By David Ward
With such a broad title, you’d think Guys and Dolls would make some overarching, profound statement about people and the relationships between them. While it certainly makes a statement, the statement made by book writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and composer and lyricist Frank Loesser is not profound; it is restrictive, reductive, and harmful to society. Sadly, despite the musical being set in the mid-1900s, the outdated and disgusting gender and relationship roles present in Guys and Dolls are still prevalent today in American society.
Part of the reason Guys and Dolls remains relevant 70 years after it premiered on Broadway is because of its “classic” status. Classic musicals and movies tend to be passed down through generations; grandparents or parents will show it to their descendants because they remember enjoying it when they were younger or to expose them to “real” musical theatre. This is especially true of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1955 Guys and Dolls movie, which will be the subject of this analysis. The film is led by legendary performers Frank Sinatra (Nathan Detroit) and Marlon Brando (Sky Masterson), which makes it a stronger draw than just any 1950s movie musical. The problem is that in passing down the story of Guys and Dolls, we are also passing down the restrictive and unacceptable ideas about gender and relationship norms displayed by its characters.
Guys and Dolls is harmfully reductive; the whole musical depends on the binary set up by the title. Males act in one strictly defined way and females act in another. Romantic relationships in the show only exist across the binary – never between two members of the same side. Guys and Dolls doesn’t recognize the existence of any other sexualities or identities. It’s right there in the title song: ”When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky/You can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.” Just as the binary implies, in Guys and Dolls, men need women and women need men. There is no acknowledgement or consideration of any other way of life. Sadly, there are still people in America who view the world in this way – they believe that relationships should only exist between a man and a woman and that anyone who is in any other kind of relationship is abnormal. The reality is that some people born men aren’t romantically attracted to women and some people born women aren’t romantically attracted to men – and that’s perfectly normal. By creating a fictional world where everyone is straight, Guys and Dolls is reinforcing these dangerous beliefs – beliefs that can make believers comfortable discriminating against LGBTQ+ people and make LGBTQ+ people feel like something is wrong with them. The idea that non-straight people don’t exist or are invalid has been present and oppressing LGBTQ+ people in mainstream American culture for far too long.
Guys and Dolls focuses on the men, namely the gambling men. Nathan, Sky, and their cohort are the image of toxic masculinity. What drives the whole show is a bet between Nathan and Sky that Sky can’t get Sarah, who they consider too prudish, to go on a date with him. They see no problem with potentially emotionally abusing Sarah; she is just one of millions of “dolls” to them. Sky proclaims his disrespect of women in our first introduction to him, saying of his time in Vegas, “…the dolls were agreeable with nice teeth and no last names.” And these men don’t just talk about women like they are toy dolls; they manipulate them like dolls as well. The first time Brando’s Sky is in a one-on-one conversation with Jean Simmons’s Sarah, Brando leans across Sarah’s desk to get his face closer to hers. Simmons backs further behind her desk in response. As they continue their conversation, Brando stands straight and starts to walk behind her desk, causing Simmons to scurry across the room. Brando has chosen to have Sky physically intimidate Sarah, as toxic men feel the need to do around women, and make her feel uncomfortable at her own workplace. Nathan emotionally manipulates Adelaide – he breaks promises with her regarding him stopping his crap game and eloping with her – and she ends up forgiving him every time. In fact, while both men lie to their partners constantly throughout the movie, no man in the movie breaks a promise (what they refer to as a “marker”) with any other men. These men possess an incredibly toxic view of the world: their actions indicate that they believe they are of a higher social class and more deserving of respect than women. Sadly, there are men in America today that share this incorrect mindset. What makes it worse is that these men are presented as “cool.” During “The Oldest Established,” everyone in the barbershop has heard of “good old reliable Nathan,” and as part of the dance they get down on one knee in front of him as if he were a king. He is dating a local celebrity – Adelaide is the leading showgirl in the show at the local nightclub. Even Sarah thinks the gamblers are cool – on her date with Sky, she asks him how to “live” and mentions that she envies how he “do[es] what [he] want[s], ha[s] what [he] want[s], say[s] what [he] want[s].” Even outside of the context of the movie, Mankiewicz chose two of the coolest men to ever live to portray these misogynistic leading men. Guys and Dolls glorifying two male characters that possess the mindset that they are of a higher class than women – a mindset that can lead to men believing that they have the right to do things like sexually abuse women, as Sky does to Sarah in his first visit to the mission – is scary, disgusting, and wrong.
