Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Broadway Feminist Fake-Outs

Okay, so I'm a fan of musicals, but one of the issues I run into as a feminist is that... feminism is hard in musical format. Apparently. One of the most perplexing things I have run into is the musical number I like to call "Broadway Feminist Fake-Outs." This is a musical number performed by a main female character that is usually about her being independent or asserting some sort of control over her life. So as a standalone number, it's usually great. However, it usually has the psychological overlay of well but she actually wants this opposite thing. Here are a few examples:

"Many a New Day" from Oklahoma! In this number, Laurey, who's been hot&cold to Curly forever, sees him with another (annoying) girl and is jealous. To save face in front of her friends (who are all unnamed, Ado Annie is not in this scene) she sings this song about how many a new day will dawn before she lets herself go to pieces over a dude. Because she's better than that. The first time I heard this song I was like, "Yeah, good for you, Laurey!" But in the scene immediately after this she freaks out at Curly and his annoying stalker and immediately reverts back to ... everything in the song she said she wasn't going to do.

Like "Many a New Day," South Pacific's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" serves one purpose: show that Nellie is mad. She's so mad at Emile! Raaah! So mad that she can get a whole bunch of girls riled up about getting the runaround from various manfriends... except in the next scene Emile returns and Nellie agrees to marry him. Not kidding. Next scene. (She gets mad at him again and breaks it off, but it's a musical so by the end of it they get married.)

Anita Sarkeesian of "The Feminist Frequency" recently put up a new video for her tropes series on "The Straw Feminist," and the mother in Mary Poppins is a perfect example. Anyone who's read the book and seen the movie knows that there are a lot of differences, and one of them is that in the book, the parents were just like, bad parents. In the movie, the Mrs. Banks was changed so that she was a suffragette, because producers thought that there had to be some logical reason why she wasn't in the house to take care of her children. It's probably no coincidence that the movie's 1964 release coincided with the beginning of second-wave American feminism, and movies in the 60s often had these anti-feminist propaganda messages (see: The Ballad of Josie.) Mrs. Banks is is Straw Feminist because she's so over the top that it's hard to identify with her flighty-get-arrested-ways. And eventually sees the error of her ways and pledges to spend more time with her family. Thanks, Mary Poppins!

Okay, so the dialogue is dubbed in Spanish but this is youtube, people. Anyway, in the "Sandra Dee" reprise, Sandy realizes that she needs to be a little less "wholesome" (fine) and "start anew" (okay!). But then... she changes her entire wardrobe/personality for Danny. (What!?) And then she and Danny fly away in a car. Oh, my god!

These are all songs I like (and know all the words to), and musicals I enjoy, but I think we should be aware of the poopy aspects. And these are characters who at least have a song about asserting their independence! Most female characters in musicals just get duets and then some ballad about being in love or brokenhearted! The blog Gender Focus has a great list of actually feminist Broadway musicals, so venture there if you're feeling particularly annoyed with your options. As noted in last week's episode of Glee, the fact that there aren't a lot of options for gay leading characters doesn't mean there won't be in the future. More progressive female characters are coming in movies, and they will come in musicals as well. We'll be ready.


  1. I was trying to find an in-depth feminist analysis of South Pacific's portrayal of Nellie. Not finding much out there, but I appreciate your commentary on some of these musicals. I really liked Mrs. Banks when I was a kid...her wackiness. But I agree: why do family life and suffrage/feminism have to be incompatible?! Thanks!

  2. You have a point about a lot of these, but I will point out that Grease also has the number "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" that Rizzo sings when she thinks she's pregnant. That song is - if not feminist - then certainly an unusual, non-slut-shaming, take on that situation.