Modern Femininity, Mama Rose, and Why She Deserved a Dream for Herself.

I’ve been trying to decide for years now if it’s messed up that “Rose’s Turn” is one of my pump-up musical theater songs.

Everyone has that playlist of songs that you go to before a competition, a job interview, a performance, or really anything that they need a boost of adrenaline and confidence for – or if you’ve just had a terrible day and need a pick-me-up to get through the next four hours of classes and assignments. “Rose’s Turn” is easily one of my top picks from my version of that playlist.

Like yeah, sure, Mama Rose is literally having a nervous breakdown in song, and I’m definitely not supposed to root for her or think she’s a great person, and I’ve just watched her inflict some serious psychological damage on her kids for two hours… and yet… “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, satisfying musical theater ‘I want’ songs EVER. Why is that? Why am I obsessed with this song? Why is it one of my go-to songs to screlt in the car when I need a boost?  

Hear me out – it’s because Bette Midler’s iconic 1993 performance of Rose’s Turn reads to a modern viewer as a fiery show of self-acceptance, a rejection of cultural norm, and a discovery of non-traditional femininity. It’s no secret that Rose doesn’t exactly embody traditional femininity, especially not in 1959, when Arthur Laurents wrote the book to Gypsy and Jules Styne and Steven Sondheim turned it into the classic musical. Traditionally, women are demure, beautiful, nurturing, and soft-spoken. They are not too confident, and while they may have goals, they aren’t working too hard or getting in anyone’s way to achieve them. They are subservient to men. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mama Rose is none of those things. She’s bold, brash, confident – she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. In the first scene, we see her barging into an audition and ordering everyone in the room around to make sure her daughters look like the stars that she firmly believes she can make them. She isn’t afraid to essentially ask Herbie to marry her in their very first meeting. She bribes and silver-tongues her way through every situation that dares stop her.

Mama Rose certainly tries to show us that she loves being this way. She exudes confidence. This is written into the book, but Midler also brings an anger and a passion to the character that makes her utterly impossible to ignore. She doesn’t care that she isn’t the star, that she often rubs people the wrong way – her character and perception are secondary to the success of her children. But throughout the show, we see little hints at Rose’s insecurities, in the way Midler delivers a line or in the ghost of a facial expression. Is she truly accepting of her lot in life? Is seeing the success of her children enough for her? As she slowly alienates all the people who love her – first June, then Herbie, and finally ever-devoted Louise, we see the cracks in her façade start to show.

And see, here’s the thing – I feel bad for Rose. I can’t help myself! Even though I am well aware that Rose is a toxic maternal figure, and she has not by any means done what is best for her children, I absolutely feel sympathy towards her. She has been forced to attempt to fit a mold that she will never conform to. Mothering is the “natural” occupation for women of this era, so where does Rose direct all of her dreams, her goals, and her ambitions? Onto her children. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it wasn’t commonplace for women to have their own careers while still being mothers. If you were a mother, that was your job. This was the age of the housewife and the picture-perfect nuclear family. I understand why Rose would’ve felt forced to direct all of her goals onto June and Louise – “don’t I get a dream for myself” was the cry of every stereotypical 1950s mother.

Today, it would have been far more societally acceptable for Rose to have that dream for HER, not for her daughters. Our modern concept of an “ideal woman” (at least from my perspective as a 22 year old who’s ready to get rid of gender roles) is unafraid to pursue her goals. She’s capable of juggling lots of different hats: mother (Rose), careerwoman (Rose?), dreamer (definitely Rose). She’s a master of networking, of finding opportunities where there are seemingly none, and getting to her end goal in whatever way possible. Midler’s portrayal definitely plays into this bold and almost conniving side of Rose in a way that shoves all those character traits front and center. And I ask you this, reader – if Mama Rose was Papa Rose, would we view the character differently? It’s appropriate for men to be pushy and know what they want. When men obnoxiously advocate for themselves, it’s seen as admirable and forgivable instead of unacceptable. Would these aspects of her character be seen in a warmer light?

Obviously, I’m not saying we should forgive Rose for the way she treated her children. She undoubtedly caused them a lot of trauma and stunted their growth and mental development. She was by no means a good mother.

However, Rose is a product of her time (and I usually hate that excuse). It’s so easy to see how these naturally occurring personality traits could have been warped by outward expectations and turned into the poisonous things that they become in Gypsy. And with that lens, it’s hard to NOT view “Rose’s Turn” as a satisfying and thrilling realization of what Rose has lost because of what society has told her is acceptable. It’s never been her turn. She doesn’t get a dream for herself. She isn’t allowed it. But God, she could’ve had it, and Midler makes that obvious. The showpiece that she makes “Rose’s Turn” gives us a vivid picture of how Rose could’ve turned her energy and charisma into an incredible stage persona. Rose is finally showing herself. She’s exploring her inner show woman. She is accepting herself as she is, while mourning what she has lost. And man, it is so satisfying. I was waiting for her to let loose from the first moment she sauntered into frame, and she finally does it here.

Yes, it’s a breakdown, but sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations. Who hasn’t had a screaming collapse in the worst moments of their lives, when all their buried frustrations are finally escaping out into the world? (okay maybe I’m revealing too much of myself here, but I digress…) That’s why I want to hear “Rose’s Turn” when I need to get my adrenaline going. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s loud and, for the first time, it’s truly unapologetic.

When I hear “Rose’s Turn”, I want to do it for her, and all the women she represents, who didn’t get dreams for themselves.

Musical characters

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Wow! I first want to say your essay was phenomenal! Every line was so powerful and engaging. I especially loved your ending—“sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations.” I wholeheartedly agree. It’s really in these moments of intense, overwhelming emotions that wake us up, forces us to realize. I also enjoyed your discussion on Mama Rose and how she compares to societal standards of a perfect woman. She is far from being the docile and quiet woman. Moreover, she is also nowhere near being the warm and loving mother. In Mama Rose we see determination, we see brashness, and we see her burning desire for a dream she cannot quite grasp.

    Like

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