Forgetting Farrah

The legendary actress, entrepreneur and American icon Farrah Fawcett is important to remember and reflect on in a year during which she would have turned seventy and forty years after she left the hit television show that helped to make her world famous.  A native of Corpus Christie, Texas, Fawcett became an internationally famous American icon in the mid-1970s as the star of Charlie’s Angels, a television show produced by Aaron Spelling that was groundbreaking in highlighting Fawcett and her co-stars Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith portraying a team of three women as detectives.  This television show, alongside the image featuring Fawcett in a red bathing suit on what became the bestselling poster of all time, made Fawcett’s image, including her signature blond winged hairstyle, internationally famous, an icon of American beauty and a brand whose name and face were used to market products from dolls to lunch boxes. 

Her hairstyle, “the Farrah,” was widely imitated and used to market her signature hair product line.  While the bathing suit is now permanently archived in the Smithsonian Institution, Fawcett has typically been forgotten in recent cultural dialogues grappling with tough questions related to whether women can celebrate the body and beauty and legitimately be feminists.  In spite of profoundly impacting national culture, too often, Fawcett’s legacy has been marginalized.  In spite of the lessons that we might learn from her, there’s been virtual silence in the media on what it means that after she helped to revolutionize representations of women on television, she walked away from it a year later and forty years ago.  

As Elana Levine illustrates in her revealing analysis in Wallowing in Sex:  The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television, Charlie’s Angels, alongside shows such as Wonder Woman featuring women playing the roles of detectives, and sitcoms such as Three’s Company, were part of a wave of productions during the decade that cast women in leading roles as symbols of sex and beauty, even as they simultaneously grappled with tough questions related to gender, pushed sexual boundaries and promoted notions of women’s empowerment.  For example, Fawcett is one figure who might be useful for examining the complicated feminist questions that have recurrently surfaced in debates about Beyoncé, largely as a response to themes related to family, blackness, womanhood, motherhood, and Southern identity that have surfaced in her artistry in more recent years, questions that were thrown into relief all the more in the wake of the release of Lemonade in 2016.  We might draw on Fawcett to think about some of the other important ways in which the South impacted Beyoncé’s fashioning and mediated her popularization and nationalization in earlier moments, including her emergence as “America’s sweetheart.”  This is a status more frequently linked to white Southern women such as Fawcett, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon, but that was rarely if ever invoked in relation to black womanhood before Beyoncé.  Though she shares common ground with the litany of Southern women who have emerged as models of national beauty and femininity and who have been deemed “America’s sweetheart,” Beyoncé’s is exceptional for broadening and expanding this concept on the basis of race and gender by disrupting its conventional white significations.

Such representations of American womanhood make sense if we recognize the longstanding role that the South in the United States has played in constituting scripts of femininity that become national and gain popularity, a phenomenon that was established in American cinema through actresses such as Lillian Gish.  As Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd notes in her book Southern Beauty:  Performing Femininity in an American Region, the U.S. South cultivates distinct feminine aesthetics.  These aesthetics are often even more pronounced, hyperbolic and stylized in Texas, a phenomenon poignantly registered by Deborah Rodriguez in the 2007 memoir Kabul Beauty School, which mentions “Texas ladies” also billed the “Texas dolls,” “who breezed through the gate with the biggest bouffant hairdos, the most extravagantly applied perfume, and the glossiest nails, as well as faces made up as if they were stars in a daytime soap opera.”  It is important to think about the imprint of such Texas roots in establishing foundations for Fawcett’s larger than life hairstyle and blond iconicity, significations that have been similarly foundational in shaping Beyoncé’s signature lengthy, bold blond hairstyle fashioned within a distinctly black aesthetic and hair culture.  Fawcett and Beyoncé’s shared origins in Texas and its aesthetics in feminine fashioning, in their respective cultural moments, established foundations for their popularization and nationalization during the bicentennial year and at the dawn of the millennium. 