Nathan and Sky are like the popular guys in any high school movie – they abuse women and manipulate others because they can – only unlike the high school bullies, Nathan and Sky face no consequences for their actions. Despite physically and emotionally abusing Adelaide and Sarah throughout of the musical, the two women marry them at the end. The only evidence Swerling and Burrows include in the script that Sky has changed is that he pays Nathan the $1000 from the bet even though he took Sarah on a date. This is Sky’s way of revealing that he likes Sarah – the implication is that he took her on the date because he liked her, not because of the bet. But saying he likes Sarah is not the same as saying that he won’t mistreat her. Even if his one date with Sarah has ended up changing his entire view of women, he never acknowledges the ways he has mistreated Sarah or commit to treating her better. Nathan doesn’t promise to change either – he actually does the complete opposite. “Sue Me” is Loesser’s attempt to have Nathan redeem himself – it is Nathan and Adelaide’s last scene before they get married. The song is a back-and-forth duet in which Adelaide confronts Nathan about all that he has put her through. Nathan responds to her repeatedly with lyrics acknowledging that he has treated her wrongly and then the phrase “sue me, sue me,… I love you.” Nathan does not assure Adelaide that he will change and treat her better; his repeated lyric is his way of telling her that he is who he is and that she should deal with his irresponsible and manipulative ways because he loves her. Just like in Sky’s case, having feelings for someone is not the same as saying you won’t mistreat them, and Nathan’s words make that clear. Compounding this idea with the ideas of the previous paragraph is more than sufficient reason to not show Guys and Dolls to any children – what are they going to think when they see the “coolest” two men in the movie physically and emotionally abuse two women and marry them in the end? Media like Guys and Dolls is where the toxic saying “He’s mean to you because he likes you” comes from.
Not only are the women in Guys and Dolls presented as being secondary to the men; they are dependent on them. Not only does Guys and Dolls present women as only ever being attracted to the “other” in the fictional binary, it presents them as needing men so much that they can get sick if they are not married by a certain age. Adelaide literally attributes her psychological and physical sickness to Nathan’s refusal to marry her. They are also painted as having no control over who they are attracted to. When Sky asks Sarah out, she refuses and sarcastically labels herself as “a repressed, neurotic girl…who is abnormally attracted to sin and therefore abnormally afraid of it.” But the events of the rest of the musical argue that this may be true for the character Sarah – despite her insistence that the man she marries will “not be a gambler” (because she believes it is a sin), later that week she gets in a fistfight in Havana over Sky, a man that gambles. By choosing to present women as not being in control of who they are attracted to, Swerling and Burrows are painting the inaccurate picture that women are weak and at the will of men, which promotes toxic masculinity. It must be made clear that they actively made the decision to not write Adelaide and Sarah as strong, independent women and instead to make them by necessity and involuntarily attracted to men. Why anyone would want to watch a musical that promotes inaccurate and harmful portrayals of women, I’ll never know.
Just as you’d expect, the relationships between these disgusting representations of men and women are not the healthiest. Guys and Dolls promotes one sexual orientation but does not present it in a healthy way. Men have all of the power in the relationships. Nathan has Adelaide twisted around his little finger; he lies to her again and again and she comes back to him every time. Sarah doesn’t want to go on a date with Sky, goes only because it is the only way to save her employer, and, despite him sexually assaulting her and getting her drunk against her consent, somehow can’t resist his “appeal.” The fact that both of these relationships end up “successfully” (aka both couples get married) at the end of the film creates a dangerous idea of what healthy relationships look like.
Just as art imitates life, life imitates art. Guys and Dolls preserved the gross gender and sexuality stereotypes of the 1950s and we as a society have kept them relevant by exposing new generations to it and other musicals and media like it. I played Nicely-Nicely in a production at my local community theatre when I was in middle school. My understanding was that adults found it funny; not until this viewing of the movie did I realize how horrendous that idea is. I don’t recall laughing once when I viewed this movie – dismissing the disgraceful ideas perpetuated by this show by claiming it is funny is laughable. At some point, we need to reevaluate why “classics” exist. Guys and Dolls was revived on Broadway in 2009. Why? What idea in the source material was especially relevant or meaningful enough to convince producers that 2009 audiences needed to see it? People imposing the norms promoted in this movie have negatively impacted an uncountable number of lives. We should not continue to expose anyone, especially new generations, to Guys and Dolls – there is no cultural benefit, only cultural harm. Continuing to expose others to musicals/movies like Guys and Dolls is the same as keeping the harmful ideas they promote relevant in society. Guys and Dolls should be reserved only for discussions of musical theatre history; this is how we make its views on gender and sexuality history.