I honestly didn’t expect to, but I really liked the new movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into The Woods. I had thought Disney would wreck the darkness of the musical and I doubted all the big name stars had the pipes to do justice to Sondheim’s music.
I was pleased to find out I was, for the most part, wrong.
Into the Woods takes us on an emotional journey through interwoven stories. It complicates our familiar fairy tale tropes and narratives, refusing to treat any main character as wholly good or evil (As Cinderella sings to Little Red Riding Hood near the end, “Witches can be right/Giants can be good/You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.”).
Reworking fairy tales is something feminist writers, artists and theorists have been doing for over three decades. Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, Tanith Lee and many more have challenged the gender roles in fairy tales, calling into question fantasy worlds where women are passive victims unless they are evil, where the heroes are always men, and where the endings are happily, heterosexually ever after.
Tina Wargo at Hello Giggles calls Into The Woods “a fiercely feminist musical,” and at Ms., Natalie Wilson argues Into the Woods “should please feminist lovers of musicals” because Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine) don’t end up together at the end.
But I can’t agree. As much as I enjoyed the film, Into The Woods is far from a feminist work.
The secondary female characters are clearly problematic. While none of the main characters are wholly good or evil, there are one-dimensional villains in this movie, and they are women. You have the classic wicked stepmother and stepsisters, who are abusive and vain, with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. And despite the “giants can be good” line in Cinderella’s song, the giantess who descends from the second beanstalk to hunt Jack is only out for revenge for her husband’s death, and is willing to destroy countless innocent people who get in her way.
Yes, the main heroines are active and complex, and that’s awesome. From the headstrong Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) to Meryl Streep’s Witch, the main female characters are whole beings with passions, insecurities, goals, willpower, doubts and dreams.
But several of them still fall into gender traps. Rapunzel still ends up with her Prince. Little Red is still saved by a man. The Witch’s major goal is to regain her youth and beauty. Yes, Cinderella chooses not to be with her Prince at the end, but she does end going to live with The Baker, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, saying: “I’ll gladly help you with your house. There are times I actually enjoy cleaning.” It’s a joke but one that’s hard to see as funny when it seems her choice was really limited to staying with her vapid, unfaithful prince, or cleaning house for someone.
There are also feminist critiques I hadn’t considered. For example, at The Feminist Spectator, Stacy Wolf summarizes sociological analysis on gender and Into The Woods, undertaken by Katie Welsh when she was a Princeton student. Welsh puts the musical in context, noting it premiered in the 1980s:
Welsh argues that Into the Woods figures Jack’s mother and the Witch as bad single mothers, a topic frequently parsed in newspapers and magazines at the time (remember Murphy Brown?). Welsh reads Jack as a juvenile delinquent who breaks into the giant’s house and steals things, and Rapunzel as a bad teenager who runs off with her Prince against her mother’s wishes, all in line with contemporary pop culture articles that blamed single mothers for children’s irresponsible and illegal actions.
Perhaps the part of Into The Woods most hotly debated is the death of The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). The Baker’s Wife is an amazing character, who repeatedly shows her determination and intelligence helping her husband break their curse, even though he insists he can do it on his own. Later, after she has given birth to her long-wished for baby, she runs into Cinderella’s Prince and they…well they basically make out.
This causes The Baker’s Wife to reevaluate her desires, considering whether she should have to choose either/or or whether she can have something more real, more complicated:
Why not both instead?
There’s the answer, if you’re clever:
Have a child for warmth,
And a Baker for bread,
And a Prince for whatever…
And then, shortly after, she’s killed off. Wilson argues you can read her death as “metaphorical release from the dictates of a too strict society.” But if that were the case they definitely could’ve done a better job visually representing that, rather than just showing Blunt falling out of the picture.
I’m among those who think the timing makes it really hard not to see her death as punishment for her moment with a man who’s not her husband, a typical horror movie trope.
At LA Weekly, Eve Weston reports on asking James Lapine about his intent in this scene. “It’s hard to ignore the fact that the person who dies just because happens to be the married woman who just had an affair,” she points out. Lapine, apparently, said she needed to die because realism demanded it. It certainly didn’t sound like he and Sondheim were judging The Baker’s Wife for adultery, but nor did it seem they were intending her death to be positive for her character.
Lapine said my inquiring wasn’t the first time he’s been asked the question — and that it’s always women who interpret the show that way. That isn’t surprising. I can’t say whether men would feel the same way if it were a man that got trampled after committing adultery. Although, if an adulterous man getting trampled by a giant were a plot point in a show written by a woman, I’d imagine someone would ask about it. “How come women only write this man-hating feminist shlock?!”
But I think we can find more rationale for her death looking at the aftermath. What purpose did it serve, other than “realism”?
Simply put, The Baker’s Wife gets fridged, that is, she’s killed off in order to further a male character’s storyline. It is her death that forces her husband to really grapple with his feelings about his father and fully embrace his role as a father himself. He then comes up with the plan that they use to defeat the giantess, and he and Jack actively bring her down while the girls on the ground – Cinderella and Little Red – do little more than point the giantess in Jack’s direction.
So if you like musicals and creative retellings of fairy tales, absolutely go see Into The Woods. Absolutely enjoy it. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s revolutionary in its treatment of gender roles.