More to the point, it is useful to consider the paean to Fawcett and her famous winged hairstyle that the singer and fellow members of the women’s group Destiny’s Child made to the actress in the video for “Independent Women, Part 1,” which was part of the soundtrack for the film based on Charlie’s Angels starring Lucy Lui, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz in 2001.  Reflecting on this earlier cultural moment that juxtaposed the singer with Fawcett’s blond iconicity and Texas femininity provides valuable contexts and foundations for tracing Beyoncé’s evolution toward the raced, sexed and gendered aesthetics of self-fashioning in the video for “Formation” that frame Beyoncé in relation to her family history and black Southern roots and provides additional frameworks for thinking about how and why the singer has become a national and global icon in her own right and on her own terms, a woman that many other women and girls aspire to be, notwithstanding black women’s longstanding devaluation and stereotyping in popular culture and media that have typically favored women who look like Fawcett.  Fawcett, who has been constructed as a beauty symbol and sexual object in the nation and noted for helping to expand the roles that women could play on television through the detective character Jill Munroe that she portrayed on TV, in the years after Second Wave feminism, embodied the complicated questions and contradictions that made it challenging and difficult for some to define what it meant to be a feminist during that period, just as Beyoncé is raising similar questions about feminism now. 

To be sure, Fawcett also stood at the forefront in helping to advance a foremost feminist concern in confronting the issue of domestic violence through her compelling portrayal of an abused wife in the critically acclaimed 1984 film The Burning Bed, which is based on a true story of Francine Hughes chronicled by Faith McNulty in the 1980 book by that same name.  Hughes kills her abusive husband and is later acquitted in the court of law.  This film’s provocative examination of domestic violence remains relevant.  As the report recently released by the CDC reveals, the majority of homicides involving women, and particularly black women, are disproportionately at the hands of their husbands and boyfriends, suggesting that this issue continues to contribute to women’s mortality rates. 

In her life, Fawcett’s own struggles with drug abuse and her victimization by domestic violence in relationships illustrate, in moments, how profoundly the circumstances of her personal life contradicted the model of perfection and the feminine ideal that she embodied in her career, which had been captivating throughout her life, even among many of the people who knew her well before she ever became world famous, as some of the experiences during her early days as a Texas debutante and member of the Tri Delta sorority at the University of Texas suggest.  While Fawcett was twenty-nine when she reached the height of her fame and emerged as a reigning symbol of American beauty, that she would have turned seventy this year is an important milestone to salute while remembering how profoundly she impacted and shaped this nation’s popular culture and her symbolic impact on it.  After she left the show on which she played the starring role forty years ago at the height of her fame, the lawsuit that she faced in the aftermath curtailed her career momentum and for a while, blackballed her in Hollywood, making it difficult for her to secure acting roles.  Such experiences were symptomatic of the patriarchy and sexism in the world of entertainment against which many actresses continue to struggle in this day and time, as the rampant sexual harassment in the industry exposed by the #MeToo movement reveals.   

The work of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation carries on the struggle to fight against and raise awareness about cancer that she began during her lifetime.  When Fawcett died in 2009 after battling cancer for several years, the stories related to her death were quickly sidelined in news cycles to focus on the shocking announcement of the sudden death of another icon of the ‘70s, the iconic popular singer and entertainer Michael Jackson, who died on the same day.  Months later, Fawcett’s photo’s omission from the memorial tribute at the Academy Awards was another telling moment that obscured her national legacy and impact, tacitly limiting her contributions to television.  Such elisions are telling for illustrating how routinely women are marginalized in spite of their achievements.   Fawcett’s legacy is important to recollect and draw on in current cultural dialogues, just as it will be important to continue to memorialize, preserve and honor in institutions, especially the foundation that continues her heroic struggle to fight against cancer.  There is so much that we can continue to learn from the extraordinary life and legacy of Farrah Fawcett.  

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