A bloody revolution. Brilliant chemise gowns. Seductive love triangles. An ex-convict with a heart of gold. From the opening scene, Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables is the epitome of an enthralling, edge-of-your-seat musical that combines ensemble ballads and heart-wrenching trios to consistently leave its audience with goosebumps. Within its four musical walls, however, exists pertinent and at times careless depictions of socioeconomic interactions and gender relations. Les Miserables commentary on broken, biased judicial systems provides contemporary insight into the disparities that incarcerate lower-socioeconomic status individuals at a much higher rate, highlighting the prejudiced interactions between socioeconomic classes vastly different in privilege and power. In the same sense, the musical features tendentious gender depictions of women unapologetically relying on men to provide for them financially and postitionally, confining them to supporting roles that undercut the control these female actresses command.
Beginning in a dirty prison stocked with social rejects, Les Miserables immediately paints a clear divide between the regally moral, pretentious character of Javert and the beaten skeleton of Valjean. While one gallops onto the stage on their literal high horse, the other carries his own cross, shaking at his malnutrition and frustrations of unjust imprisonment. Socioeconomically, the two could not be more different, and yet their prevailing, rock-solid conviction to morality characterizes them as foils far beyond those within their same social class. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert insists “once a thief, always a thief;” by depicting Javert’s aversion to renouncing Valjean’s eternal identity as a thief in his eyes, Les Miserables criticizes the nature of prevailing social stigmas, thus challenging the audience to question their own inevitable implicit biases. In portraying the prisoner as the true knight in shining armor, the musical fundamentally highlights the duality of every interaction between upper and lower classes, thus denouncing the snap judgements that audience members often make about the groups they personally view as inferior in their own lives.
The two mens’ unceasing showdown throughout the musical offers an unprecedented commentary on the biased nature of France’s judicial system, where a man’s life can be upended in a torturous prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Those with power demand to maintain it, to keep it from those who are inferior based on the status of their bank account or family influence, and to seize control of that power, prison guards degrade and belittle others to be less than human beings despite their inherent similarities. In the same way, America’s overcriminalization of minor offenses, especially drug offenses, among lower-socioeconomic classes threatens to violate human rights as overcrowded prisons offer abhorrent living conditions for incarcerated individuals, suggesting the overabundance of influence police, judges, and juries each possess when their implicit, unchallenged biases repeatedly determine the condemnation of others. Even nearly two hundred years after Les Miserables’ revolution, the broken judicial systems of our nation – a nation who modeled for France the very depiction of revolution and democracy from across the Atlantic Ocean – have yet to be mended of their partiality, making Les Miserables an imperatively confrontational musical for American spectators to view and address the blatant socioeconomic disparities that still exist in our modern-day society.
After hearing the pleas of Fantine to protect her young daughter – “if I go to jail she’ll die!” – Javert turns a blind eye to the struggles of the lower-class woman, instead insisting “honest work, just reward, that’s the way to please the Lord.” Javert’s nitpicky morality throughout the musical offers critical insight into how oblivious humans are when they feel their values make them superior to others; just as Javert favors dishonest rich men while dominating upon a beaten prostitute, privileged Americans endorse their own hard-working “bootstraps narrative” while looking down upon marginalized minorities and immigrants as somehow less-deserving despite the immensely greater life obstacles they must continuously overcome. While viewers may judge Javert’s hardened disregard for Fantine and Cosette’s well-being with disgust, their engagement with the musical should spark personal reflection over where in their lives they fail to consider the struggles of others when stigmatizing their actions or decisions.
Even in its depictions of the compelling love triangle, social standing and financial prosperity determined the winner of Marius’ heart. In other words, Eponine never stood a chance. And how could she? If Cosette had been helping beggars in Eponine’s soiled, homemade dress, Marius wouldn’t have bothered looking twice. It was only her angelic cleanliness and beautiful bonnet and rosy cheeks and ability to hand out money to the homeless that made Marius so determined to pursue her. In Marius’ eyes – and the eyes of America today – money controls opportunities far beyond the naive concepts of capabilities or personality. Despite Eponine’s demonstrated intelligence, selflessness, and wit, Marius never even considers pursuing her as a love interest, and his lack of respect for her is demonstrated not only in his refusal to accept how clearly infatuated she is with him, but also in his attempt to bribe her to find Cosette’s address, proving he views her financial struggles as something to exploit for personal gain. The same can be said for America today, where one’s appearance blatantly dictates employment status; if Marius was a job opportunity both Cosette and Eponine were interviewing for, Epoinine’s inferior garb alone would put her at an insurmountable disadvantage. The difficulties economically disadvantaged individuals face in remaining presentable, obtaining competitive business attire, and transporting themselves to work opportunities presents a cyclical burden that often prevents individuals from achieving greater economic mobility. Les Miserables’ fatigued representation of the beautiful rich girl winning the boy parallels the same tragic narrative that impoverished individuals seeking employment often face, where those with financial backing triumph time and time again.
