Newsies was a Dream, but Dreams can also Include Nightmares

As a straight woman, Newsies was a lot of fun to watch. Am I talking about the musical, or the newsies the musical was about? You’ll never know.

Watching men be athletic for close to three hours is always a nice way to spend your Sunday movie days with Mom. Within 2 seconds of the start of the show, I knew that I was in love with Jack Kelly. And I fell more deeply in love with him after every passing minute. I wonder why that was. I’m not ashamed to say that when it comes to romance and men, I’m a little old-fashioned in what I go for, and I would definitely say that Newsies portrayed Jack and his masculinity in an outdated way that really caters to me, except for a few problematic points I’ll get into later on.

The first thing that caught my eye in the first millisecond he was on the screen was his choice of clothing. Primarily, his well-fitting waistcoat, dressy shirt, and slacks. I italicized ‘waistcoat’ because that’s what it sounds like in my head when I see one. I go “waaiistcooaatt”, and the Victorian maiden inside me throws a fit. My own personal biases aside, the waistcoat was designed to emphasize the broadness of a man’s shoulders in order for him to appear more imposing, and, I suppose, manly. Jack is singled out from the rest of the newsies by his blue shirt, drawing attention to him as the star. I just realized, blue is also the color associated with the male gender. Interesting.

Aside from his waistcoat making his upper body look bigger, Jack exemplified the idea that men must be imposing by physically taking up space on the stage. Not only did his physique appear imposing, but in the way of his posture and stance, he imposed himself on the space around other people. And when he started dancing, the choreography only amplified his male body and how it took up space. The choreography showed off the lengths of his arms and legs, while high leaps tailored to the male body showcased his athleticism. 

Aside from his physicality, Jack oozed confidence, and almost confrontationally so. He stared every person he talked to dead in the eyes, looking down a bit in order to bring attention to his height and superiority. He spoke unapologetically, and was what I would call a ‘smooth talker’. He knew what to say to who, when, in order to get what he wanted. Because apparently real men get everything they want, even when they have to manipulate others to get it. Jack did use a lot of slang, but threw in the occasional Mister or Miss to keep it classy and set him apart from the rest of the newsies. 

Jack was shown to be a natural leader and a caretaker. He started the newsies’ strike and stole goods for the poor boys in the Refuge, while acting as an older brother to Crutchy. This of course was done in order to send signals that Jack would be able to provide for a family, which I would argue is important in general, but especially for a man in the time of Newsies because he is expected to be the breadwinner for his family. 

While strutting around like a peacock in his waistcoat, Jack retained humility, but only in the presence of women, and was only allowed to show emotion when he was alone. During emotional scenes and songs, Jack isolated himself so as not to compromise his masculinity and appear weak in front of others. Now, all this is fine and well, and I definitely enjoyed watching all of it, but I found myself asking why Jack’s friend Davey appeared to be presented as less overtly masculine than him.

After all, Davey is well educated, well dressed, and is shown to have taken the initiative of caring for his family. Davey is confident, and even able to inspire confidence in Jack when Jack forgets to be a man for a moment. Davey also wears a lovely waistcoat and is arguably better able to control himself than Jack, and composure was shown throughout the musical to be a hallmark of manliness. 

Why then, is Jack portrayed as being more manly? 

The answer to that question is the problematic part of this piece that I promised you earlier.

Jack had a woman, and Davey did not.

In his relationship to Katherine, Jack was the sexual aggressor, and pursued her until they ended up together. It looked a bit forced to me, but I might just be jealous. Anyway, the notion that what makes a man truly a man is his ability to pursue and catch a woman is rather concerning. It looks as though Newsies propagates the idea that in order to have attained all facets of masculinity, one must have the complete opposite(a woman) to compare them to. 

Davey, while smart, kind, confident, and almost everything else Jack is, is not shown to be as sexually bold as Jack. He spends the musical taking care of his younger brother and family, as he supports Jack. I would say that he is effectively in Katherine’s friendzone, and the way the musical frames it, that means he’s less masculine. The thought that because he does not sexually pursue a woman, Davey is less of a man is an uncomfortable one, especially for me as a woman. Defining masculinity as engagement with the opposite sex enters dangerous territory, and I for one, felt uneasy with that insinuation. Keeping this definition of masculinity in mind, Newsies brings up the question of whether men who may be attracted to men instead of women are still masculine. And to what extent the term ‘man’ applies to men without a woman and the resulting family.

What shocked me the most was that while Davey did not engage in the sexualization of women, his pre-teen brother did. In fact, the show was put on pause for several moments to point out the way in which this child gawked at womens’ legs. Does this insinuate that the child is more of a man than his older brother? See, problematic. I told you. 

