Contemporary Communities Don’t Involve… They Exclude

Charlotte Lange

Today’s generation of stereotypically over-sensitized, underworked college students starkly contrast the image of grease-streaked baby boomers who spent their afternoons fighting in wars and smoking cigarettes alongside their mob of loyal conspirators. The gritty nineteen-fifties aesthetic of unrestrained, youthful sexuality; tough, boyish scuffles; and audacious, adolescent rebellion against authority incites passion and nostalgia across any audience yearning for a lusty depiction of the childhood they crave. West Side Story’s portrayal of gracefully choreographed ensemble violence depicts the mid-century time period as a ruggedly beautiful era filled with concupiscent love affairs and equally romanticized gang conflicts. In its depiction of the constant antagonism between the wrangling Jets and Sharks, West Side Story offers a unique cultural critique on how deep-rooted rivalries – based upon perceived, surface-level differences between groups – create and perpetuate socioeconomic and ethnic stereotypes despite the opponents’ outstanding social similarities. The musical utilizes its representation of interethnic interactions and relationships to encourage the creation of communities that blend diverse values and backgrounds rather than separate individuals into homogenous categories, thereby boldly discrediting human nature’s timeless tendency to seek and form relationships with those who appear similar while ostracizing and othering those who seem different. 

Given the inclination to limit public interaction within one’s invisibly rigid social group, musicals that construct unpredictable character couplings possess the unique ability to traverse the castes that otherwise limit plot development and cultural reform. West Side Story’s unprecedented pairing of Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers stemming from rival gangs, details an ill-fated romance more influenced by stigmatized social constructs than by the caliber of its infatuation. Throughout the production, members of both the Jets and Sharks denounce Tony and Maria’s rendezvous by continually assaulting the two with unsubstantiated claims of their transgressions against the respective gangs, citing the other gang’s hatred as the sole reason why the relationship will never succeed, without ever noticing how unquestionably infatuated the two were, or examining whether the stigma against interethnic relationships was worthy of being challenged. In depicting the ease in reinforcing existing stereotypes without active thought or objection, the musical boldly criticizes the ethnic prejudices perpetuated into the twenty-first century and emphasizes how fruitless external judgments are on forming classes, calling instead for the creation of relationships and communities based upon shared values and loyalty. The intangible dishonor Tony and Maria bring to their families for loving one another shapes their actions throughout the musical; during each of their interactions, the two fundamentally discuss how extensively their parents or friends would disapprove of their decisions. While hiding together in Maria’s bridal shop, the pair choreograph their hypothetical wedding while postulating how their parents would react to the couple’s differing backgrounds. Their interethnic relationship is therefore not only socially despised but also socially determined, established on the very foundation of their differences. Each musical number compares the two’s opposite beliefs, creating a sexual tension onstage as the two flirtatiously celebrate how seamlessly their disparities merge to form a mutually respectful connection. Rather than contributing to the belief that contrasting individuals must remain isolated and insulated within their own groups, West Side Story provides spectators with a glamorized depiction of an interracial relationship to discourage individuals’ intolerant exclusion of those ethnically, religiously, or socioeconomically different from them while advocating for the creation of communities that invite all backgrounds to contribute and foster cultural appreciation. 

Along with the niche relationships developed in West Side Story, the production utilizes charged ensemble interactions to propel the musical’s depictions of community. Set in opposition to each other, the immigrant Puerto Rican Sharks are enemies of the Jets born and raised in the Upper West Side, and the Sharks’ receive blatantly biased treatment in nearly every interaction with the Jets and the police alike. Lieutenant Schrank perpetuates racist sterotypes across the musical by immediately assuming the Sharks are to blame for scuffles clearly instigated by the Jets, brazenly voicing his xenophobic theories that immigrants will take the jobs and livelihoods of those born in the country and effectively characterizing the Sharks as unequivocal outsiders in their own community. Despite his derogatory insistence that they wish to “turn this town into a freakin’ pigsty,” the Sharks unabashedly whistle “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as they leave the scene of a fight, highlighting the irony of societal prejudice against immigrants in lieu of the love they demonstrated towards America in choosing to immigrate, and in their refusal to take any of the challenges they playfully complain about “In America” for granted. Lieutenant Schrank’s intolerant opinions reflect the community-held assumption among Caucasians in the West Upper Side that Puerto Ricans diminish the neighborhood’s value, trashing the landscape and sullying the pristine white culture. Their racist beliefs are abhorrent, unfounded, and still disgustingly cited in contemporary debates against inclusive immigration policies; their presence on West Side Story’s stage is intended to invigorate deep disgust towards the systemic racism flagrantly present in twenty-first century police forces. The musical provides a necessary depiction of the decades of implicit bias that has despicably infiltrated communities with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, using the police’s xenophobic treatment of the Sharks to highlight the existence of prejudices against marginalized identities. In this case, the Puerto Ricans’ sense of belonging to the Shark community is what causes their persecution, proving communities’ ability to include members while still inherently causing their exclusion. 

West Side Story’s “The Dance at the Gym” uses sharply contrasting musical movements to beautifully romanticize the violence between the two groups. By opening the scene with an energetic adolescent shout, producers immediately set the scene of a wild high school dance; the homogenous blend of flailing arms, contorting bodies, and twirling skirts unites the gangs under one mischievous class, each sharing the same rejection of authority and embodiment of teenage rebellion. From a distance, the gymnasium appears to be brimming with close friends – it’s only upon closer inspection of the ethnic dress and dance movements that the Jets truly define themselves as rivals to the Sharks. The Jets’ dancing style possesses an energizing, romantic quality; by seamlessly transitioning from the men rapidly spinning their dates, entwined only at the hands, to slowly swaying with their entire bodies pressed together at the waist, within a single beat of the song, they embody a giddy group that expect to control the room because of the privilege they so often enjoy. The Sharks, on the other hand, enter more nervously; as Maria and her date enter, they stand around for a minute, exchanging greetings and warming up to the room before jumping into the strides. Their hesitation to jump onto the dancefloor highlights the overall hesitation Puerto Ricans – and all immigrants – experience when approaching their meld into American culture. Although initially following along with the style of dancing the Jets had normalized during the dance battle, they quickly used the more vivacious spinning and dipping traditional of Puerto Rican celebration. In the same way, immigrants may initially find it easier to assimilate into the dominant American society, but truly beautiful culture is created when they’re allowed to contribute their own individual roots. 

