We have a new Hollywood Chris in town, and her name is Kristen Stewart.
Traditionally, the Hollywood Chrises comprise the Chrises Evans, Pine, Hemsworth, and Pratt: a perfect Ken doll quartet of white male blond and blue-eyed action stars named Chris. But with Charlie’s Angels, out this Friday, Kristen Stewart makes a powerful argument that she belongs in their midst.
I do not make the suggestion that we add a new Hollywood Chris to the canon lightly. Contrarians are always trying to petition for Chrises who aren’t blond and blue-eyed white dudes, like the Chrises Messina, Waltz, Rock, and Baranski. But the canonical four share a certain essential Chris-ness that is hard to match.
For one cannot become a Hollywood Chris merely by being named Chris and working in Hollywood. No, there is something aspirational in the idea of the Hollywood Chris, a pure and wholesome soft jock ideal that makes being a Hollywood Chris a status that must be earned. As Kate McKinnon put it on SNL in 2017: “You’re all white guys, you’re all named Chris, and you’re all kind of scruffy and squinty and jacked, but in a sweet way.”
Chris Evans wearing a nametag that says “Chris” to his high school reunion? Earnest, a little self-deprecating, extremely pure: a highly Chris move. Chris Pine using a flip phone? Strong dad vibes, very Chris. Pointedly positioning oneself as a non-nice guy capable of playing villains, as Chris Messina has been doing lately? A true Hollywood Chris would never: No matter how many onscreen villains he might play, his offscreen vibes would remain squeaky clean.
It’s for that reason that people are always threatening darkly to remove Chris Pratt, rumored Trump supporter, from his place in the quartet. There’s a sense that he might not be quite as wholesome in private as that press tour where he French braided a girl’s hair on camera led us all to believe, and thus, he is no true Chris.
In Charlie’s Angels, Kristen Stewart proves that where Pratt is falling, she is ascendent. Kristen Stewart has that essential Chris-ness by the bucket-full. She has finally come into her full powers as a Hollywood Chris — nay, a Hollywood Kris. And in the process, she’s queering our understanding of the poles of Hollywood masculinity and femininity.
In Charlie’s Angels, Kristen Stewart makes it clear that the ditz and the Chris are two sides of the same coin
I want to be clear: When I say that Kristen Stewart is performing Chris-ness in the new Charlie’s Angels, I don’t just mean that she’s also blond now (although she is), or that she’s also in an action movie (although she is). I mean that she’s performing the sweet and earnest jock persona that is at the heart of the Hollywood Chris ideal, and she is making it genderqueer.
Stewart’s character in the movie is Sabina, the kind of earnestly nice superspy who will die to protect her friends but always fumbles her way through her quippy punchlines. She gets distracted during one stakeout because she’s looking at cute dog pictures, and then again during another because she’s checking out a girl. In another movie, she’d be the blond ditz to co-star Ella Balinska’s sleek badass — the Cameron Diaz to Balinska’s Lucy Liu — but Stewart plays Sabina as too butch for her to read as a ditz the way her Angelic forebears did. She’s all leather jackets and short bangs, not crop tops and feathered hair.
Instead, Sabina reads as a superhumanly athletic and powerful spy with the heart of a loveable golden retriever, an overwhelmingly sweet jock. With just a touch of performed masculinity, the ditz becomes a Chris.
And the idea that the ditz and the Chris are two sides of the same gendered coin is built into the structure of this new Charlie’s Angels iteration. The movie opens on Sabina seducing a mark into complacency while she’s in high femme mode; her hair is long and blond and wavy, her nails are pink, her dress is tiny, and her eyelashes bat constantly.
We know what to expect when we’re given a scene like this one in a Charlie’s Angels movie. Clearly, Sabina is doing that classic Charlie’s Angels thing where an Angel dresses up for the male gaze for Purposes of Her Own, and she will eventually reveal herself to be hiding some surprising competence under her apparent ditziness, just the way Cameron Diaz did in the 2000 Charlie’s Angels. It’s a beloved trope because it allows the audience the pleasure of watching a pretty woman in a sexy outfit, while also allowing us to feel smug for recognizing that we are watching her for the correct reasons, unlike the mark, who is watching her for the wrong reasons.
But as the scene goes on, Stewart keeps gently undercutting the idea that she is there to be gazed at, or that the poles she’s operating between are the traditionally feminine extremes of ditz/ice cold badass.
First, she gives us more than a hint that she’s interested in doing some gazing of her own, and that her gaze will be queer. There’s a moment where her mark tells her to picture a woman with power tools or a woman driving a taxi (because just because women can do anything doesn’t mean that they should), and the camera holds her face in extreme closeup as her eyes go wide. Sabina’s expression can read as amusement at the idea that she’s supposed to be scandalized, or anger at her mark — but it can also read as lust at the idea of these butch women.
And after a fight breaks out as expected and a triumphant Sabina subdues her mark and whips off her wig, she reveals hair that is much too short to flip instead of doing the classic Charlie’s Angels hair toss. And as she drops the character voice she’s been doing, Sabina’s posture slides and slouches into a stance that’s a little more relaxed, a little more bro-y than anything we’d normally expect from the ditz.
The camera doesn’t linger on these details, and they’re not the point of the scene. (The big punchline comes when Ella Balinska’s badass Jane, fed up with Sabina’s admonitions that Jane should have more fun, shoves Sabina off a roof.) But this rapid reversal from ditz to bro — from a Cameron to a Chris — underlies everything else Sabina does over the course of the film.
Traditionally, the ditzy high femme superspy is a post-feminist “have your cake and eat it too” trope. On the one hand, the ditzy spy shows us that femininity can be a powerful weapon, and that there is no shame in soft power. But on the other hand, there’s always been a sense in which the ditzy spy seems to quell our fears of powerful women. The ditz is allowed to be incredibly competent because she’s still conventionally feminine, and her femininity makes her competence unthreatening.
No such contradiction underlies the Chris. Chrises are highly competent and also a little bit sweetly dorky, occasionally even dim in a puppyish way, but their dimness never undercuts their heroism, their aspirational masculinity. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor can completely fail to understand how to order a coffee refill at a diner and still be a godlike hero. Chris Evans’s Captain America can get nerdily excited over finally understanding a pop culture reference and still break a log in half with his bare hands.
When Cameron Diaz does a silly dance in the 2001 Charlie’s Angels, she wins her fight in spite of it. When Chris Pratt does a silly dance in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, he wins his fight because of it. Diaz is allowed to win in spite of her relatable silliness; he is able to win because of his.
By switching seamlessly from a ditz to a Chris, Sabina — or rather, Kristen Stewart — is able to take for her own the mantle of competence that Chrises are assumed to wear by birthright. She is able to be a heroic figure because of her golden retriever-ish sweetness and her over-enthusiasms, not in spite of them. She genderqueers the Chris paradigm, and for that reason, Kristen Stewart is truly the Hollywood Chris we need in 2019.