The Ironic Duality: Newsies fight to break the system while perpetuating another

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate enough to have tremendous exposure to Broadway, as compared to most. From my apartment, all I had to do was hop on a 15 minute subway ride and there I was: walking through the streets of Times Square, blinded by the bright lights of billboards, pushing through crowds to locate the theater. On a cold December night during my holiday break in eighth grade, I begrudgingly got dressed in my “theater clothes” in preparation to go see Newsies with my father. He explained the show, and how it takes place in New York City and follows a group of young newsboys who, day after day, sell newspapers to try to make ends meet. Infuriated by Pulitzer’s selfish decision to raise the price of newspapers, the newsboys decide to take a stand, form a union, and fight for their rights. My thirteen year old mind was convinced that Newsies would never live up to the bar set by my favorite musicals. (After seeing Kinky Boots just a few months earlier, I decided that it would take second place to Mamma Mia!, modifying my ever changing list of top five musical productions.) 

As I was ushered to my seat in the Nederlander Theater, I flipped through the Playbill that I was handed upon entry, since I always like to know a bit about the show before the curtains open. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, the music was by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and, unbeknownst to me, Newsies would not only be produced by Disney, but would specifically be produced by Thomas Schumacher. I smiled to myself as I remembered that the number five musical on my favorite’s list, The Lion King, was also a Schumacher production. When the curtains closed just a couple of hours later, I stood in applause and sang Seize the Day quietly to myself as I left the theater. What I didn’t know at the time was, almost a decade later, I would be watching a recording of the musical for my theater class at Vanderbilt, analyzing the role of masculinity in the main character Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan. Through an in-depth analysis of Newsies, it will become immensely clear that countless aspects of Jack’s character such as appearance, power, and romance – play a role in promoting harmful gender roles through his amplified toxic masculinity. 

Within minutes of the opening of the show, it is obvious that Jack Kelly is the leader of the newsies. The first scene, setting the stage for the rest of the production, features Jack Kelly and Crutchie, his best friend and fellow newsboy with a bum leg, played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. You might be asking yourself, how exactly did I make the immediate assumption that Jack would be the main character? Well, for starters, Jack is more stereotypically attractive than Crutchie. Also, he is able-bodied, highlighted by Crutchie who has to limp across the stage and can’t even climb down a ladder on his own without help. There was no doubt in my mind that Newsies would be written so that the main role was a quintessential, masculine character – and unattractiveness and disability are not two characteristics that I would pin on a male lead. I am not here to say that it is criminal for musical authors to write shows that have these types of male leads, and I do acknowledge that my immediate assumption of Jack’s lead role is one that is embedded with deep-rooted norms and expectations. However, it is still important to note that the writers did not make any active decisions to defy this norm. The fact that even at the point where I knew close to nothing about the characters and plot, I was somehow able to determine that Jack would be the star, demonstrates these overarching standards of masculinity which Newsies plays into.

The masculine qualities embodied by Jack Kelly’s character continue to be amplified as the musical progresses with the addition of power as a male gender role. All of the newsboys look up to Jack as their leader, and what would masculinity be without leadership and power? The first time we hear dialogue that gives clues into Jack’s status as – what I call – head newsie, is when he meets Davey and Les, who are just starting out selling newspapers. Crutchie makes it clear that “selling with Jack is the chance of a lifetime,” verbally affirming his superiority in the group. (00:15) As the plot continues to develop, the newsies have to brainstorm what they can do in response to the raise in prices for “papes.” After Jack suggests a strike – which requires forming a union – and Davey tells the group that they need officers, Crutchie nominates Jack as president with no hesitation. Cheering and applauding erupts amongst the newsies, as if it was a given that Jack would take leadership without second thought. Even in terms of stage direction and movement in this scene, Jack is highlighted as the head newsie. All of the other boys gather around him on stage, looking directly at him as he thinks and makes decisions from the center of the group. Jack’s position of power among the group is unsurprising. Of course, for a man to be a man, he MUST be a leader. Newsies surrenders itself to this stereotype, as Jack Kelly’s power even further contributes to his normative masculinity. 

