A guest post by Elana Levine, author of Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television.
I gave up. I decided I would be Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly instead of fighting with my friend and my sister to be Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ Jill. Besides, I could play with my two different Farrah dolls when they weren’t around and would refuse to swap my Jill trading cards next time they wanted to do an exchange. Maybe I couldn’t be Farrah that day, chasing down the bad guys as we rode bikes around the driveway. But she could be mine—I could be her—at other times, in other ways. Such was the life of a girl like me in times like those. In the mid-1970s there was no greater symbol of non-threatening feminine attractiveness and power. Farrah was it.
The simultaneous appearance of Farrah’s famous swimsuit poster and the debut of ABC’s new series, Charlie’s Angels, in 1976 made Farrah a household name, an American icon, and an object of widespread admiration and desire. She was the first, and the most recognizable, of American television’s homegrown brand of female sex symbol for the post-sexual revolution era. She would only remain a full-time Angel for one season, but her fun-loving, sporty, beach-goddess aura set the template for a number of TV sex symbols throughout the decade.
It was easy then, as now, for pretty young women to get attention when they appeared on TV, the main stage of American popular culture. But Farrah’s fame was assisted by a confluence of forces, making her symbolic weight all the greater. By the mid-1970s, the women’s liberation movement had made clear that women and girls could do anything their male counterparts could do, not least of which were holding starring roles in action-oriented television series, wielding guns, and capturing villains. Yet the forces of backlash were plenty vocal, as well, insisting that “women’s lib” was seeking to erase the fundamental, natural differences between the sexes to the great peril of society. Amidst such a climate, Farrah happily posed for a pin-up poster. She reportedly had included in her Angels contract a provision that she be home in time each evening to make dinner for her “bionic man” husband, Lee Majors. And she declared in the press, “One of the things women are blessed with is their femininity and their intuition. Maybe we use it a little on the show, but I don’t think it’s wrong.” These dimensions of her star persona made her the ideal mediating figure for a time of confusion, change, and anxiety over gender and sex. Her Angels character could go undercover as a centerfold and fit the part beautifully, but would be most concerned with busting the crooked male owners exploiting the hard-working girls. And Farrah herself could work full-time and engage in hard-line contract negotiations all the while playing the part of the traditional everywoman who, after a day on set, would come home and “do women’s work . . . take off my nail polish, figure out a menu for tomorrow, maybe clean a room.”
Farrah made comfortable and reassuring the landmark changes in women’s roles during the 1970s. Girls like me could adore her for the promise she seemed to hold—the grown-up girl capable of daring adventure yet wildly desirable to boys, so pretty but so down to earth. She was the perfect symbol of sex—the sex “roles” we might fill and the sex appeal we might covet—in a time of vast sexual change.