The traditional media and the paparazzi will briefly wail about the death of Farrah Fawcett. What the obits miss is the context of the America she lived in and the Hollywood system she lived with. That lack of context is captured in the dismissive title of the New York Time’s Alessandra Stanley’s An Appraisal: A Sex Symbol Who Never Stopped Trying to be More.
Ms. Fawcett, of course, is known for her one year as a detective Angel working for Charlie and for her red swim suited poster, which sold a still astounding twelve million copies. She was also known for her relationships with Lee Majors and Ryan O’Neal, and for dying from a rare cancer. Like the rest of us, she was many more things: a wife, mother, daughter, business person, pop star, and sometimes talented thespian. She had several successes and many setbacks.
Ms. Stanley’s review, as did others, such as the UK’s Guardian and the Independent, focuses on Ms. Fawcett’s allure, while attempting admiration for her persistence and her occasional award-winning performances, notably The Burning Bed and Extremities.
Two things would have made these reviews, especially Ms. Stanley’s mildly caustic "theater person" review, more meaningful: coverage of her studio’s Hitchcock-like spiking of her career because she wouldn’t play ball, and coverage of the sexism prevalent throughout her career, which limited her and many other actors to roles as sexual objects. Both dynamics remain with us.
Ms. Fawcett left Charlie’s Angels after one year, despite her being the biggest draw for the number five show on television. Mimicking Alfred Hitchcock’s apparent response when Tippi Hedren refused a relationship with him after, The Birds, it apparently put the word out that it would not welcome anyone else in the business giving her work. That was an industry phenomenon that plagued her career for several years and made her later successes greater accomplishments.
Of more general interest is the pervasive sexism that limited her and every other woman’s career in the last thirty years. For a little context, Roe v. Wade was decided three years before Ms. Fawcett’s famous poster hit the bedroom walls of male teens and college students. Four years later, we entered the Reagan era, with its persistent setbacks for women’s rights, where Republican Senators applauded themselves for encouraging Southern womenfolk to remain barefoot and pregnant.
Today’s neocons and fundamentalists dress better than their counterparts in the 1980’s, but their aims are the same. Last year, for example, the august Supreme Court told Lilly Ledbetter "tough": her decades of sex-based pay discrimination were not actionable because she hadn’t sued (and lost her job in illegal but common retaliation) within months of when her employer started discriminating (not when she first learned about their discrimination).
Ms. Fawcett was a pop icon who wanted more, to be an actor and a real person, not just to live in the Hollywood Hills by raising the hormone levels of American men. Ms. Stanley’s response is "nice try", as if it were as easy as writing a rightwing Op-Ed for the New York Times:
Not all of her performances will stand the test of time, but what is worth remembering is how hard Farrah Fawcett tried.
Her lament could apply equally to Tom Cruise, though he has better publicists and much more power, which Ms. Fawcett and many women never did.