Feminist icons from classic musicals

// 20 January 2012

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I’m a musicals geek. If you are too, this post will probably tell you nothing you don’t already know. But if not, I would like to present four examples of interesting, funny and – in my opinion – feminist portrayals of women in musicals. Disclaimer: I tend to focus on things I like rather than things I don’t, so the following list is very much the positive aspects of the musicals I’m discussing, of which there are also problematic aspects (e.g. the character of likeable-yet-dowdy Lucy in On the Town).

Calamity Jane

Doris Day stars as the titular cowgirl, one of the guys, who is persuaded to try wearing a dress and tidy her house up, winning her a man. Horribly conventional? It’s a lot less so than it sounds. At the end of the film she’s still exactly the same person as she was at the start: straight-shooting, rough, utterly self-sufficient. She’s just added dress-wearing and house-tidying to her list of skills. In addition, the person who persuades her to change (some of) her ways is her new friend the showgirl Katie, and the relationship between the two is startlingly – well, romantic. An overtly lesbian remake is very much called for.

On the Town

Three sailors spend 24 hours in New York and each find a girl. But in fact, in two out of the three cases, the girl finds them – and the two girls in question are a paleontologist and a taxi driver. (Sailor: “Why are you still driving a cab? The war’s over.” Brunhilde, flirtatiously: “I never give up anything I like.”) The three female leads all get stories and backstories (unlike the sailors); they all get songs, and they talk to each other. I like to think that after the sailors have departed, they all stay friends. And they save the day, too, talking the cops out of arresting their boys.

My favourite performance from On the Town, incidentally, isn’t in the film at all. It’s the fantastic jazz singer/comedian Lea deLaria singing “I Can Cook, Too” from the stage version:

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Showgirls Lorelei and Dorothy (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell) go on a cruise so Lorelei can marry a millionaire. This is one of my favourite portrayals of female friendship: the affectionate, mutually mocking relationship between the two leads is really the core of the film, with the men orbiting around them. Dorothy lusts after the swim team and falls for a detective; Lorelei pursues a diamond tiara but is genuinely fond of the shy millionaire she’s travelling to marry. Stranded in Paris with no money, they become stars of the show all over again. Yes, the film ends with both of them getting married, but I suspect both husbands are looking at a lifetime of minding the kids while the girls put on fabulous outfits and hit the town.

Easter Parade

Abandoned by his former dance partner, Don (Fred Astaire) drunkenly enlists Hannah (Judy Garland) as her replacement to prove that he can turn anyone into his sidekick; in the end, though, it’s she who changes him. The story is mainly told from Hannah’s viewpoint, allowing us to wince as she tries to be the graceful, feminine dancer Don thinks he wants, and ends up making him realise he’s the one limiting them both. After the standard misunderstandings, she solves things by sending Don flowers and turning up to take him out on a date, in a direct role reversal of the usual romantic ending. She gets the final song, too: Easter Parade, of course.

I love one early scene especially. Don, wondering if Hannah is beautiful enough to attract the punters, tells her to walk in front of him so he can see if men turn to look at her on the street. They do, and he’s satisfied. But we can see that the reason she’s getting those smiles from the men is that she’s pulling a silly face at them. It’s a perfect way to make fun of simplistic male expectations of what women should be, and look, like. It’s also, by the way, ideal ammunition for anyone who wants to rebut the allegation that women aren’t funny.

The scene illustrates for me why musicals are often so great at strong female leads. Musicals thrive on eccentric, flamboyant and funny characters, which benefits the women as well as the men. And because all the leads will be given a song, and therefore a voice, the female lead isn’t likely to be passive or mysterious. She isn’t over there being gazed at; she’s up close, telling you how she feels, and quite possibly making you laugh at the same time. It’s very refreshing.

Public domain movie trailer screen shot from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes adapted by Rossrs, shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Harriet // Posted 20 January 2012 at 4:10 pm

I too am a HUGE musicals geek, although to be honest more of a fan of the modern stuff. So to extent this a little –

Wicked: Glinda, the Good Witch and the Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, are old school friends. When Elphaba is targeted by the government for campaigning to protect a marginalised group in society (in this case, talking animals), the two women hatch a cunning plan (the fake story of Elphaba’s death) so that she can escape persecution. The male love interest starts off with Glinda but ends up with Elphaba, and while Glinda’s pretty upset about it for a while they talk it out and decide their friendship is too important to lose over some man.

