Disney’s 2017 adaptation of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and starring Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as Katherine Pulitzer, is a charming musical showcasing the story of young newspaper sellers as they strike against the monopolist Joseph Pulitzer. Sadly, however, for all its charisma, the musical does little to break free of gendered norms, especially in its two showcase characters, Jack and Katherine.
First, let’s take a look at Jeremy Jordan’s character, Jack Kelly. Jack is the unofficial leader of the newsies, as they refer to themselves. He is universally revered and admired by his fellow newsies. You may notice, however, that no character ever explicitly expresses these feelings. Nobody ever says “gee, Jack, you’re really somethin’ huh” or “I think Jack should be our decision maker.” Most people would write this off as the writers simply wanting to get the idea of Jack being a leader across without having to directly say so. I would argue, however, that there are instances where characters get 90% of the way there anyway, but fall just short of making any direct assertion, like in the opening scene when Crutchie says “I don’t need folks. I got friends” and nudges Jack in the shoulder. How difficult would it have been for Crutchie to end that line with a “like you” or even “I’ve got you and the boys”? It’s a fine line of expression that’s very easy to step over, but too many times masculine characters (and people in general) work hard to avoid stepping over that line.
Beyond being just a leader, Jack is like an older brother to the newsies. Within a group of young men like themselves, the two roles seem to have more similarities than differences. There’s a sort of emotional support, however, that the ‘brother’ role tends to display more often. It’s characterized by lots of good-hearted teasing and hard-shouldered affection. Jack delivers a classic big-brother staple to Crutchie in the opening scene: “Would I let you down? Huh? No way.” This is followed immediately by Jack calling down to the other newsies to wake up and get ready for work. This is a classic masculine attitude of not-wasting-a-second-on-all-that- unnecessary-emotional-mush. Comfort Crutchie, then go straight to work. No time wasted. Still, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t lean on the textbook older brother mannerisms like noogies, fake punches, and standing up for your brothers when someone knocks them down (ironically, one great example of that last point came against Oscar and Morris Delancey, actual brothers, when they shoved Crutchie and called him a cripple, instigating a swift beatdown from Jack).
All in all, Jack Kelly is a “man’s man”. He’s tough, he’s got swagger, and, like any other male lead character in a major film/theater/television production, he is keen to, and some might argue obligated to, fall in love. We hear this critique constantly of women in lead roles, and rightfully so. But it takes two to tango, and this particular tango reeks of forced, artificial love. Jack immediately latches onto the first girl he sees, Katherine, despite the fact that she’s walking down the street arm-in-arm with another man (who we will later find out is just a colleague). In fact, he shoves Romeo (aptly named for reasons you can guess) out of the way just to get a word in with her. Here, however, the real issue begins to take shape. You could read a script of this musical and maybe, maybe see how Jack falls for Katherine, but once you watch the characters act it out, it doesn’t seem convincing in the least. Jack never takes a moment to think “Hey, do I even like this girl?” Jeremy Jordan’s character is so caught up in being the cool guy, the king of swagger, that he never drops the act. There’s no real moment of vulnerability. His actions are based on pure instinct, because he finds her physically attractive, regardless of anything else. This is an all-too-common staple of the straight male role, and is very much in alignment with the norms regarding gender roles. He advances on Katherine instantly under the guise of selling her a paper, even offering to personally deliver it to her when it gets released. He says this last bit in a somewhat creepy/pervy way that strongly contrasts the tough-but-loving face he had entered the production with. Not long after, in Medda Larkin’s theater, he barges into Katherine’s private booth and continues to harass her despite her asking him to leave because she’s literally trying to do her job. Instead, he just sits there and draws her face and sings about her as she tries to review the show as if he’s formed any sort of mutual emotional connection with this girl. “I never planned on noone like you,” he sings. Buddy, what are you doing? Jack continues to make advances throughout the production until she finally gives way and “falls in love with him.”
I should give Jack credit, nonetheless. He’s not a complete rough-and-tough meathead in every category. He paints backdrops for Medda Larkin’s theater sets. How cute. When Medda tries to brag about his artistic abilities, he shuts down her praises, insisting that “It’s a bunch of trees.” This is not as cute. God forbid he just let the poor woman finish her compliment and give a gracious thank you. Don’t let any of the other boys know you’re a talented artist, lest you become just microscopically less of a badass in some teenage boys’ eyes. He diminishes his one ‘soft man’ quality by refusing to acknowledge his talent and shutting anyone down that brings up the subject. Humility is one thing, but to deny the art you love is all but holding up a giant sign saying “My toxic masculinity is a more important representation of me than my passions.”
