Newsies: Is the Ideal Man Too Limiting?

Disney’s Newsies showcases the very definition of American masculinity with some catchy numbers and dazzling lights. Directed by Brett Sullivan, Newsies highlights the struggles of New York City newspaper boys as they rally together to fight for a fair price. 

What was particularly remarkable about the show was the absence of a feminine presence. In fact, Katherine and Ms. Medda are the only women in the spotlight for the duration of the musical. The production, instead, highlights the comradery and brotherhood amongst the New York City newspaper boys. Oftentimes, we see masculinity defined in connection to women, but the musical simply focusses on the young men. It delves into the questions “What does it mean to be a man?” and “How does American culture define masculinity?”

Jack is a character that catches the audience’s eye; he is placed in a blue shirt directly contrasting with the greyscale wardrobe of the rest of the cast. From the get-go, I knew that he was one to watch. Immediately, you can see manly traits start to define Jack Kelly, from with playful punches to his forceful moves in the musical numbers to even the confidence that he exudes. Jack has grown up with less-than-ideal circumstances – without a family and running from the Refuge – but he shows a sense of resilience and strength. Ultimately, he is a leader and mentor to the other young newsies, but he is cast in a light that makes him a role model to the audience. Jack Kelly is American masculinity on stage!

It isn’t very hard for the audience to see how deeply his friends and fellow newsies care for Jack; he thrives in his role as their leader, going on to represent them in the strike and taking Les and Davey under his wing without hesitation. The musical writers convey this sense of leadership and protectiveness by including lines such as “ain’t no way I’m putting them kids in danger” in response to the initial strike. He would rather lose everything than lose one of his newsies. Here, Kelly displays his stoic nature, a trait so crucial to what we perceive as Masculinity.

Masculinity has evolved to discourage any demonstration of emotional vulnerability. We can see this concept affecting Jack in moments like when he is asked if he is scared to strike. Rather than admitting to his nerves, he ambiguously responds with “ask me again in the morning.” Jack is hesitant to admit his fears and instead opts for a continued display of strength in hopes of inspiring his newsboys for the upcoming struggles. However, Jack does not feel entirely constricted by society’s gender stereotypes. He prompts Katherine with a question on what exactly was happening between the two of them, and his forwardness, ultimately, catches her off guard. The musical writers infuse a sense of duality to Jack’s character that demonstrates both the guarded and vulnerable sides of him.  

Jack’s caring side and positive attributes of American masculinity are contrasted with the character Mr. Pulitzer. Mr. Pulitzer’s arrogance and greed shows how dangerous the quest for masculine strength, power, and success can be; it can turn your heart cold. Ultimately, Pulitzer is a selfish bully, as Kelly calls him. When explaining his opposition to the newsies’ strike, Pulitzer exclaims that it is because they are fighting against him that he does not show his support. The production authors also display his arrogance with Pulitzer’s open legs and by placing his arms on his hips. This concept of taking up space and its correlation to power can be seen in our own society as men often sit with their legs widened to ‘mark their territory.’ Mr. Pulitzer represents the flaws in men: the aggression and gluttonous drive that allows for his success. Jack, on the other hand, is a good, old fashioned guy. He is like David fighting Goliath like Katherine so aptly describes. 

Cultural definitions can be extremely detrimental for many individual’s mental health, as the norm is not always normal. The idea that a man is defined by his family, his leadership skills, and his strength is an outdated concept. Instead, we should be celebrate each individual for what makes them unique. I think that this is a flaw in the character Jack Kelly. He is a role model that all of the newsies look up to and most likely the little boys in the audience. He is a captivating young man. I mean who could blame a kid for wanting to be like him. However, I think that the lack of focus on other characters and the extended centrality of Jack’s success and strengths conveys the message that in order for a boy to be a true man he must be like Jack. 

Watching this musical in a time where gender stereotypes are being blurred to a spectrum was particularly intriguing. Newsies sends the message that men must behave a certain way. However, every day the concept of gender is being talked about more and more. Some believe that gender is the very foundation of our society, looking back at works such as Newsies which showcases one of the masculine roles in society. However, others are taking a rather modern perspective and have fought to remove the concept of gender entirely. Watching this in the societal context and examining the role of masculinity makes me question the absence of women in the film. Rather than perpetuating a musical that celebrates a gender-driven divide, should we be including the range of genders that we see in our culture today? This is not to say that I did not enjoy the musical; the numbers were stuck in my mind for much of the following week. However, upon reflection it makes me pause and question why there is so little feminine presence or the necessity of the extremely dominant inclusion of masculinity. 

While Jack displays everything fundamental to the concept of American masculinity, he falls short in the idea of inclusion. Newsies aims to demonstrate a sense of brotherhood amongst the newspaper boys, but the boys in the audience are creating the idea of what it means to be a man as they watch the actors dance across the stage. While masculinity may be defined as strength, leadership, stoicism, and arrogance, the musical limits the concept to those qualities. In reality, a man can be anything or anyone, and Newsies works to perpetuate this culture of toxic masculinity.

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