I know you have all been waiting for this one, so I won’t leave you stranded any longer: women. There is no better indication of toxic masculinity than seeing how stereotypical male characters interact with their romantic interests and Jack Kelly’s character does anything but defy this norm. From the very first interaction between Jack and Katherine Plummer, a gorgeous reporter, it is clear that he is interested in her from how he pushes his friend away in an effort to talk to her. Later, Jack, Davey and Les make their way to Miss Medda’s theater where Katherine is writing a show review for her job as a reporter. Despite the fact that Jack knows that Katherine is busy working and uninterested, he is persistent and seems to believe that his desire is more important than anything else. He continues to minimize her as he comments on her appearance saying, “the view is better here” when she asks him to leave her alone. (00:29) Jack’s aggressive chase continues even to the extent where, when Katherine asks him what he wants in the context of a career, he responds, “can’t you see it in my eyes?” as he inches up close to her, bites his lip, and (tries to) talk in a seductive voice. (00:47) The cherry on top? You guessed it. She ends up caving and falling for Jack at the end of the show. The way that Jack essentially preys on Katherine through both dialogue and movement is yet another contributing factor to his problematic portrayal of gender and masculinity.  So, if it wasn’t clear before, it is definitely clear now: Jack Kelly lives up to many of the stereotypes of masculinity that invade our culture. Whether it’s the male ‘standard of attractiveness’, the need to be an outgoing, powerful leader to be masculine, or the idea that being masculine is accompanied by the entitlement to aggressively pursue women, Jack has the qualities that check all of the boxes. The fact that many of Jack’s characteristics are predictable and “true to form” for a male main character is evidence that Newsies is definitely not alone in representing and normalizing this toxic masculinity. However, that does not deem it justifiable. For all of the young boys out there who have watched and will watch Newsies, Jack Kelly’s character will be subconsciously added to a list of male figures that fit these problematic gender norms. Boys who look up to Jack’s character as a role model for fighting for change and are inspired to follow in his footsteps might also internalize the other problematic male gender norms that seem to often go along with these masculine lead roles. Newsies is not at fault for creating these harmful norms, but instead, Jack Kelly is just another case for why they are perpetuated over time.

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. In this response to Newsies, I really appreciate how Zoe linked the dichotomy of the show’s (at least performative) rebuke of capitalism with its complete acceptance of other norms in society. Specifically, Zoe mentions how Jack is a quintessential example of toxic masculinity, something quite common for a leading man in a musical. I would like to add that this use of the common and stereotypical musical theater love story with a strong leading man was most likely written to make the show appeal to a wider audience, striving to fit into what capitalism makes necessary in a musical. Therefore, Newsies is also reaffirming the values of capitalism, as we discussed in class, with its appeal to mass marketing through writing a heterosexual love story as a key component to the plot, despite the core plot of the show being a condemnation of this system. Though the plot of Newsies is allegedly progressive, the situation that it places itself in, most likely because of its need to be monetarily successful for its investors and its connection with the anti-union Disney, is decidedly conservative and contradicts the values that it claims to have, as Zoe shows by analyzing its refusal to break from traditional portrayals of male characters and romance.

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  2. I had many similar thoughts as you while watching Newsies in regards to its portrayal of masculinity! Specifically, when thinking about how Jack’s character just assumed leadership without contest in many situations, or it was handed to him. I thought your point of how his hyper masculine appearance subliminally signified that he would be the lead was very interesting, as it is so true across many Disney works that the lead is the most charismatic and conventionally attractive person in the cast, which has probably had many adverse effects in the generations that grew up think this was the standard. Similarly, I think this concept of representation and what is portrayed to us having real life effects on us is particularly important when addressing another point you raise of Jack’s unrelenting or solicited flirting being, not only acceptable, but successful. When you wrote “He continues to minimize her as he comments on her appearance saying, “the view is better here” when she asks him to leave her alone.” I literally was thinking “this would probably work on me.” Our expectations of what to expect and accept in a relationship are so heavily influenced by what is established in the media we are subjected to as children, and I think those making this media should take more accountability for the precedent they set when they allow this type of behavior to, again, not only be acceptable, but for it to work.

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