On the other side of the coin is Katherine. Compared to Jack’s overwhelming sense of confidence, Katherine never seems to feel comfortable in her own skin throughout the first act. Even as she rejects Jack the first time, making up the fake headline “Cheeky boy gets nothing for his troubles,” her voice and facial expressions still carry that hint of apprehension. It’s a decently clever comeback, so why can’t she acknowledge that? Even when she does stand up for herself in Medda’s theater and basically tells Jack to buzz off, all it takes is for him to make a sketch of her face on a newspaper for her to catch feelings. She picks up that scrap paper and her entire expression changes. Where is your resolve, Katherine? Did you forget how much of an f-boy he’s been in the two interactions you’ve had since you met him? The entire sequence reeks of the stereotypical “girl suddenly, inexplicably falls for boy” theme. She does the exact same routine in the deli after the newsies declare their strike: she walks in seeming confident, determined to get the info for the story she wants to write, but as soon as the boys tell her no, she crumbles and begs them to let her write the story.
This leads to the infamous “Watch What Happens” number, a solo by Katherine that gives a perfect cross-section of her scatterbrained and flustered mind. Within this internal dialogue, she goes through the difficulty of writing such a topic, the backlash she may face for both writing this piece and being a woman writing it, and the weight of the issue itself. On this last point, she realizes the impact this story will have when it gets published and lets out a very girlish squeal to express her excitement. She is, up to this point, a character largely restricted by her own emotions, feeding directly into the stereotype of the woman with little constitution that will need to be ‘saved.’ Finally, she gains some traction in her writing, only to have that thought process pulled off course by the thought of Jack and “what a face” he has. Katherine is incapable of staying on track with her work because she is falling for Jack, a man who, up to this point, has been excessively flirty even when she didn’t want it, and more forward with his intentions than any civilized human being could consider ‘in good taste’ so to speak. And yet, she is a girl, and he is a boy, and despite the complete lack of chemistry and total unnecessariness of a romantic subplot in this story, the writers still force them to fall in love. This enforces societal norms of sexual orientation by implying that since the two major characters are a male and a female, they must be straight, and they must be attracted to each other, regardless of whatever outside circumstances are advancing the actual plot.
Notice what happens to Katherine once you take Jack out of the equation, temporarily. In the opening number of Act 2, “King of New York,” she already has displayed more confidence than in the entirety of Act 1. Her and the newsies are celebrating their story making the front page, which is a beam of good news in an otherwise challenging point in the strike. She is happy and carefree in this song. The only difference? Jack isn’t there. There’s no awkward forced attraction between the two. This scene is proof that Katherine isn’t a weak or frail character at all; her interactions with Jack are the source of her awkwardness.
It isn’t long, however, before we see these two characters driven apart as Jack learns that Katherine is Pulitzer’s daughter. This leads to a moment of high tension on the rooftop where they argue back and forth, hypothetical punch threats are exchanged, and then, out of nowhere, they kiss. It’s the most inorganic, unromantic moment, though not uncommon in popular media. The fight-turned-fling scene is all too frequently used in the modern era, and is a direct consequence of the same forced romance theme we see in this production. The boy and the girl can fight all they want, but at the end of the day, love (that is, heterosexual, romantic love) wins out, and wins out quickly, as evidenced in that instant swing of emotions.
Of course, this interaction is immediately followed by a whole range of the stereotypical conversations that characterize budding relationships. Jack goes straight from the “what are we” question to the “girls like you don’t end up with guys like me” remark. At this point, the writers aren’t even making an attempt to veer this romance away from any other popular media romance. Jack’s second comment represents a thoroughly beaten-to-death story that, although on a surface level may seem ‘progressive’ by placing the woman in the more advantageous social position, is now as far from an original idea as can be and, in this case, ends up being negated anyway.
The relationship between Jack and Katherine compromises each of their individual characters’ achievements, but it is clear that it disproportionately affects Katherine’s character. All of Katherine’s hard work to be an independent woman and kickstart a successful career in journalism throughout the story is undermined by the fact that, in the end, she leans on Jack, falls in love with him inexplicably (which she admits by the way, saying that she “never saw him coming”), pledges to be by his side forever, and wraps things up as being ‘the girl the hero got’ instead of the individual hero she is. On the other hand, Jack is the hero that saves the day and gets the girl. The masculine character is framed as the winner, even though both played equal parts in reaching their desired outcome.
Newsies isn’t some backwards representation of gender roles that pushes its audience to view the characters in more conservative, traditional ways than are standard for its time. While it doesn’t help to fight stereotypes, it also doesn’t do much to advance them either. It simply feeds off of what popular media has been delivering to the general public during this period of history. It simply sits at our current spot in time, and takes in what it has been given. A casual fan will not walk away thinking “wow, that had some strong underlying sexist tones in it” just as the more critical fan will realize that it did nothing new to help fight the sexist and heterocentric biases that plague media of its time. This does not by any means suggest that it is a bad or worthless production, however. Newsies is a surprisingly pro-union story being told by a very anti-union company, Disney. There are good takeaways from it, but sadly, gender and sexuality do not make that list. One can only hope that, in the future, an updated version of Newsies will make a more conscientious effort to address these issues.