My son had two free tickets to Les Misérables and kindly ‘shouted’ me. Others who saw it earlier loved it, returned for more. Ages ago I hadn’t got far with the book but knew the main story. The wider story was quite new to me.
‘Had I enjoyed the film?’ A piece in the DomPost had warned of its shortcomings in respect of women’s roles. At first I was too bemused to reply. I did allow that the singing and the music were great. I’d stayed awake throughout, quite a feat. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe astonished. The romantic young hero had a glorious voice. The women sang well. The two ravenhaired women got polished off (oh god not the dispensable women I first noticed in film and fiction in the post-feminist backlash of the 80s?). The soppy blonde virgin, I presume, got a leg up into a well endowed aristocratic family. Nor did the saccharine Catholicism accord with the widespread punitive Christianity of the times.
The warning article was written by Princeton Professor Stacy Wolf, a theatre historian, who studies gender and sexuality in the American musical. She wrote that that “Les Miz” was ‘full of outdated gender roles’ and ‘idealised women through the persuasive, demeaning stereotype of the martyr’. (As well as purifying the one who loved too much without benefit of the clergy?)
The women ‘are there only for the men to save, pity or forget’ and ‘trigger the men’s ethical struggles and bravery, but they don’t actually do anything’. Amen to Stacy’s insights. She allows she still loves “Les Miz”, lives with the contradictions but notes the women’s roles fared better in French productions of the musical and even better in the book.
The pursuit of Jean Valjean by Javert was well-realised. But the young hero was as soppy as the heroine. Once he got a sight of her his revolutionary ardour waned. My son opined all he then wanted was to get his leg over.
I loved the fifties films of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals ’Oklahoma’ and ‘South Pacific’. The music is not comparable: they are music hall tradition, while Les Misérables is closer to opera but, thankfully, the words are clearer.
In those stories the women play major roles, ostensibly stereotyped (both heroines are blonde) but are more complicated in fact. Happy ever after was also the outcome but the character flaws produce painful self awareness in the heroine. Prudery of the 1950s variety is wittily mocked in ‘Oklahoma’. In both films a spotlight is shone on America’s dark underbelly: xenophobia in ‘Oklahoma’ (thanks to Rod Steiger’s stunning performance) and racism in ‘South Pacific’.
So, why oh why in the second decade of the twenty-first century, did an otherwise fine production of a fine musical revert to sex stereotyping and an overly simplistic storyline?