Despite its fantastic, commanding female leads, the text of Les Miserables dismally confines women to a stereotypical dependence on men, plundering the characters Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks command of their deserved plot impact. Fantine’s story embodies the epitome of misery and sacrifice; as a young woman, she fell recklessly in love with a rich student who abandoned her and her unborn daughter, as any wealthy man would be expected to after impregnating a working-class grisette. The musical characterizes Fantine as a lost cause from the second her lover left her – unable to maintain work on her own, provide for herself without his income, or even sell herself without still dreaming “that he’ll come to [her], that [they] will live [their] years together.” Even after being forced into prostitution, Fantine’s wails for the man who ruined her life paint an incredibly regressive image of women as dependent on men financially, emotionally, and sexually. In her stage time, Hathaway does a brilliant job of conveying the appalling horror any individual would feel after being backed into such a steep financial corner that selling oneself was the only way out. As she stumbles to the bed of the man who just bought Fantine for a night of sexual exploitation, Hathaway’s eyes are lifeless, and her frail, grease-smeared chest heaves with anxiety and repulsion, sparking nothing but empathy for Fantine from an audience who would readily condemn prostitutes as whores and felons. Once again, Les Miserables emphasizes the duality of every story, challenging the stigmas against those who break the rules as acts of desperation to provide for their family and questioning the moral gray areas of laws that castigate individuals with a clear presence of steadfast morals.
Cosette’s script is similarly underwhelming; after one glance from Marius, Cosette is seen whimpering in her bedroom as she questions the trajectory of her life before she’d laid eyes upon the freckled boy with high cheekbones. Cosette is angelic, innocent, and sheltered – her role in the musical is simply to heroicize the actions of Valjean and Marius.
Eponine, on the contrary, rises through the ashes of Les Miserables’ ravaged female characterizations as a hardened, independent teenager who loathes both the dishonesty of her parents and her consequential social position in Paris. After following Marius back to his room during the “Look Down” number, Eponine amorously confronts Marius about hiding his family’s wealth, holding her own in their flirtatious teasing and starkly contrasting the shy, blushing eye contact that defines Marius and Cosette’s fling. After Marius approaches her to inquire about Cosette, Eponine is plainly devastated that the man she grew up supporting could so quickly be smitten by a “bourgeois two-a-penny thing.” Here, Banks reaps audience empathy for Eponine as, even in his search for another woman, Marius shows her character attention; by slowly turning towards Marius and bantering off of his crush on Cosette, Banks embodies the heart-wrenching feeling of suppressed disappointment any young girl feels after receiving male attention for the wrong reasons. The character of Eponine is tragic but undoubtedly noble; in disguising herself as a soldier to jump in front of a bullet for Marius, Eponine challenges the typical depiction of female subordination, demonstrating more willpower and strength in a single action than Marius does in the entire musical. At the basis of her actions, however, still persists the notion that women can’t help but fall utterly in love with men, becoming so completely obsessed that they would gladly sacrifice their own lives for boys who pursue other women and demonstrate zero commitment towards them. Hooper’s direction allows Eponine to be relatable, likable, and strong – the utter opposite from Cosette, the protagonist the audience is supposed to vy for, the protagonist who wins Marius in the end. Any woman watching Les Miserables wants the courageous, driven woman to succeed, and Eponine’s resulting position as the fan-favorite suggests Hooper’s attempt to assume a stronger feminist stance than the text of the musical allows. However, the script, confined by the 1845 gender biases crafted by Hugo, is anything but feminist; women are repeatedly depicted as objects to desire, protect, and buy out. Between Fantine’s prostitution to be a better mother, Marius’s attempt to pay Eponine off to find a pretty girl, and Cosette’s overdramatic handoff from one man to the next, the text of Les Miserables does little to advance the audience’s perception of female capabilities. Despite this, the powerful direction decisions by Hooper and compelling character choices of Hathaway, Seyfried, and Barks do all they can to demand female command onstage and propel the female liberation revolution that’s hopefully less bloody than the French Revolution.