The slightly soft-porn Wella Balsam ads notwithstanding, the infamous appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” aside, it is impossible to overstate Farrah Fawcett’s cultural influence.
With her practice-makes-perfect, blue-eyed smile and doomed marriage to “The Six Million Dollar Man” Lee Majors, she was Princess Di before there was a Princess Di, a photogenic icon who just seemed nice.
With her determination to show that she could play against image and defy expectations (“The Burning Bed,” “Extremities”), she was a role model for every actor who has been typecast, every star whose talent has been questioned.
Yes, by giving millions of American females an alternative to the very severe Dorothy Hamill bob, she single-handedly established the blow-dryer and curling-iron industries and created the whole career-path-through-hairstyle phenomenon.
But, more important, she made the whole guns and gams template not only acceptable on TV, but de rigueur. In just a single season as the “pretty one” on “Charlie’s Angels,” Fawcett helped turn the show into an iconic hit and she paved the way for all the delicate lovelies now doing the Kevlar crouch on shows such as “CSI” and “Fringe.” Before Jill Munroe and company, there was only “Police Woman’s” Pepper Anderson, who was a much tougher cookie.
It is striking that we lost both Fawcett and writer Marilyn French within weeks; they represented such polar opposites of a larger story.
As a woman of a certain age (who never could make my hair do that flip-back thing,) I watched the mythology of Fawcett unspool alongside the cresting, then waning, American women’s movement, not quite understanding what I was seeing until many years had passed.
Fawcett certainly seemed an unlikely addition to any discussion of feminism. She was, after all, the last of the classic pin-up girls. There is no irony in that famous poster, no statement about female sexuality beyond its desirability, no post-post-anything. Just a pretty girl in her bathing suit with great hair and a terrific smile. Nothing is pierced or tattooed. She isn’t even wearing a bikini.
When “Charlie’s Angels” debuted, it quickly became clear that she was no great actor, but that didn’t matter. The idea of a group of policewomen, sick of being relegated to parking police or desk jobs, working as detectives for a disembodied voice, was too good to be true. The Bond girls with their own show!
Their lip-glossed smiles compressed into grim lines as they faced down the killers! The “Angels” were the perfect transitional feminists -- pretty girls who didn’t take themselves too seriously but who together could still handle the bad guys. Here was female empowerment the masses could live with. Yes, “Charlie’s Angels” was kitsch, but it was revolutionary kitsch. You didn’t have to hate men, you could even be part of a weird work-harem, but you should definitely be able to run a mile (without smearing your makeup) and it never hurt to know karate.
Fawcett’s divorce from Majors was the stuff of tabloid tragedy (TV stars in love, and they seemed so happy!) and her subsequent relationship with Ryan O’Neal was worrisome (so much wilder than Majors). In danger of becoming her own punch line -- all the jokes about the hair, all the parodies of the show -- Fawcett did what has now become Chapter 1 in the “Pretty Girls Guide to an Acting Career.” She took a role in which she looked just plain terrible. “The Burning Bed,” based on a true story of an abused woman who killed her husband by burning him, not only stripped Fawcett of her trademark locks and looks, but required real acting and managed to make a social statement. (That would be Chapter 2, other examples including Sally Field in “Norma Rae” and Charlize Theron in “Monster”).
“The Burning Bed” earned her an Emmy nomination and gave her a shot at “Extremities,” on stage and screen, in which she played a rape victim who in turn terrorizes her attacker. Another story of victim-empowerment, “Extremities” said as much about the changing times as it did about the performer -- women were angry enough, men open-minded enough to accept the story line. Still, there is no doubt Fawcett’s image -- still the pretty girl with the ready smile -- worked to make the idea of a woman torturing a man more palatable, just as Mary-Louise Parker’s beauty makes her “Weeds” character more sympathetic.
This isn’t to say one should confuse Fawcett with a feminist. I have no idea if she identified as one or not; she did appear in Playboy twice, not part of the standard feminist resume (although the second time was when she turned 50, which one could argue was a post-feminist statement of a sort). But certainly she embodied, in her rather brief career, many fairly significant shifts in how women were viewed, on television and in the culture, something I can’t imagine any of us expected as we gazed through the dim, choking haze of adolescence at that mane of golden hair and perfect smile and wondered why the gods were so arbitrary with their gifts.
If nothing else, Fawcett proved something that should make life a little easier for the rest of us: You don’t have to have a huge body of work to make a pretty big imprint. Though a great smile certainly helps.