By: Kate Murphy
The smooth talker. The power walk that is just subtle enough for you not to notice the sly attempts at establishing the upper hand. The charm with an undertow of coercion that may be slightly problematic but could also just be you reading into his “confidence.: Masculinity can present itself in any number of ways which we may or may not even be aware of. More often than not, I fail to concentrate on the consistent themes of masculinity in the interactions I have with men, but musical theater provides the perfect opportunity to give it a laser focus in how men and masculinity are presented and conveyed in cultural moments. The musical stage puts forth masculinity with themes of coercion and smoothness, noting the central presentation of men is through their Male Talk. In Oklahoma! and Newsies, the men in the musicals demonstrate their power over others through their words and the actions that are especially exacerbated in their interactions with women.
Jack, the likable go-getter and ring-leader in Newsies uses his smooth language and sick dance moves to choreograph his way into labor rights. It’s nice, it’s flashy, and it says a lot about masculinity. The representation of masculinity in Jack’s character in Disney’s musical production of Newsies reveals characteristics that are perceived as essential aspects of masculinity: initiation and smoothness. These qualities require a level of performance (with or without the performance of the musical itself). Jack has to put on a persona that gets him what he wants. But hey! It works, so why wouldn’t he? Consistent throughout various performances and platforms, Jack’s rally of the newsies in “Seize the Day,” pulls together a perfect storm to lead the boys in obtaining their rights. Because this is central to the song and choreography, this presentation of masculinity, the initiation and leadership of the strike and the newsies requiring him to integrate some rashness with some arrogance, is central to the storyline and the musical as a whole. Jack’s qualities require him to put on a show in order to rally the newsies.
Additionally, Jack possesses a smoothness that allows him to seem pulled together as an example for the other boys. Although he is only a few years older than the newspaper boys, and potentially even younger than some, his ‘manliness’ and perceived adulthood are due to the influence he has and respect he commands among the newsboys. His smooth authority can be found in his lead vocals, his dance moves, and his interactions with Katherine. This pegs him as both a leader and role model for the children following him. A lot of what I noticed within this musical was boyhood and how the newsies found the “cool” older brother in Jack that they wanted to be like. Although he did not always have the character they should be looking up to, he had the cool factor that made him seem like such a natural role model for the newsies.
The significance of male language and its presentation of masculinity is also a crucial element of Oklahoma!, particularly through the ways that the women discuss the men and their relationships with them. I saw this a lot in “I Cain’t Say No,” when Annie shares her inability to turn men down to Laurey, in a catchy beat that keeps listeners laughing and drawn in. Primarily, Annie’s light-hearted disappointment with herself paired with her charming twang creates the magic necessary to make this song a theatrical success. The songwriters were certainly using this song as a moment of comedic relief, and I found myself chuckling along with my imaginary live audience members. The girls’ shining innocence reveals that they have experienced little to no romantic interactions with men; Annie herself explains that men only started being interested in her since she “filled out.” They have a limited vocabulary when describing romance, and Annie in particular is pretty chaste in describing her desire to be loved by a man. This dynamic of innocence and desire reveals the expectation for the white Oklahoman girls to be pure and abstain from sexual activity. Fitting in with the narrative of the musical, namely the tiptoeing around the line that once crossed, demands that a young man marry the young woman he’s “fooling around with,” Annie’s song seems to ask the question “how far is too far?” while also admitting that she already knows she’s gone further with men than is expected of her.
I noticed that within this song, it reveals the cultural priority of sexual purity for women at the time. There was an absolute demand that the women save sex for marriage so that they don’t “ruin” themselves, which reveals a lot about the values of this society. It speaks into the power which men possess, and seems to present men as the subjects and women as the objects. The unspoken rule appears to be that if a woman ruins herself, she loses all of her worth and is no longer worthy of a bright future in their small town (in other words, she can’t get married– which is a pretty big deal at a time when women were expected to get married and unable to provide for themselves). But enough about what that says about women– examining this scenario from the role of men, I see clearly that men are the ones who determine a woman’s worth within this expectation. They have the ability to decide which women are worthy of marriage and being provided for, but they also have the authority to coerce women into giving in to their sexual desires without risking their own reputations. An unmarried man who kisses a woman is a man. An unmarried woman who kisses a man is somewhere between a disappointment and a whore. Nice. A really good look, Oklahoma!
As mentioned earlier, the innocence and naivety of Annie and Laurey and their lack of vocabulary and experience in romance demonstrates another level of the power that men have in this musical: the power of knowledge. The men are the ones with the knowledge and power in this dynamic; they know what they want and they know how to get it. Their sweet and convincing words (see: Ali Hakim’s Persian Goodbye) give them just enough of an edge over the women to get what they want. From the cultural perspective of the town this musical is set in, it seems like the families are setting their daughters up for failure for how freely they let the men run and how intensely they attempt to control their daughters. But this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen this. How many times did my mom sit me down before college and talk me through drugs being slipped in my drinks and how on guard I needed to be? The lack of accountability for men runs rampant across college campuses– looks like Oklahoma isn’t the only place with a consent problem. Annie struggles with this lack of consent and carries this theme with her lyrics– she can’t say no, implying that if a man asks (or demands) something of her, she can’t turn them down. If you can’t say no, can you honestly say yes? There seems to be a massive lack of consent here and I think the person answering a question should be free to give either response.
Looking at this from the historical context at the intersection of race– that the entirely white film is a misrepresentation of Oklahoma at the time, it is interesting to consider how the white male’s coercion and power are historically present in White Americans’ abuse of Native Americans and present in the film through Annie’s experiences with men. The contrast, however, is that Annie ~seems~ to be slightly thrilled about the situation she’s in, and her frustration with not being able to say no is more with how her desires for interactions with men contrast with the cultural expectations. But isn’t that classic? “Let’s make the object of our coercion appear to want this coercion.” “Let’s convince these Native Americans that it would be best for them to be removed from ‘our’ land.” “Let’s tell the woman everything she wants to hear so she can’t say no.” Annie’s willingness to share her experiences with men, although not consciously expressing the coercion she’s experienced, demonstrates the power that men have within the film and how much of it lies in their words and the cultural values of the town and the times.
So how did we get here? And how are we (in a lot of ways) still here? The evolution from newsboy to OklahoMan reveals that theatrical masculinity (and as a result, our cultural understanding of masculinity) is obtained by asserting authority through one’s words and body language, which both historically and theatrically has taken advantage of many groups of people. The prevalence of subtle coercion and the demand for initiation among men in Newsies and Oklahoma! reveals that the male hierarchy has allowed men to establish their authority and get what they want, whether it’s their workers’ rights, their sexual desires, or land.