A Feminist Guide to Broadway Musicals

by | November 12, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a huge musical theatre nerd. On Wednesday I picked up a copy of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat and it got me thinking about musicals and feminism. What musicals are more feminist than others?

For the purposes of this highly unscientific analysis, musicals I’m deeming more feminist had strong female characters and challenged prevailing narratives about gender, race, and/or sexuality. Musicals I’m considering less feminist reinforced the idea of women as passive and submissive, and/or had racist or homophobic elements.

The Best Feminist Musicals

Some Really Un-Feminist Musicals

I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy the following musicals, just that we should seriously consider their underlying messages.

I’ll leave it there for now but if you have any thoughts/opinions on this I’d love to read about them in the comments section!

-Jarrah


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  • jarrahpenguin

    Readers on Facebook pointed out a couple more to add to the sexist list: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Kiss Me Kate. More examples? Post them here!

  • Chelsea

    How about Billy Elliot? It may not be terribly female-centered, but it deals with issues of femininity and masculinity, classism, being gay in a small town, and even domestic abuse. It is pretty new as a musical, but it is absolutely amazing.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Good call, Chelsea. Another one I’d add to that list is Hairspray, for its promotion of positive body image and racial equality.

  • Theresa

    Actually, the Trevor Nunn production of “Oklahoma!” (starring Hugh Jackman) has a much more balanced message. Jud is a porn addict, Laurey wears overalls, and Aunt Eller is positively badass.

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  • Elisa

    I’d also add Ragtime to the list. The character of Mother, starts out as a submissive turn of the century wife but really comes into her own in the course of the musical, especially in “Back to Before”.
    In addition it also deals with the complex race relations in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century

  • S

    Carousel has to be my number one pick for anti-feminist. The “it’s alright if he hits you as long as you love him” theme is definitely not something I enjoyed playing up when I did the show. I don’t mean to run over the show’s many merits, but that did it for me.

  • Micah Patt

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’m writing a research project on Feminism on Broadway for school and this may be one of the only things I have found that is actually useful! Thanks! (I’m a Broadway nerd too)

  • Annie Joy Wilde

    Little late in the game to be commenting on this article, but I have to say, the brainless Christine who falls for the romanticized pervert and sociopath in his 50s in The Phantom Of The Opera begs to add that particular musical to the anti-feminist list. Sure, enjoying the music is fine, but if young girls are watching this make sure you warn them not to think anything about the story “romantic” or okay.

    • Thanks Annie! That’s a great point. And there’s no third option for her – it’s either does she end up with the good guy or the bad guy?

  • Amelia

    I think Legally Blonde could be added to the feminist list. And now that it’s out, Waitress, most definitely Waitress.

  • Jem

    Here’s the thing about Grease. Its original concept was as a PARODY of musicals where the girl changes for the guy. It’s why the lyrics are so blatantly sexual. The movie completely obliterated that and played it straight, and high schools have been following suit ever since.