By Stacy Wolf, Published: December 28
Stacy Wolf is a professor of theater at Princeton University and the author of “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.”
“Les Miserables” should have feminists like me up in arms. The musical takes the female characters from a 150-year-old novel about a French rebellion and makes them bit players — even though they figure prominently in the book (and in the marketing for the musical and movie). They exist not to drive the plot but to sacrifice for the men, the real stars of the show.
But I can’t help it: I love “Les Miz.” As a theater historian who studies gender and sexuality in the American musical, when women are abused or marginalized on stage, I notice. Yet “Les Miz” never fails to move me.
Les Miz's pounding music gave me a headache when I saw the Broadway touring company a couple of decades ago. My main memory of the three hours is my increasingly frantic search during intermission for a drug store on Michigan Avenue that could sell me a bottle of aspirin. But, don't let my experience bias your enjoyment!
... And the fact that viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles reminds us that, though we’ve seen gains in gender equity in politics and pop culture in the past few decades, old stereotypes still persist — and, somehow, we still love them.
I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day. Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.
In 1987, when “Les Miz” opened on Broadway, it was part of a cultural moment that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi labeled the “anti-feminist backlash.” Its popularity at the time wasn’t surprising: The late 1980s weren’t kind to ambitious women. Television didn’t allow single mothers — such as Murphy Brown and Kate and Allie — to live successful, fulfilling lives. They all failed personally or professionally. ...
Audiences in the late 1980s accepted such gender slights, but what about now? Samantha Barks, who plays the rejected Eponine in the new movie, told the New York Times that she receives tweets every day from girls who say they relate perfectly to the character’s longing: “Why am I always Eponine?” they write.
Despite bigger, stronger and more complex roles for women in television and film and on stage, the smaller, diminished tragedies of “Les Miz” still resonate with viewers in 2012.
Why? Largely because they’re familiar.
The female stereotypes in “Les Miz” are deeply embedded in our culture — the mother who sacrifices herself to the death, the two women who love the same man, and the woman who desires a man in a different class. These characters are readily available, always recognizable and appealing in their familiarity. ...
There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. ...
We understand ourselves and our identities because of the stories we’re told. When we hear the same stories about people — women, gays, the poor, Asians or African Americans — over and over, we start to believe them. If our culture tells us that women should sacrifice themselves for their children or for men’s careers, we find it unremarkable that the women of “Les Miz” do just that. ...
But for anyone who thinks critically about gender, it’s unsettling.
Thankfully, we’re no longer stuck in a 1980s anti-feminist backlash. Depictions of women in today’s pop culture are varied and complex. The “Bridesmaids” characters dare to be outrageous, funny and obscene. Carrie Mathison on “Homeland,” even on the verge of nervous collapse, is tough and brilliant, as is sharp-shooting Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” and misogynist-killing Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Those are some fine movies!
These women are strong, clever and, yes, vulnerable.