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little old-fashioned in what I go for, and I would definitely say that Newsies portrayed Jack and his masculinity in an outdated way that really caters to me, except for a few problematic points I’ll get into later on.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.