Farrah Fawcett died today. I’m extremely sad at the news, which kind of surprises me. I don’t normally pay much attention to the lives of celebrities. But the story of Farrah Fawcett captivated me and I wasn’t exactly sure why until I wrote this piece. It may seem like a stretch to be posting about the women’s movement in Iran one day and the death of Farrah Fawcett the next, but bear with me. There’s a connection.
Her ravaged face has haunted me since watching the NBC special, Farrah’s Story, last month documenting her journey with anal cancer. Her story also captivated a sizeable audience, as 9 million people tuned in to watch what started out as a video diary about her cancer treatment and ended up documenting her dying process.
Something about her story wouldn’t leave me alone. I had to investigate what was wanting to come through into consciousness through her journey.
I went to You Tube to review her film archives. Fawcett appeared in 44 films, won three Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe nomination, and other film and off-Broadway acclaim. While mostly remembered for her role as one of the Charlie’s Angels, she was only on the show for a single season.
But somewhere in the back of my mind was embedded an image of her in the TV movie, The Burning Bed, the film that established her as a serious actor. This woman was more than just another pretty Hollywood face!
Maybe that’s what fascinated us about her. She was extraordinarily beautiful, some calling her “the most beautiful woman who ever walked the face of the earth”. But her beauty didn’t stop at her skin. This woman had an inner beauty that defied language. Maybe “angel” is as good a word as any.
She exuded sex appeal, yet managed to maintain a kind of shiny innocence, the classic Madonna/Whore archetype. Despite the famous “red swimsuit” poster, which sold 12 million copies and made her the classic pin-up girl for the 80’s, her angelic nature came shining through that fatal smile.
But it’s not that fatal smile that’s etched in my memory. Seeing her face as she approached her death, I see again the faces of the characters she played in the movies Burning Bed, Extremities and Small Sacrifices.
In each film, Fawcett portrayed the stories of real-life women who were victims of domestic violence, rape or a brutal murderer of her own children. These roles were far from the kind of “puff” role she played in Charlie’s Angels. These were real women whose lives were torn apart and subjected to brutal scrutiny by an existing system of laws that was unsympathetic to women’s rights.
The Burning Bed brought national attention to issues of domestic violence and was the first television movie to provide an 800 number for women seeking help from domestic abuse. The face of the battered woman had a national champion in Fawcett, whose own face came to resemble the character she played in the movie.
Her life imitated her art
What haunts me about her story is how much her own life imitated her art. In many ways, Farrah’s personal story merged with those of the characters she portrayed.
In 1983, while performing in an off-Broadway production of Extremities, she was accosted on stage by a crazed fan, which managed to slip past the bodyguards, clutching what appeared to be a lead pipe. He and Fawcett stood face to face in front of the audience. She bravely attempted to go on with the show (just as she went on with the show documenting her cancer) but became visibly shaken when he began yelling, “I love you, I love you, and I’ve been looking for you”.
Her co-star and the show’s producer got the man off stage, but he managed to escape their grip and fled the theater. He was later found outside and was only charged with disorderly conduct due to technicalities in the law. The “lead pipe” was merely paper rolled up and painted silver. He had purchased a ticket so couldn’t be charged with trespassing.
Farrah was not protected; she was accosted in public, with no consequences to the male. Reminiscent of the role she was portraying on stage at the time of the attack, the humiliated, brutalized woman as well as physical abuse she suffered at the hands of a boyfriend earlier in her life.
Farrah hoped to use her battle with cancer as a source of inspiration for others.
“I’m holding onto the hope that there is some reason that I got cancer that may not be very clear to me now, that I will do.”
“Today I have cancer, but on the other hand, I’m alive. Right now I am great. My life goes on and so does my fight.”
As Farrah lay dying, humiliation and controversy surrounded her. Even the location of her cancer, now known as Farrah’s Cancer, is thought to be a source of humiliation, given its association with the sexually transmitted HPV infection, multiple sexual partners, anal sex and HIV.
Farrah’s Last Request
Even as she approached her death, Fawcett waged a campaign in the California legislature for passage of Farrah’s Law, proposed legislation intended to make it illegal for anyone to leak private medical information to the media with or without compensation. This legislation came about as a result of a breach of her privacy by an employee at the UCLA Medical Center where Fawcett received cancer treatments.
“As much as I would have liked to have kept my cancer private, I now realize that I have a certain responsibility to those who are fighting their own fights and may be able to benefit from learning about mine.”
All this leaves me so sad for this woman who smiled her way into our hearts, but also held up a mirror for society to see some of its darker aspects. I pray that her soul now finds peace.
Here’s the major take-away for me: Farrah turned the camera on herself and transformed humiliation into humility. Her willingness to be transparent with her courageous battle with cancer turned her into a powerful source of inspiration for others.
And perhaps now you can see the connection between Farrah’s story and the story of the women of Iran. Iranian women have suffered unspeakable abuse and oppression at the hands of the male-dominated Islamic regime. Their lives have been The Burning Beds, and like Farrah’s characters, they’re now fighting back. They’ve turned decades of intimidation into inspiration for themselves and the rest of the world.
May the courageous spirit of Farrah Fawcett now live on in the hearts of our Iranian sisters as they continue their struggle for justice and equality.