Sister Act – the musical has managed to be more woman-positive than I ever remember the film coming across. The ending, when all the nuns club together to face off the big bad men with guns, feels great. And as Deloris sings:

I’ve got my sisters by my side.

I’ve got my sisters’ love and pride.

And in my sisters’ eyes

I recognize the star I want to be.

And with my sisters standing strong,

I’m on the stage where I belong.

And nothing’s ever gonna change that fact.

I’m part of one terrific sister act.

I’ll have my sisters with me still,

I’ll have my sisters, always will.

And with my sisters’ love,

no star above will shine as

bright as me.

And as a sister and a friend,

I’ll be a sister ‘til the end,

and no one on this earth can

change that fact –

I’m part of one terrific sister act.

And Mama-Mia, fabulous 50 something women still dressing up (in ridiculously fabulous outfits) and singing to crowds of screaming younger women, no one judging Donna for sleeping with three men in as many weeks when she got pregnant, the wonderful mother-daughter dynamics of Donna and Sophie – love it.

Not a Bechel test failure in sight….

Laura // Posted 20 January 2012 at 5:22 pm

These all sound great! I’ve been thinking I should watch more old films, so I’ll bunk these to the top of my list :)

gadgetgal // Posted 20 January 2012 at 6:57 pm

Whenever I think of feminists in musicals I think of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins and her song “Sister Suffragette” – her role doesn’t start out all that feminist (when the song finishes and she realises her husband is on his way home she asks the maid to put the suffragette sashes away as “you know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks”), but by the end of the film she gets the sashes out to attach to the children’s kites saying “a proper kite needs a proper tail” and the family all go to fly them together in the park – always makes me smile! :)

S // Posted 20 January 2012 at 7:38 pm

I have to throw in Matilda, the Musical!

Of course it’s based on the book but it’s still brilliant!

A range of different women, good and bad, and Matilda is always my favourite – brains and imagination beating the beastly Trunchbull! Haha.

And I certainly second Mamma Mia!

Justine Ossum // Posted 20 January 2012 at 11:19 pm

OMG! I bought this CD in Fopp years ago, Music For A Bachelorette’s Pad, and Lea deLaria is featured. I had no idea she’s contemporary. *buys all the albums*

JoJo // Posted 21 January 2012 at 12:06 pm

absolutely love this article. Totally agree with the Gentleman prefer blondes!! xx

Laurel // Posted 21 January 2012 at 5:15 pm

Hrm, about Matilda, I always see Ms Trunchball as what people think feminists are like. She’s “masculine”, strong, into sports, against marriage, and not into children, contrasted with the sweet, effeminate and naieve, caring and child-loving Miss Honey. I do like the film though. I actually feel for her mother in a lot of ways…

Ms. Sunlight // Posted 22 January 2012 at 12:06 pm

My all-time favourite film musical is Gold Diggers of 1933. As well as having spectacular Busby Berkeley-choreagraphed production numbers, it’s cheeky and clever and it passes the Bechdel test and then some with multiple strong female leads. Most wonderfully, it’s explicitly about female solidarity in the face of hardship and about subverting the negative stereotypes men have about women. I love that film, I re-watch it every year.

Plus, it opens with Ginger Rogers in a dress made of coins singing We’re In The Money – what more could you ask for?

Kate // Posted 24 January 2012 at 11:33 am

Totally agree about Golddiggers of 1933! Love Mamma Mia too (I span all styles and decades of musicals).

Musicals I wanted to mention in the post included My Fair Lady, Gigi, Cabaret, Annie Get your Gun, Funny Face… but they all deserve posts of their own. Maybe I should use my blog to write them. (I do have a post there on Morally Ambiguous Figures in Musicals, by the way, so if you like this you might like that. http://loveandzombies.co.uk/2011/05/morally-ambiguous-figures-in-musicals/)

(Sorry I’m late commenting on this – have ill baby.)

sianandcrookedrib // Posted 25 January 2012 at 1:55 pm

I love this post!

Calamity Jane is one of my faves, and that scene in Gentleman Prefer Blondes where Jane Russell is totally subverting the male gaze! I also love Fred and Ginger musicals, and Cabaret (not sure if they’re feminist though…).

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