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.
- Rent – Probably the most obvious choice for this list. This rock opera about a group of bohemian friends in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s living under the shadow of HIV/AIDS tackles classism. It’s songs, especially La Vie Boheme, are hymns to openness and freedom of expression, including sexual and gender expression.
- The Color Purple - Based on the Alice Walker novel, the musical of The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a woman who endures years of suffering but eventually finds her voice.
- The Sound of Music – Okay, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say, as cheezy as it is, The Sound of Music was pretty darn feminist for its time (it first opened in 1959). You’ve got a strong heroine in the lead role. Maria never compromises on being herself. You’ve also got nuns outsmarting the Nazis, which is pretty cool too.
- Avenue Q – Avenue Q is a musical about puppets living in an apartment on the poor side of Alphabet City. They swear and have sex and sing about racism, struggling to find a purpose, and coming out as gay. It’s a really irreverent show and it could be argued some of the satire might go over people’s heads but I think it’s accessible and feminist.
- In the Heights – In the Heights combines hiphop and Latin music styles with more traditional musical theatre, to movingly tell the story of a Latino immigrant community in Washington Heights. While the main character is a man, the community and the families who live there are held together by strong women, including the matriarch Abuela Claudia, Mrs. Rosario, and Danielle the salon owner. While it doesn’t challenge traditional gender narratives per se, it does a good job of bringing in racial analysis.
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.
- Miss Saigon – Sure, the songs are catchy and occasionally beautiful but the story drives me crazy. Ostensibly it’s opposed to the Vietnam War, but the main character of Kim just comes across as a victim and the story is filled with colonialist overtones that equate Vietnam with Kim’s violated femininity.
- Nine – Nine revolves around a film director in Italy in the 1960s who is going through a a midlife crisis and reliving his past romances. You may be more familiar with the recent terrible movie adaptation starring Daniel Day Lewis. The women in Nine are fantasy images of the narcissistic director’s: not entirely real and pretty much devoid of agency.
- Oklahoma – I know Oklahoma is supposed to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, but I find it anti-feminist in addition to being drawn-out and convoluted. The plot is basically about which guy is going to take the girl to the dance and she keeps vascillating back and forth with stereotyped feminine indecisiveness. The competition between the two men is also fairly ridiculous, with both of them wagering their livelihoods at one point on an auction of her basket lunch. I’d write both of them off at that point, but apparently the girl finds this heroic and after a really long ballet interlude and some seemingly random gunfire, all is ok in OK.
- Sweet Charity – Sweet Charity has a lot of great songs and an interesting heroine. But it’s a pretty typical tragic “hooker with a heart of gold” storyline. Charity is a dance hall hostess who falls in love with accountant Oscar, who is ultimately unable to love her back because of her profession. In the closing scenes Oscar actually pushes her into the lake and runs away. If there were some deeper analysis of the stigma of female sexuality and sex work, Sweet Charity could be feminist, but there really isn’t.
- Grease – I’m sure I don’t have to explain the plot of this one to you. Suffice it to say the main message seems to be that changing yourself to get a guy will probably work.
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!