Charlie’s Angels Was My Queer Awakening

PHoto: Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock.
Before Kristen Stewart slapped her own ass with a riding crop, Lucy Liu publicly caned an in-drag Drew Barrymore. Which is to say: Charlie’s Angels has always trended toward the homoerotic side of Kinsey scale. The 2000 and 2003 reboots were two of the most formative films of my adolescence, ones that I now fondly consider to be “gay roots.” 
Any queer who has seen the cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader! (1997), a campy, pastel-paletted take on conversion therapy, is familiar with the concept of your “root,” which you can find getting bandied about on any given day on Gay Twitter. A gay root is what the film’s conversion therapy counsellors call the thing, or constellation of things, that influenced you in childhood that is now causing you to “sin.” Queers, of course, have taken this concept and run with it. In the 20+ years since the film, roots have become an inside joke in the community to discuss things like pop culture phenomena we were drawn to in our youth that were obvious indicators of our queerness, before we ourselves knew.
In 2000, I was 13 years old and closeted, even to myself, a conservative evangelical adolescent who was just starting to settle into the Wisconsin town my family had recently moved to. There are certain adolescent performances required for bonding, and when you were a teenage girl in the early 2000s, being “boy crazy” was one of them. I talked loudly at the lunch table and flirted badly, ostentatiously, with boys at school, but I never followed through on it in private on AIM, never had the telltale posters of Jonathan Taylor Thomas or the Backstreet Boys on my wall. My sister had a shrine to Leonardo DiCaprio; I, on the other hand, made scrapbooks of my favourite female celebrities and called them "fashion notebooks."
I was the new kid in town. I had a new friend group that I was desperate to see solidify (eventually, it would, but these things take time). Charlie’s Angels stepped into a gap and showed me what I craved: intimacy with other women. Friendship, I called it at the time — and it’s true, platonic friendship was, very much, what I needed. But there was something else going on with that film, something it sparked in me that I would not recognise for more than a decade. 
I watched the Charlie’s Angels DVD until it was literally worn out. I couldn’t get enough of the Matrix-esque action sequences, of the outfits, of powerful women exercising their own physical, sexual, and emotional agency. (I hadn’t, at the time, worked on unpacking the fact that they answered to a man’s voice coming from a speakerbox.) What it sparked in me that I couldn’t identify at the time — suppressed underneath already expertly learned evangelical lessons of repression — was desire. Sexual desire, to be sure, but also a desire for agency. The classic “Do I want to be her, or do her?” queer complex, if you will. 
The 2000 franchise shows its age when you watch it now. There is, of course, the overarching theme of women using their sexuality to achieve their own ends (flirting with men by licking a steering wheel or flipping their hair to cause distractions while on a mission). They play the system overtly and often outsmart it (or, some might say, reinforce it).
But it was the quiet moments — framed for the male gaze, but no matter — that caught my attention: there was Cameron Diaz’s Natalie, shaking her ass in superhero men’s underwear. There is Lucy Liu’s Alex, crawling over Drew Barrymore in the car to fix the broken drive-thru speakerbox while Drew just smiles, satisfied at her friend in her lap. There is Kelly Lynch, one of the film’s villains, who vacillates between suits and little black dresses and leather like the hard femme I aspire to be. And there are, everywhere, terrible and obvious sexual innuendos and flirtations: the inessential boyfriends who add seemingly nothing to the Angels’ lives; the consistent pillorying of male mediocrity; the quiet affirmation that the women in your life are the only ones you can count on. 
But that affirmation isn’t so simple. Historically, the Charlie’s Angels franchise runs on queer anxiety. How long will they stay together? This was the other key component of the film's appeal to my teenage, and then young adult, self. The women all have a hidden identity that isn’t disclosed to their boyfriends, seemingly out of a desire to protect the men’s egos rather than their physical safety. There is also the assumption that the expectations that heteronormativity presses upon women (marriage, children) will eventually catch up with them and cause the group to disband. And this was something my high school, then college, self was obsessed with, as I saw friend after friend fall into serious relationships and seemingly disappear. 
Full Throttle, the oft-forgotten 2003 sequel to the 2000 reboot, leans into this tension. The internal conflict of the sequel centres on Drew Barrymore’s Dylan, who is terrified about the Angels splitting up, a fear exacerbated by her two fellow Angels’ increasingly intimate romantic and sexual partnerships with cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) men. “It’s wild that Natalie owns property; the most expensive thing I own are these boots,” Dylan says, only to have Alex (Lucy Liu) remind her that actually, the boots are hers. They are still the Angels, doing their thing, but her friends are in steady relationships, accruing financial security, settling down, and Dylan is… not. It’s a distinct kind of identifiably queer anxiety, with marriage identified as the locus of an existential threat to her “friendship” with these women with whom she is extremely homoerotic. 
This specific kind of homoerotic anxiety is explicitly articulated as far back as the 18th century novel Colette, in which the heroine cries, “Marriage is the death of friendship.” Marriage means losing intimacy with your women friends; society demands that you relocate your priorities and loyalty to your husband, and to him alone. Even for 21st century women and the cross-class phenomenon of marriage for love and choice, there is the Pinterest-friendly axiom that you should marry your best friend, the heteronormative all-in-one spouse who fills all needs. In this paradigm, female friendships fade to black. The happy couple is now the star of the show. 
In Full Throttle, we see what happens to women who reject this paradigm, who refuse to submit to patriarchy — specifically as symbolised by Charlie. Demi Moore plays former Angel Madison Lee — Nobel Prize winner, inventor of the molar mic, astrologer extraordinaire — who relentlessly flirts with Natalie (Diaz) and has one particularly jaw-dropping slow-mo, run-with-a-surf-board-in-a-bikini scene. Moore, as Madison, uses gold guns, wears a Scorpio necklace, and has all the best lines in the film, reminding the viewer who is truly listening that “Angels forever” is just a sales pitch and that if you reject patriarchal authority, you are considered an enemy. She dies, of course.
Madison’s sexuality is threatening, but then women’s sexuality, untethered from patriarchal authority, always is. And this is why I’ve been so looking forward to this latest reboot of Charlie’s Angels, which puts yet another spin on the franchise. This time, Elizabeth Banks serves as Bosley, the private detective who runs Charlie’s agency, and Kristen Stewart plays a character who Banks has said is "definitely gay." Women, of course, can be fervent agents of patriarchal authority (Aunt Lydias, as it were), but Charlie’s Angels has always clipped its Angels’ wings by having them answer to the men in charge. There’s something a little too threatening — a little too queer — about women who are that outside the system, and that into each other. My teenage self was attracted to the possibilities that brim under the surface of the early 2000s reboots, and even of the original TV show, but those have been kept on lock. Charlie’s Angels has always been homoerotic — we’ll see if, in 2019, Hollywood is brave enough to make it gay AF.

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