The most prevalent bias across Broadway is against marginalized women who demand power in the roles they command while being consistently and systematically denied the respect or responsibility effortlessly handed to their male counterparts. West Side Story’s antifeminist plot confines female roles to devoted, ardent spectators; in the creation of the contrasting Jets and Sharks communities, women are time and time again kept on the outskirts, excluded from the narrative. Bernardo considers Maria his property and repeatedly, forcibly imposes his control over her decisions, despite her constant protest that she can handle herself without protection. Girlfriends Anita, Velma, and Graziella are prohibited from engaging in any gang proceeding on the assumption that their pretty, fragile minds would be overwhelmed by the sophisticated, intricate talk of deciding between guns or knives at the rumble. Velma is forcibly kicked out by Riff arrogantly slapping her backside while she attempts to retain a figurative and literal spot at the table during War Council, an action that effectively objectifies her body while making clear the power he has over her, physically and socially, to determine the opportunities available to her. Most blatantly, Anybodys begs for a chance to make a name for herself as a true Jet and is consistently ostracized from every meeting, despite being more eager than any other current Jet to prove her worth. Although they belong to the Jets or Sharks by name, although they’re expected to strictly date, even associate with, members of their own gang, no woman is allowed to truly contribute to the community, limiting their sense of true belonging among a group so deeply ingrained into the local culture that it will define the entire trajectory of their life. 

The women’s involuntary silence, despite being allowed membership, forms an incredibly relevant argument for the implementation of anti-discrimination laws among companies notorious for excluding women in executive panels that make true corporate decisions. Granting female membership in order to appear inclusive for self-serving benefits is the epitome of sexism in America – bigotry that is interwoven into the very foundation of hiring and promoting practices. The imperative difference lies in the distinction between diversity and inclusion: diversity forms the gateway allowing entrance into the community, but inclusion requires the regular involvement of all members in decisions affecting the community. Both the Jets and the Sharks have diversity – they doll their girlfriends up for dances and rumbles to appear sexy and desirable; what they lack, and what companies across America and the globe simultaneously lack, is inclusion – the active, intentional decision to allow females to contribute rather than limiting the power to men preoccupied with asserting their dominance over all who threaten their perception of personal clout. Women, and all marginalized groups, are consistently denied this inclusion they demand and deserve, and West Side Story highlights the necessity of both components of involvement to truly belong to a community. Their shameless exclusion from the gangs reflects the glass ceiling present in any female’s ambitions, a glass ceiling created by men to perpetuate the stereotype that women are inherently weaker, duller, and inferior. Every female spectator undoubtedly empathizes with the tenacious resolve these women persistently display throughout the production, as every female spectator, too, has been beaten and limited in the responsibility afforded to them despite their extensive qualifications.  The rag-tag team of misfit individuals that comprise the two inseperable gangs in West Side Story all bring diverse ethnic, sexual, and gender perspectives to their groups, groups whose staunch, unrelenting exclusion and hatred of each other is inevitably counterproductive to the well-being of the overall Upper West Side community. The two’s reluctant inability to resolve differences results in casualties, grief, and wasted effort spent battling rather than improving the neighborhood each gang simultaneously inhabits. In its unique depiction of a community that concurrently excludes those outside of and within it, West Side Story highlights the limitations of constructing organizations that rely on individual resemblances rather than celebrating the potential for collective differences that beautifully meld to offer new perspectives on gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. The Jets and Sharks both exacerbated the dissimilarities assumed to exist between the groups without ever investigating what they could learn from each other, a trap that much of society often succumbs to, contributing to intense xenophobia and reluctance to offer due opportunities to marginalized groups, ranging from women in the workplace to immigrants seeking job opportunities in America. West Side Story thoroughly proves the necessity to form communities that will honor the differences of each individual rather than demanding each member rigidly conform to the group’s homogeneous identity, communities ranging across social, religious, and political contexts to encourage acceptance and respect for all perspectives.

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  1. Thank you for your analysis of West Side Story Charlotte. It is extremely interesting to think about how the musical shows the divide and lack of inclusion between two races. Had these two groups of people chose to set aside their differences and learn from each other the fate of all of them could have been different. Two deaths could have potentially been prevented as well. Yet again we see the theme of hopeless romantics and love in a musical where there are woman in primary roles in the cast. But as you mentioned, their role is capped at being a lover as they fail to allow them in any other activities. The classic star-crossed lovers is an easily identifiable example of how love opens up doors but also emphasizes the differences between individuals. It is interesting, and also a shame, to understand the lack of mobility the woman in the musical has as a result of their relationship and misogynistic mindsets. Lastly, I would like to touch on the idea of “inclusion” in the musical. West Side Story is successful in increasing Hispanic/Latinx representation on Broadway, yet the musical still proves as an example of the racial barriers that people of these ethnicities continue to face. Pride in one’s ethnicity is important, but there comes a time when setting aside pride to understand people’s differences may be more beneficial than dismissing them altogether. As you mentioned, in order to live in harmony with others it is necessary to honor ones’ differences and encourage respect for all perspectives.

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