Sex Sells! (But only women are on display)

Bred for the stage, a young, charming boy dazzles in the spotlight, while a naïve girl clumsily follows along. In the 1993 production of Gypsy, with music composed by Jule Styne and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim, the director by Emile Ardolino constructs the varying impact of sexuality on the career trajectories of Tulsa, played by Jeffrey Broadhurst, and Louise Hovick, played by Cynthia Gibb, within the musical scene.

In the beginning of the show, Louise depicts a less feminine character, capable of substituting male roles within her family’s Vaudeville productions. Louise’s androgynous nature is emphasized through the juxtaposition of her character against her sister June’s “all-American” persona that featured blonde hair, blue eyes, and a cute personality that enamored every audience. Already, the musical establishes the beauty standard for children by rewarding June with fame given her appearance and allowing Louise’s duller traits to remain in the background. After June leaves the show, Louise evolves to take center stage by adopting a blonde wig and dressing in more lavish costumes. The show establishes the concept that visual appearance influences Louise’s success within the industry. Over time, Louise’s popularity grows as she sexualizes her character. The men cheer, the audience grows, all to bear witness to Louise’s bare self. She strips her clothes to grasp a sense of attention and identity within society. In that moment, the writers of the musical comment on how women gain greater power through personal sexualization than any presentation of talent.

On the other hand, Tulsa is able to rise the ranks within his career without sexually appealing to his audience. Tulsa dreams of forging a new dance performance within theater where the male presence dominates the stage. He is able to achieve his goals through sheer ability and without concern of selling his body. Men are guided towards success and are revered with deeper respect. The musical constructs Louise and Tulsa as similar individuals who require vastly different paths to successfully rise to fame in the musical world. In “All I Need is The Girl,” Tulsa delineates the concept that he can pave success on his own merit. Women are presented as an accessory to his ventures. Louise dances alongside Tulsa, always just missing the spotlight and completely invisible within Tulsa’s dream. She dons hooves of the horse outfit and brown pleats in her hair, a comedic portrayal for her lack of feminine charm. This number correlates Louise’s boy-ish qualities as a cause for her lack of success. Tulsa and Louise’s lack of contact during intimate dance moves demonstrate the importance of physical appearance on sexuality. Louise is void from any consideration as a potential dance partner for Tulsa when she bears greater resemblance to mammal than a woman. After June and Tulsa leave Rose’s act, it is assumed that the duo meets great success as the musical effectively establishes the characters as society’s gender ideals. There is no need to show them again, since they are already perfect for the masses, so how could they fail?

Desperately grasping to her last opportunities of fame, Rose puts the innocent Louise out on stage as a stripper. While Rose formerly condemned the women of Burlesque, she asserts that Louise is a lady, unlike the other performers. However, once Louise gets on stage to perform “Let Me Entertain You”, the crowd heckles her, implying that she must “take something off.” She moves without confidence and, ultimately, Louise’s lack of sexual display and feeble singing are perceived as almost offensive to the expectations of the voracious audience. While Tulsa danced so lively and unafraid, Louise is petrified to perform on a stage without any glaring presentation of femininity. She learns that she needs to tap into her sexuality to be accepted within her industry.

The musical emphasizes the injustice between male and female roles within society by pinning Tulsa’s inevitable success against Louise’s more gradual rise to stardom. Louise must embody the female standard constructed by the burlesque performances at the time to become a star. She is practically invisible and devalued without a display of sexuality. On the other hand, Tulsa upholds an unbound self-confidence that his musical prowess can bring him fame. To Tulsa, women are a mere accessory to his glorious act. He maintains a sense of privilege and entitlement to his success that Louise is never endowed as a female. While Louise reaches ultimate stardom as a stripper, it stands to question whether she would have pursued this path if she had been supported for her merit more so than the standard objectification of women within her present-day culture. Additionally, given the varying treatment of men and women within the same industries, how does one truly compare the success a woman achieves to that of a man?

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Your post hits so many points that frustrated me in Gypsy. First with Louise only being successful after she uses her body and sexuality. It makes me so frustrated that Tulsa was just able to elope with June without a fear. The fact that he was able to be so unfearful of the industry and go on into it without worries is like the opposite of what Louise faces. I especially felt bad for her when she practically grew up in June’s shadow, but then is forced to perform in the burlesque show. I think it’s good that Louise seems to gain confidence after her career takes off and when she gains fame, but I really just wish that she could have gained the same self-esteem through some different type of means. Also, I feel like the musical emphasizes the lack of value women have if they don’t sexualize themselves. Like we see Louise has to dress up as a cow because she wasn’t taking advantage of her appearance and sexuality to gain more attention. I especially like the point you mentioned that Louise isn’t even seen as a potential partner for Tulsa because she’s portrayed like a mammal. You can clearly see that in the scene she wishes to be that partner, but Tulsa very obviously just does not notice her.

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  2. The line in your post that stuck out to me the most is “The men cheer, the audience grows, all to bear witness to Louise’s bare self.” Society has stripped her down to this point. Men celebrate and encourage this vulnerability. Of course there is sensuality in the moment, but I also think vulnerability reinforces the power dynamic. Louise is forced to reveal her most intimate self. Everything about who she is diminished down to her body and the arousal it may elicit. Her success impinges on her sexuality, something the men, like Tulsa, did not experience. In my essay, I also touch on how men are unattached to societal standards. I discussed the men’s ability to leave and move about in their society as they please. Specifically, I mentioned Herbie’s decision to leave Mama Rose and Louise right before Louise’s debut. Like Tulsa, Herbie is not held back by societal discretion– not shamed for his independence.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. I also wrote about Gypsy for my essay so I really enjoyed hearing your perspectives on the same piece! I do have to agree, in general, and with the other comments here that I was quite disappointed that Louise went down the road to striptease fame. As soon as Mama Rose started getting greedy and looking that dress up and down, I was already telling myself in my head that it was all over… Mama Rose didn’t push Louise to do the striptease act out of love but because of her greed–as you point out, she isn’t able to get the same attention as June just by default.
    You mentioned in your essay that ” Over time, Louise’s popularity grows as she sexualizes her character. The men cheer, the audience grows, all to bear witness to Louise’s bare self. She strips her clothes to grasp a sense of attention and identity within society.” It saddens me, not because Louise ends up getting some attention, but the fact that all of this attention is not necessarily sincere i.e. it’s practically rooted in lust, with the men being the “consumers” and Louise (in order to get attention and to be desired) is the one being consumed and being objectified, made vulnerable, and basically put on display for men to look at as much as they please.

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  4. This post feels very complete in its analysis of gender roles within Gypsy. I never really thought about the androgynous nature of Louise and how that adds to the accuracy of these roles in society today. I am with you on every point you make in this essay, especially the difficulty of women to reach stardom without either perfection or sexualization. In a day where traditional institutions of inequality are constantly being questioned and deferred, it just goes to show the amount one used to have to give up in order to be seen. It is way easier for the man to move his way up in society, and Tulsa represents the entitlement that men feel and push upon the world with their ease of opportunity. Although I was somewhat disappointed with Louise’s final venture, I do believe that her satisfaction from that avenue makes us unworthy to judge her, but instead judge the time in which she lived.

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