Now that we’ve established that Jack is King Manly Man and Davey is his Slightly Less Manly Sidekick, I’d like to draw your attention to the way Jack continued to be seen as manly, even when he ‘chickened’ out on the strike and was ready to abandon everyone the plot had set him up to be the caretaker of. My analysis of this phenomenon is still a work in progress, if you’ll bear with me. Does Jack just have so many other masculine qualities that this one moment of cowardice was cancelled out? Does it not count because he snapped out of it? Or is this a demonstration of his token ‘sensitive side’? I’d like to propose that this is none of the above and say that this lapse in masculine judgement is a way to solidify some of Slightly Less Manly Sidekick’s masculinity, and show that even though he had a brain fart, Jack can still be convinced to be manly again and then sneakily take the spotlight away from Davey in order to consolidate himself as the alpha male of the musical. It’s a win-win situation. Davey gets manly brownie points, and Jack gets to be the hero again. 

Now, personal taste is personal taste. I will lose my mind over a waistcoat and I appreciate qualities in a man such as education, confidence, humility, and the ability to know whether he would take care of our kids. Notice how I said “qualities in a man”, as opposed to “manly qualities”. Any quality is accessible to any person, and it becomes worth noticing when a combination of qualities are set as a guideline for how men/women/anyone outside the gender binary can claim their identity. It becomes worrisome when the failure to meet such guidelines results in ostracization or ridicule. In the case of Newsies, Davey was missing the key element to being fully recognized as a man, and was therefore sentenced to being the sidekick that supports the ‘real man’, who has every quality deemed necessary and a sidekick to help him if he falters. 
As a woman, it feels weird that in the context of Newsies I would only be considered an aspect of masculinity for a character, but I enjoyed the musical and the tons of waistcoats nonetheless. I’m going to excuse myself before I flip out over how much I love it when men can sing and dance(seriously, this musical was heaven for me. Also, note that singing and dancing aren’t traditionally masculine traits), and I hope I’ve given you some things to think about.

Musical characters

6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your post on all fronts, love for waistcoats/dress of the past AND masculinity roles in Newsies. (My love for Peaky Blinders, Outlander, and Bridgerton just goes to show.) Those waistcoats were looking oh-so-fine, and it also bothered me that Davey was only used as a prop to boost Jack back up from his brief fall from manliness. I always considered the stereotype to be more “a woman is not a woman without a man,” but your post really made me see the opposite of this; in Newsies, a man is not a man without his woman. This once again plays into the whole problematic issue of women being mere objects to support men, but coming from a different perspective. I couldn’t figure out why Davey’s role bothered me so much; he was, in my humble opinion, cuter and better than Jack, but you solved the problem for me—Davey just wasn’t a full man because he wasn’t thrust into a relationship with a woman, so he was deemed lesser than. Add this to the list of problematic faves, I guess.

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  2. I loved reading this piece on the writing story. I thought this response was tailored really well and that it explored how a man’s masculinity is formed throughout Newsies. I enjoyed the humor ( especially how waistcoat was used) and the complexity of how the author compared Jack Kelly and Davey. I too realized that Jack Kelly’s character “oozed confidence” and showcased a personality type that was equivalent to leader/lady’s man. I agree that if a character sexually pursues a man ( at least in this musical) they are seen as more masculine and even more sexier in the eyes of Disney fans as well. HOWEVER, what is wrong with a smart, kind, and well-educated man like Davey? This is where I agree with the author that, “Defining masculinity as engagement with the opposite sex enters dangerous territory, and I for one, felt uneasy with that insinuation”. Overall, I thought this essay was really well written and engaged the material well! 

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  3. I loved how you tied your analysis of costume to the characterization of Jack as a “mainly man”. Your observations on the differences between how Jack and Davey are characterized, and the reasons behind this, are so insightful and something I never thought about! I really enjoyed reading the evolution of your ideas and how well you tied it into the entire plot. After reading this, I can better understand how costume is used to show personality, as well as how show-makers use other characters as comparison to make the lead look better. In this case, Davey was used to make Jack seem like the extremely attractive, masculine protagonist, and thus, a more likely option for the love interest. Overall, I really enjoyed this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello!
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I like the way in which you not only relate to Newsies through your own life, but also by analyzing the performance through its different theatrical aspects. I really enjoyed the way in which you delved into clothing, choreography, physicality, character traits, and relationships throughout Newsies to be the foundation for your analysis. What piqued my interested was how not only did you look at what was presented on stage, but also how Jack carried himself throughout the production and mentioned his progression. You took an interesting approach to looking at emotions and character traits and I really enjoyed how you tied in material from the class as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. C.J. Pittaro
    I thought the way you compared masculinity in the essay was really great. You used Jack and Davey as two different types of comparisons which worked really well. I also liked how at some parts you made connections to your own life. Great essay!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really like the tone that you used in this essay. It felt very casual and familiar in a way that read really well, kept me interested, and also, at times, made me laugh. I also really appreciated that you differentiated between Jack and Davey’s masculinity in your analysis. I wrote a similar essay, about Jack Kelly as well, but I contrasted his masculinity to Crutchie’s. They are both fair comparisons, but I hadn’t thought about Davey’s character like that before so I really appreciated that point in your essay!

    Liked by 1 person

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