulous inspection of the Farrah Fawcett poster, combined with twenty-year-old memories of the commercials and my own not inconsiderable powers of inference, will be sufficient to qualify me as an authority.
How to proceed...well, I guess I would say that "Charlie's Angels" can be viewed as a hermeneutic text---and thus, like all texts, leaves its traces and creates a host of unintended consequences as each generation reinterprets its meaning and applies its lessons anew. Yes....
The show debuted on September 22, 1976. As coeditor-to-be, with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999), even then I recognized the feminist historical context of this debut. Some argue that the predominating influence on the show was the Women's Lib movement, and the attendant seismic shift in cultural paradigm. Strong women had begun showing up in "The Bionic Woman" and "Wonder Woman," for instance. (Significantly, though, the women had to be especially empowered in order to prove creditable adversaries in these two shows.) "Charlie's Angels" was a similar spawn of this feminism, just as surely as is today's "Xena: Warrior Princess." That Ayn Rand was attracted to a show so clearly an outgrowth of the very women's liberation movement she condemned provides yet further evidence of her tacit spiritual affinity with feminism, at least some healthy form of feminism. Rand, surely, would have perceived these three voluptuous young women not as instances of the square-clogged "Comrade Sonia" stereotype of Women's Lib, but as three beautiful prime movers, able to take the world by storm in pursuit of moral values. This was a feminism Rand could appreciate.
Nevertheless, some feminists have slammed the show as "misogynist." Judith Coburn, a feminist journalist, claims that the show is simply "a version of the pimp and his girls. Charlie dispatches his street wise girls to use their sexual wiles on the world while he reaps the profits." In fact, one of the most popular episodes in the first season was "Angels in Chains"---a cult favorite, especially among gay men, I hear. Some regard this episode as representative of the entire series and its dialectically eternal sado-masochistic motif. A 1976 Time cover story tells us that in the episode, the women work undercover to investigate a prison farm. Ordered about by an "SS style matron," who is "clearly lesbian in sexual orientation," the Angels become prisoners and bear their bare witness to beatings, threats of rape, and enforced prostitution, as they seek to solve the murder of an innocent young woman at the hands of prison guards. (A young Kim Basinger plays one of the inmates.) Aaron Spelling, the producer of the show, said that this was his favorite episode, and most people agree; the show received a 56 percent Nielsen share and a 52 percent share in reruns. (Significantly, if one adds 56 to 52, and subtracts 8, one arrives at the number 100, which, divided by 33 and 1/3, equals 3. Three! An unmistakable instantiation of the show's dialectically triadic motif.)
"Terror in Ward One"
These sadomasochistic sub- and uber-texts show up as well in other episodes that I have heard tell about, especially in such classic Season One episodes as "Dirty Business," "Terror on Ward One," "Dancing in the Dark," and "The Blue Angels." In fact, this last episode harks back to a famous film starring Marlene Dietrich, one of Ayn Rand's favorite screen actresses. The parallels here are astounding: like Dietrich, the Angels embody thinking and action, hands-on decision-making, dialectic integration, throatiness of voice, and consummate femininity. The sadomasochist motif, however, provides the starkest expression of the profoundly internal relationship of Randian and Angelian themes: Ayn Rand's female characters have surely often been on the receiving end of a kind of misogyny, and with all of these "Angels" stories centering on rape, prostitution, dominance and submission, can there be any doubt of the textual analogies to Night Of January 16th, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, and the way the dames of the Randian corpus keep getting roughly thrown on the bed? No, there cannot.
Ultimately, however, at least according to the various rumors about the show that I have heard and as confirmed by the Farrah Fawcett poster, the show speaks fundamentally, on both synchronic and diachronic levels, to Rand's underlying commitment to a dialectical methodological orientation, in which holistic integration of robust dualism plays a heaving, hefty part. It must be stressed that dialectics is not equivalent to the rock-ribbed, brassiere-like triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Dialectics is essentially context-keeping, an inherent grasp of the analytical integrity of a given structured totality. Still, triadic models have been common to many dialectical approaches. One can see these in Plato's tripartite division of the soul, Aristotle's golden mean, Hegel's theory of history, and the "row, row, row" of "row, row, row your boat."
My own book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, documents Rand's rejection of false alternatives, showing how her Objectivist philosophy transcends the fallacies inherent in intrinsicist and subjectivist alternatives. This objective-intrinsic-subjective paradigm is triadic in its implications, of course, with the objective serving as a kind of conquering aufhebung. Other theorists who have deconstructed the textual and stylistic paradoxes in Rand's corpus have shown that this triangular construction is present throughout Rand's novels. The prevalence of "images of three" in Rand's fiction, then, attests to the dialectical-triadic hermeneutic at work. The structure of "Charlie's Angels" reflects this. Each episode witnesses a dualistic battle against evil forged by three dualistically-breasted women. The triadic implications are simply overwhelming here, and speak to the dialectical motif.
The voice of reason
"Charlie's Angels" is thus a searing testament to dialectical (de)construction, and must on those grounds alone have appealed to Rand on a deeply psycho-epistemological level. And then of course you've got your disembodied "voice of reason," Charlie, who in every episode, from the safe vantage point of the speaker box, mediates between the forces of resurgent orgasmic thrust and penultimate quiescence. This reason-by-remote-control is the iconic parallel to the disembodied voice of reason that issued from the tape recorder in the Nathaniel-Branden-Institute, Objectivist lecture courses so popular during the 1960s, a decade or so before the Angels first hit the air waves.
There are other motifs that call out for analysis. For instance, in light of a recent Objectivist Center conference on the importance of reclaiming spirituality from religion, there is scant doubt that the three "Angels" serve as a secular counterpart to the Christian Holy Trinity. Could it be that Rand was also reaffirming a quasi-religious theme here in her dedication to them, thereby embracing not only the concepts of reverence, exaltation, and worship---but that of "angels" itself?????????
But I leave this metaphysical question to future scholars.
a Visiting Scholar of the NYU Department of Politics, is the world authority on
the transcendent dialectic implications of triadically-implicated dualism. His
most recent project is The
Journal of Ayn Rand Studies,
and he has just completed a history of dialectical thinking, Total