Katherine Plumber: Feminist Icon for the Patriarchy

The 2017 recording of Disney’s stage production of Newsies tells the story of a young and plucky trail-blazer that risks it all to make history: Katherine Plumber. Of course, Katherine’s story is a part of the larger telling of the newsboy strike of 1899, led by Jack Kelly. While Katherine and her writing talents are essential to a successful strike, this is not her character’s only purpose. She also fulfills the oh, so necessary role of Jack’s love interest. Interestingly Katherine Plumber is not a character in the original 1992 film of Newsies. In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein replaces Bryan Denton and Sarah Jacobs with our leading lady.  

Bryan Denton, reporter for The Sun (Newsies, 1992)

Sarah Jacobs, sister to David and Les & Jack’s love interest (Newsies, 1992)

In the musical, the importance of Katherine’s role as a reporter is obvious. Her publication of the original strike story in act 1 and her idea to write The Newsies Banner in act 2 gives the strike the public attention needed to make change. Therefore, Fierstein needed to include a reporter character that is willing to help the newsies. This begs the question: why make this character a woman? Katherine’s agency, showcased through the newly added number of “Watch What Happens”, provides the argument that making the reporter character a woman creates a rarity for the Broadway stage: a female character that has an important part to play in the plot of the story. As a feminist and female performer, I desperately want this narrative to be true, and it is to a certain extent. However, why does Fierstein also have to make Katherine Jack’s love interest? Fierstein includes Katherine’s relationship with Jack to confirm his masculinity, emphasizing Jack as the main character.

Katherine first shows her agency in the dialog break between “The World Will Know” and “The World Will Know” (reprise). When Jack jokingly asks if she is there for him she replies, “The only thing I’m following is a story.” This line asserts that Katherine is, first and foremost, a reporter. Kara Lindsay’s excitement when the reprise begins confirms that Katherine is after the story, not Jack. Her facial expressions and body language show that Katherine is excited for her big break, and this acting leads right into “Watch What Happens.” Throughout this number, Katherine goes against the norm of a female lead. This “I want” song is about her career aspirations, not about the boy, as many leading lady’s “I want” songs are. The staging of this song further supports the idea that Katherine is not your typical female character. Throughout the song, Lindsay uses space. She moves across the entire stage and fills the space with big arm movements and a spread stance. Compare this to Julie Andrews performance of “In My Own Little Corner” in the 1957 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Julie Andrews conveys that she is a good girl, mild and meek, through her small movements and confinement. 

Katherine claims her space in “Watch What Happens”

Writers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and choreographer Christopher Gattelli further show that Katherine’s agency is crucial to and accepted by the newsies in “King of New York”.

“She’s the king of New York.”

-Race, “King of New York”

The newsies sing, “We was sunk, pale and pitiful / … / She fished us out and drowned us in ink.” They could not have accomplished what they have at this point without Katherine’s help, showing that Katherine has the power to direct the story. Furthermore, Gattelli’s choreography shows that she has even more agency than the newsies; she is able to do things that they cannot. When the newsies have Katherine take the spotlight in the tap number, she includes displays of flexibility that leave the newsies in awe. 

Race is shocked by Katherine’s abilities

Katherine has the means to make a difference, even without the help of her powerful father. She has the intrinsic motivation to write the story on the strike; as she sings in “Watch What Happens”, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” She has the ability to make the story successful; her story makes the front page “above the fold”. There is no need for her to solidify her place in the show through her romance with Jack. This nonsense is evident in the discrepancy between Katherine’s and Jack’s ages. The crux of this story is that Jack and the other newsies are children. The show promotes the message that newsies and the other child workers should be allowed to be kids, not to be disrespected as laborers. 

“Each generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day.”

– Governor Roosevelt

Therefore, one has to assume that Katherine, the working girl that comes up with the idea to expand the strike to all child workers, cannot be a child herself. A relationship between a boy and a woman in a show that emphasizes children’s rights uncomfortably forces this love story onto the audience. In the 1992 movie, Jack’s fling with Sarah is much easier to accept because she is also a child. So what is so important about this relationship that Fierstein needs to provide Jack with a love interest, even if she is illogically older than him? The romance is not included because Katherine needs Jack (or even because she loves Jack) but because Jack needs Katherine.

Jack’s power as the leader of the newsies comes from his masculinity. As Pulitzer says, Jack is “Mr. Tough Guy”. However, analysis of Jack’s character shows that he is not this perfect display of masculinity that the other newsies see. He dreams of running away to Santa Fe so he can trade working for having a family with whom he can have lazy Sundays. He has an aptitude for painting and pursues art as a hobby, not as a means of income. He puts himself at risk to feed and cloth the boys at the Refuge. However, the newsies need to see Jack as their fearless leader. Therefore, scenes where Jack seems to lose his masculine power are followed by scenes where Katherine is solely operating as a love interest. After Jack laments about running away to Santa Fe in the Prologue, Katherine makes her first appearance as Jack offers to deliver her a paper, personally.

When Miss Medda reveals Jack’s artistic talents, Jack runs into Katherine again and sings “I Never Planned on You”.  Jack betrays the newsies and accepts Pulitzer’s bribe and Katherine and Jack kiss.

These scenes focusing on Katherine as an object of Jack’s affection reassert Jack’s masculine power. They set Jack up for his displays of leadership. Meeting Katherine establishes his role as the leader. Seeing her at the Bowery sets him up for “The World Will Know”, where Gattelli showcases Jack’s masculinity with hard and tense choreography. Jack’s kiss with Katherine propels him into “Once and for All” and through the resolution.

Jack needs Katherine to connect the contrasting elements of his character, but this development comes at Katherine’s expense. Katherine sacrifices her own agency so that Jack can fulfill his potential. While Katherine has the ability to drive the plot, she still has to be an object of male affection so that Jack can claim his power. This shift in Katherine’s position is shown in the rhetoric in the final scene. Miss Medda brings Katherine to the Governor. Jack has Katherine as an ace up his sleeve. Katherine is a feminist character, but in the most palatable way.

She has agency, goals, and a career, but at the end of the day, a man benefits from her success more than she does. 

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