For most of my childhood I was an avid ice cream hater. Zero, and I mean zero, ice cream appealed to me. I met the discussion of an ice cream party with sighs, the presentation of ice cream cakes with a groan, and the sight of ice cream shops with confusion. (It is interesting that despite my being a relatively basic human being, it is typically the case that I do not like certain things that are widely discussed. It is a serious personality flaw, and I am currently in the process of recovery.) Simply stated, I considered ice cream overrated, frozen milk. I share this with you because I have always been an ardent supporter of honesty. By divulging this information, I offer the opportunity for you, as the reader, to stop reading this on account of my having poor taste. Through this act of transparency, you may consider this analysis and all further analyses inherently void. And that is okay. In fact, I welcome it.
It is with this same spirit that I retroactively charge Broadway (and, quite frankly, all forms of popular media into the present day) to simply admit that they hate women. It is important to note, however, that this hatred is undeniably confusing. On one level, women in Broadway musicals must be “different” in order to be both the protagonist and heterosexual object of desire. They must not be “easy,” “stupid,” or “simple.” They may be more of a tomboy or more willing to be “one of the guys.” Put colloquially, many of these girls would publicly claim that “they are not like other girls.” On another level, women in Broadway musicals must be exactly like other girls. They should be willing to answer the call to their marital duties when men come a-knockin’, they must not be interested in talking over men (or being too smart for their own good), and, most importantly, they need to look pretty doing all of these things. In assessing these inherently dichotomous expectations, I for one am thoroughly perplexed.
If musicals were not a form of media intended to be personalized, perhaps I would be more willing to accept this concept and move on with my life. Unfortunately for all women, this is not the case. Popular conceptions about the composition of a woman’s personality (atop popular conceptions about a woman’s appearance) infiltrate the very being of a woman from the second we are able to spell “boy.” In my own life, I am expected not to be like other girls, but yet fall squarely into the norms of femininity set before me by men. So which is it? What am I supposed to do? It seems as though whichever path I choose is wrong. Being myself? Wrong. Being one of the guys? Wrong. Being one of the girls? Wrong.
What is left? Who is left? Should I just quit now?
These are all questions I would be thinking if I were not given what I have entitled:
Broadway’s Guide to Extraordinarily Ordinary Womanhood: The Case Study of Katherine and Laurey.
Through characters such as Laurey of Oklahoma! and Katherine of Newsies, Broadway has spelled out a very specific order of operations for every woman’s success. First, something must differentiate a woman from the generally inferior female cohort. Second, this woman must play hard to get— but only long enough to retain a man’s interest. Third, a woman must inevitably fall straight into the arms of a man. Thus emerges a critical formula in Broadway math:
Differentiator + Playing Hard to Get + Immediate Marriage Readiness = SUCCESS!
Oklahoma! and Newsies‘s writers, directors, and cast took great pains to ensure that Laurey and Katherine were not like other girls. In fact, in differentiating Laurey, playwrights Rogers and Hammerstein provided a direct foil in Ado Annie. While the character Ado Annie was so infantilized that she could not muster up the wits to say no to any “feller who talked to her purty,” Laurey could not say yes. Laurey did not melt at the sight of a man; she did not need their validation. Laurey was not “stupid” like other girls. She didn’t cry over past lovers, she didn’t rave over her gooseberry pie— I mean the girl even wore overalls for crying out loud! In Newsies, without direct a foil to represent the remainder of women, Katherine’s differentiator is having a J.O.B. as a serious journalist. She’s dancing (quite literally) with the boys! Doubtful that this is an effective differentiator? Take it from the leading man himself: Jack Kelly admires smart girls for being beautiful, independent, smart… and probably some other stuff too!
Playing Hard to Get:
For their next step, both Laurey and Katherine needed to play hard to get. However, it is important for the success of the next step that these women did not become hard to want in the process. For example, Laurey could make it abundantly clear to Curly that she did not want him. But while singing a number in perfect harmony would Laurie break eye contact with Curly for longer than a second? Absolutely not. Interestingly, in order to retain her lovability, the typically confident and self-assured Laurey adopts fidgety mannerisms in her conversations with Curly. Strong women, she demonstrates, must not be too strong. In Newsies, Katherine employs witty quips to demonstrate her disinterest in Jack Kelly. She insinuates that he must have a criminal record, informs him that she is not interested in conversation, implies that she finds him stupid, and plainly instructs him to disappear. Yet, after witnessing evidence that Jack was (quite creepily) staring at her long enough to sketch a detailed portrait of her face, she melts. In fact, within a mere three interactions Katherine’s blocking places her closer and closer to Jack— a man who only three scenes earlier she had effectively deemed repulsive.
Immediate Marriage Readiness:
Finally, but most importantly, the successful woman’s story must end with her proclamation (whether explicit or insinuated) to spend the rest of her life with the very man she repeatedly rebuffed just a few acts prior. After all, you can’t spell “woman” without ending it with “man!” Laurey and Curly wed at the end of the musical as Oklahoma! achieves its statehood and Jud Fry is killed. Katherine and Jack insinuate their commitment to a long-term relationship through Jack’s decision to stay in New York as a cartoonist and a newsie. In this crucial step an important truth is revealed: all of a woman’s agency is a farce. In maintaining an unsustainable and intrinsically contradictory personality, the stories of these women elucidated the fact that none of their actions truly matter until they are validated by men. Without this the final step, which involves the direct contribution of men, none of the prior steps amount to any sort of victory. You can be as different as the stripes on a zebra and be as mean as bullfrog, but if a man does not want you and if you are not ready to marry that man, all of that work was for naught! After all, even dumb ol’ Ado Annie planned to get married at the end of Oklahoma!
In developing this formula, I wondered what our world would look like if Broadway simply published this framework. Perhaps life would be simpler for girls. Under a policy of transparency, it would be abundantly clear that the life designed for women by social forces such as Broadway is patently unbearable. In no uncertain terms, many women could declare their resignation from this game of dependency and choose to formulate their own rules on their own terms. Women, upon first seeing popular musicals such as Oklahoma! and Newsies, could decide that though they could enjoy the work for its entertainment value, they would not internalize its messaging that villanizes “other girls.” They (including me) could be free to recognize that “other girls” are not half bad. Our mothers are “other girls.” Our sisters are “other girls.” Our grandmothers are “other girls.” Our Aunt Eller’s are “other girls.” And somehow, by some miracle, we manage to love them anyway.
(Also, I do in fact like ice cream now. Feel free to allow yourself to consider my analysis valid. Or don’t. That’s your business.)