Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.

Musical characters

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