Book to learn how media franchises like Charlie’s Angels define women

July 29, 2022

ASU professor Aviva Dove-Viebahn says women are often ascribed “traditionally feminine” characteristics

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an expert on Charlie’s Angels.

Not because she’s a huge fan of the cheesy TV series and movies that followed, mind you.

Instead, Charlie’s Angels is one of the media franchises that Dove-Viebahn explored for her book project There She Goes Again: Gender, Power and Knowledge in Contemporary Film and Television.

Dove-Viebahn, an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English, was recently one of 11 faculty members appointed by the Institute for Humanities Research as new fellows for the 2022-23 school year.

The 11 faculty members received a total of $104,500 in funding from the IHR Fellows program, which promotes scholarly writing and research in the humanities faculty.

ASU News spoke to Dove-Viebahn about her book, which she hopes to publish with Rutgers University Press in 2024, and how the portrayal of women in franchises like Charlie’s Angels is shaping the perception of women in society today.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: So what is the book about?

Aviva Taube-Viebahn

Answers: One of the reasons I use the opening part of the track “There She Goes Again” is because one of the things that really interests me is the way we have these types of repeated motifs appearing over and over again in certain forms of im Ground feminist media that purport to show women in powerful roles.

One of the things that really interests me is looking at some of these franchises where we have characters that we keep seeing, like Charlie’s Angels. Several versions of Charlie’s Angels have been produced over the last 50 years. Also, “Wonder Woman,” which we’ve seen over and over again in various iterations since the late 1940s. Even newer franchises like Terminator. I’m also talking about the Resident Evil franchise, which started out as a video game. And the “Supergirl” line found in the comics.

We see them changing in contemporary film and television, particularly in the way the film and television industry seeks to recognize how women’s rights have changed over the last, say, 50 or 60 years, and somehow recognizing notions of feminism or other forms of progressive social justice politics. But the fact of the matter is that in 2019 or 2020 we are often repeating the same concepts that we saw in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, only often in a much more subtle way.

Q: What are these concepts?

A: Many of these recurring characters are portrayed in powerful or stronger ways. However, as you delve into the narratives or the way they are presented visually, many of these forms of power and strength come from things we think of as traditionally feminine, such as empathy, love, altruism, or compassion. These are often the roots of their power.

Q: Why do you think these stories still exist?

A: I think one of the things that happens is that it’s so ingrained in our culture that these are the sources of women’s power. That’s one of the things I want to get to the bottom of a little bit, how these ideas then influence the way we think about women in real life, in politics or in business life, in business or in science. That’s anecdotal, but I’ve heard and read that people make comments like, “You know, we need women in politics because they’re more peace-loving.” Or they tend to be more altruistic.

Obviously things are good. I am in no way suggesting that these are not things we want from our political leaders. But what often happens is that these traits are attributed to women. So when a female politician doesn’t behave as we expect of her in terms of diplomacy, altruism, or that kind of empathy, she’s often punished much more severely than a male politician who exhibits the same qualities, because that’s not necessarily the case expected of male politicians.

I think it’s actually a feedback loop. Some media portray characters this way, and then we apply the same ideas to real people. But we also use these concepts in the real world and they are then fed back into the media.

Q: In your study of Charlie’s Angels and other franchises, do you see any progress in the way women are portrayed?

A: I’m really interested in how the 2019 film tried to remake — and not remake — some of the same things we see. The film is being directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also stars in the film, and you can tell she’s trying really, really hard to make this a feminist film. They try very hard to change the characters in a way that I think is admirable.

Charlie’s Angels is known as a franchise that’s really about these kinds of glamorous model actresses playing detectives. They are crime fighters but they have to be pretty and sexy at the same time. The 2019 film tries to break away from this by not overly objectifying the women. But the film still taps into those ideas that the angels really love high fashion. They are also very interested in cooperative forms of leadership. That’s not a bad thing either. It’s the way that’s just packaged in a way that’s what women want. It’s just so performative feminist that it almost feels jarring because they’re trying so hard.

Q: Given how women have been portrayed in the media for so long, isn’t that a step forward in some ways?

A: So in every iteration of Charlie’s Angels, they always try to distinguish the three characters. But they differentiate them in ways that really don’t matter at all. Ultimately, they all still believe the same thing. I think we need to see characters where they’re really different people and represent different ways of being women in the world. I think you can have female characters without always having to say, “Oh yeah, here are the ways they’re female.” We understand that who they are is important, but it doesn’t have to be the main characteristic be responsible for where they get their power and knowledge from.

Q: How do these “female” forms of power define female leaders or politicians?

A: I personally think that empathy, altruism, and cooperative power structures could all be very effective in bringing about long-lasting social change. But I often think because these traits are seen as feminine, they are devalued. And it’s easier to dismiss traits that are devalued as feminine. That’s one of the things I look at in the media and write about, the way those traits that a character has that lead to their power often become the same things that make them really vulnerable.

We can see that in the media and I think it’s reflected in more subtle ways in political life. For example, I think empathy should be a valued quality in leaders. And yet sometimes these very points of empathy are where their political positions are devalued.

Q: Do you see how this portrayal of women will evolve over the next, say, 20 years?

A: That’s a good question. I think it will get better. But I think part of the danger in a way is that a lot of people think the job is done. And that progression is linear from point A to point B or whatever. That’s just not true. I think sometimes culturally we assume things are better because we’ve fixed things that were done in the past and can move on to other things. But that is not the case.

We need to keep coming back to some of these issues, especially the ones that keep popping up. The work to achieve gender parity is not yet done, although there have been major changes. There are still these endemic issues that we haven’t fixed yet. Not always feeling the need to ground everything in these feminine forms of power would be a starting point.

Photo above: (From left) Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott strikes an iconic Charlie’s Angels pose in the 2019 version of the film. photo by Sony Pictures Entertainment

Scott Bordow

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