Tomboys, Brides, and Strippers: Femininity in Oklahoma! and Gypsy

As societal roles for women shifted throughout the early twentieth century, so did the representation of female gender and sexuality on the Broadway stage. The 1943 musical Oklahoma!, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, takes place on a prairie in Indian Territory in 1906. The 1959 musical Gypsy, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, takes place in various cities throughout the United States throughout the 1920s and 30s. While watching the film adaptations of these two musicals, I noticed the contrasting portrayals of femininity in two lead female characters in particular: Laurey and Louise. Laurey, played by Cynthia Gibb in the 1999 film adaptation of Oklahoma!, directed by Trevor Nunn, starts out as a prairie girl stuck in the middle of a love triangle and is married by the end of the musical. She plays a traditionally feminine role, struggling to choose between two men, Curly and Jud, knowing that she can acceptably pick only one. On the other hand, Louise, played by Josefina Gabrielle in the 1993 film adaptation of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, begins the musical as a quiet sidekick to her starlet sister and ends the musical as a stripper in a burlesque show. Louise’s story does not focus on love affairs, but rather on her coming into her own independent personality. While Laurey represents society’s traditional ideals about women, Louise represents the more alternative, modern ideals about femininity.

Despite their respective transitions to bride and stripper, Laurey and Louise are both introduced as tomboys, divergent from the traditional feminine ideal for young girls. Their costumes portray these anti-feminine styles, lacking the fancy, delicate, pastel pinks usually associated with girls. For much of the first act, Laurey wears a red plaid shirt and blue denim overalls, an outfit that would also be suitable for a man. Her simple look is completed with little or no makeup and her hair tied back in a ponytail. She is ecstatic when her Aunt Eller gives her a long, frilly, white dress with a lavender sash, which she wears for the remainder of the musical. Receiving this dress represents the beginning of her transition toward the more traditional portrayal of the female gender.

Louise’s first costume is strikingly similar in style and color to Laurey’s—she wears a red and blue suit with a messenger cap and pants that flair out in an unflattering and unfeminine way. In my opinion, she looks like a clown. Her goofy, tomboyish appearance starkly contrasts with that of her sister June, who is dolled up in a froufrou dress with puffy shoulders and bows on the sleeves. In the performance number “Baby June and her Newsboys,” Louise is such a tomboy that she actually plays one of June’s newsboys. Louise is soft-spoken, constantly being reminded by her mother Rose to “Sing out, Louise!” during the Vaudeville number “Let Me Entertain You.” Louise’s hair is almost always in two long braids, both on and off the Vaudeville stage, including as she gets older throughout the production. Off stage, she wears mostly neutral colors in styles that are more traditionally masculine than feminine. Although both female characters begin as tomboys, their paths diverge significantly as they mature into their own traditional or non-traditional performances of the female gender.

Laurey’s story begins with indecision about which man to go with to the box social—an inherently sexist event in which men bid on picnic baskets that women prepare and take the female basket-makers on a date to eat the food in said basket. Laurey turns down Curly’s offer, despite his extravagant plans to take her there in a “surrey with the fringe on top.” Instead, Laurey agrees to go with Jud even though he frightens her. As a result, she is shamed both for leading Jud on and for trying to make Curly jealous. Beyond the misogynistic box social concept, this scenario depicts the societal expectations placed upon women that they should aim to please men, to provide food for them, and to have relations with only one man at a time.

The themes of purity and monogamy continue through the first act. These rules do not seem to apply to Ado Annie, however, who admits to seeing Ali Hakim while her boyfriend Will was on a trip in Kansas City. In “I Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie laments about her difficulty in turning men down. With a comical tone, she sings “When a person tries to kiss a girl, / I know she oughta give his face a smack. / But as soon as someone kisses me, / I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss him back!” Ado Annie is improper and unladylike in her actions, speech, and mannerisms. Laurey constantly nudges Ado Annie to close her legs and to narrow her suitors down to one. Ado Annie thinks that Laurey can love both Curly and Jud, but Laurey is far too pure for that. Laurey is so distraught over her dilemma that she buys a magic potion from Ali Hakim that is supposed to reveal her true love.

The next scene takes place in Laurey’s dream while she under the influence of this “potion.” In this dream ballet, Laurey gracefully prances around with Curly, dancing and dramatically leaping into his arms. Laurey reaches the epitome of traditional femininity in the dream ballet as she floats around the stage, twirling and revealing her frilly petticoat. Although she cannot seem to wrap her head around being in love—she not too long ago was begging Curly “Don’t throw bouquets at me / Don’t please my folks too much”—she has clearly settled on her choice of a man and confirmed her role in society by settling into a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. From the moment that Curly outbids Jud for Laurey’s basket at the box social until they are finally married, she acts as nothing other than his beautiful and dutiful wife.

Unlike Laurey, Louise’s narrative does not revolve around men, but rather around her own personal transformation. After June quits the show and elopes with Tulsa—following the traditional female narrative of giving something up for a male—Rose asserts in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that she will make Louise into her new star. Louise did not enjoy performing very much in the first place, but she goes along with her mother’s antics. Rose clearly wants Louise to be everything that June was: blonde and talented. In one scene, Rose tries to make Louise, uncomfortably dressed as a cowgirl, wear a blonde wig, claiming that it will “make her look more like a star.” In reality, Louise knows that it will not make her look famous, but instead look just like her sister. Louise believes that she is failing her mother by not being exactly like June. This conflict between Louise and Rose demonstrates Louise’s struggle to avoid the typical feminine mold into which her sister had fit so perfectly.

Searching to find her own niche on the stage, Louise finds herself in a burlesque show. Awkward and out of place, Louise enters the stage in a blue satin gown and a frilly boa-like wrap. After an unwelcoming response from the audience, Louise gradually learns to please them by dropping her shoulder strap slightly. She claims her new name, Gypsy Rose Lee, which becomes her stage persona. The crowd absolutely loves Gypsy Rose Lee, and they go wild when she wears a red sequin dress and suggestively unfastens the front of it while facing away from them. Covering herself with the red velvet curtain, it is apparent that Louise has finally gained her confidence as a woman. Her signature number “May We Entertain You” with the other burlesque dancers alludes to her childhood Vaudeville performance of “Let Me Entertain You.” The lyrics “So let me entertain you / We’ll have a real good time” have a completely different and highly sexualized meaning when a stripper, not a little girl, sings them to the audience. As an on-stage stripper, Louise’s body is sexualized and objectified, as many women’s bodies are. Burlesque is definitely not traditionally feminine or empowering for women, but it does present an alternative expression of the female gender. Louise and the other strippers are extremely confident and independent, using their female bodies to please crowds rather than just one man.

After their similar beginnings as tomboyish girls, Laurey and Louise each grow into distinctly different women. This contrast is due in part to the transitioning roles of women in society at the time. In 1906, women did not yet have the right to vote and were still mostly confined to the limitations of their husbands. In the 1920s and 30s, however, women had much more freedom to express themselves. These historical trends are reflected in the differences in the character development of Laurey and Louise. Both portray aspects of femininity, but in very different ways. Laurey ends up a beautiful wife, making her husband Curly a happy man. Louise ends up a stripper, using her female body to make many men happy. While Laurey’s story revolves around men, Louise’s story focuses on her relationships with her mother, sister, and career. The two actresses perform the female gender very differently, but both successfully mirror the views of society toward women in the historical eras during which the storylines take place.

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