Jiggle TV – Keeping Women In Their Place

How the female-led action TV shows in the 1970s were dismissed as mere T&A exploitation by idiots.

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic has been the discovery of vintage programming on daytime TV. While I’ve worked from home for years, it is something of a novelty for Mrs Reprobate, and the new flexibility of our lives means that we can not only rise at a more civilised hour but also enjoy a leisurely breakfast and then get to work while assorted slices of throwaway comfort TV play out on channels like Sony TV, ITV4 and Sky Arts. it all feels inherently civilised, and at risk of once again being accused of conspiring to put hard-working shoe manufacturers out of a job, I hope it can continue beyond the current unpleasantness.

One of our regular morning shows is Charlie’s Angels, which is inherently empty and disposable, and so just the thing to have on as a background distraction. Oddly, Charlie’s Angels passed me by when it was originally broadcast, possibly because I hadn’t quite reached the age where the eye-candy of three attractive female detectives would have made me sit up and pay attention. Of course, I was aware of it – how could you not be at the time, when the iconic Farrah Fawcett poster was everywhere? That single photograph might well be the defining image of the decade.

Over the years, I became aware of the term ‘jiggle TV’ that was usually – but not exclusively – attached to Charlie’s Angels. I had an idea what the phrase meant, but watching the re-runs I found it ever more baffling as a concept. Certainly, the show wastes no time in putting its detectives in a variety of costumes as they go undercover, often for no good reason and with no sense of conviction – I nearly spat out my coffee watching Kate Jackson attempting to pass herself off as a tough Mafiosi cookie the other day. But the inference that comes with the term ‘jiggle TV’ is one of sexual exploitation and gratuitous displays of flesh; and indeed, looking the term up, that is exactly what it referenced. The term was coined by NBC executive Paul Klein to dismiss rival broadcaster ABC’s shows like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman as ‘porn’.

Now, corporate rivalry can result in some wild hyperbole, but you have to wonder just how uptight you’d need to be to think of either of these shows as porn. And how inherently prudish – or possibly dirty-minded – you must be to think that (to quote Wikipedia) these shows focused on “female television celebrities moving in loose clothing or underwear in a way in which their breasts or buttocks could be seen to move, or ‘jiggle'”. It’s a claim I remember hearing for years about Charlie’s Angels – the idea that it was nothing but sexy women running around in hot pants and tops with no bras. Even Farrah Fawcett got in on the claims, stating in an interview “when the show was number three, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.”

Well, memory can be a bit of a trickster. I’ve paid very, very close attention to Charlie’s Angels in the last few weeks and the levels of braless jiggling on display are essentially non-existent. Maybe it was just in the first season. Similarly, the claims that the girls were made to go undercover as bikini babes or lingerie models every other week also seem exaggerated, to say the least. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking. Certainly, the Angels wear a variety of outfits in increasingly unlikely scenarios as the show progresses, but then the same could be said of Starsky and Hutch (shown straight afterwards), who went from tough New York cops in the Dirty Harry mould to posing undercover as hairdressers, movie stars and god knows what else in an effort to tone down the gritty violence and give the show a lighter feel. Now, Charlie’s Angels was made in the 1970s and features Seventies fashions and trends – just this morning, we’ve watched the Angels undercover in the world’s most downmarket disco, when a bargain-basement John Travolta clone works his magic – so of course, some of the clothing is fashionable, flouncy, bouncy and figure-hugging. But the camera doesn’t leer or linger; the women are not remotely sexualised. If you found this pornographically provocative, I can only imagine that merely walking down the street in the mid-1970s must have driven you to distraction.

So what was this about? Why did the idea of ‘jiggle TV’ take hold and override what was actually on screen? Partly, it is down to the inherent prudishness of America in general and American TV in particular. While nudity was commonplace on TV in the rest of the world, it was still forbidden on network TV in America. Prudish cultures tend to see sex everywhere. Young women are seen as temptresses by their very nature, and no matter how they dress, someone will find it outrageously provocative – a woman can never be covered up enough to prevent frustrated men from declaring whatever remains visible as obscene. To dismiss the natural movement of a woman’s body as ‘jiggling’ – with the inference of it being a deliberate sexual provocation on her part – seems a sign of puritanical loathing and, perhaps, a bitterness that these liberated young women will never want anything to do with the bitter old men who think that way. I suspect that many a hate-wank was cranked out over these shows by angry misogynists.

More than this, though, the whole idea of ‘jiggle TV’ – the immediate dismissiveness of the phrase, suggesting that this is the lowest rung of the cultural ladder – feels like a desperate reaction to a series of shows that featured strong, independent and liberated female characters in the lead roles. Look at the shows that were written off as mere T&A – Police Woman, The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman… you see the connection? Here were women as leads of action-adventure shows, taking on the boys at their own game. No wonder so many people wanted to denigrate them. None of these shows presented their female characters as sexual objects – quite the opposite, in fact. And for the little girls (and grown women) who watched these shows, the characters were role models and aspirational figures – tough, capable, stylish and sexy. Young boys always had male TV stars to look up and want to be; it seemed only fair that girls should have the same.

Obviously, if you were Paul Klein, then that probably all felt rather threatening. But the legacy of these shows and these characters – with their message that you could be more than just the housewife, the secretary or even the glamorous assistant – speaks for itself. These shows helped make the roles for women on television more varied, gave girls kick-ass heroes to admire and relate to, and fed into an audience need without ever labouring the point – And that is why they were popular. To dismiss them as simply ‘jiggle TV’ is to try to undermine all that; to reduce them to mere T&A shows that were aimed at a lecherous male audience who only watched to see bouncing boobs makes them easy to dismiss – which is presumably why so many many critics of the time – and, for that matter, so many critics even now – were happy to buy into it.

I won’t pretend that any of these shows are great art. But then, neither was Starsky and Hutch, Kojak or any other formulaic action-adventure show of the era. There are countless reasons why we can scoff at these series, but to suggest that they are mere ‘jiggle TV’ insults the intelligence of the viewers and the efforts made by the people involved – producers, actors or whoever – to try to make female-led shows that went beyond the stereotypes of the time and pave the way for generations to come. Forget the purse-lipped finger waggers and enjoy these entertaining shows for what they are, not what some humourless prig wants them to be.

DAVID FLINT

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