Hamilton: Broadway’s Most Disappointing Performance of Progressive Feminism

It pains me to criticize Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton knowing that my memorization of the soundtrack was what got me an A in my American Studies class in high school. I loved Hamilton. Arriving on the Broadway stage in 2015, the show quickly made its way into popular culture. The music is addictive, the choreography is exhilarating, the plot is seductive and emotional. No matter my affection for the soundtrack, the show itself is deeply flawed and worthy of criticism, so I’m happy to provide. And a critical analysis through a feminist lens? How could I resist?

Hamilton is an incredibly unique show. Performing a history that has been taught in some form to nearly every American over the age of twelve is a challenge within itself, but performing it accurately provides another layer of complication. One might argue that most Americans barely remember learning about the American Revolution in school, thus making Hamilton their primary interpretation of that history, which is problematic. It’s not problematic that people don’t remember learning about The American Revolution — slightly concerning, but not problematic. It is problematic, though, when someone accepts Hamilton as an accurate historical portrayal of the American Revolution rather than a heavily fictionalized theatrical performance. Lin, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’re a producer, not a historian.

Since this is a critique of Hamilton through a feminist lens, it’s only fair to acknowledge that history presents certain constraints when performing a show that is set in a time when women had very few rights. That being said, the show cast several people of color as characters who were historically white slave owners — so I’m not really up to hear any excuses as to why the show couldn’t have done more for the female characters. Hamilton depicts several female stereotypes: an empowered older sister who’s evaded by love, a naive little sister, and a scandalous mistress. Beyond the stereotypes, these female characters exist solely to show the desirability and power of Hamilton himself. The show performs sexism more than it does romance or love. For god’s sake, a song called “Helpless” sung by women about an overwhelming longing for a man — and people are calling Hamilton progressive.

The reality is, Hamilton chooses to honor some aspects of history and ignore others. The show erases the significance of race for certain characters, but only speaks to slavery when it’s convenient for the lyrics of a fast-paced rap. The show has sold thousands of tee-shirts that read the iconic Angelica Schuyler line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” yet seem to have no problem performing female stereotypes on stage. Lyrics like these are purposeful; producers understand that the role of gender on stage is always subject to criticism. Thus, they opted for very overt expressions of female empowerment on stage, even though this strong-feminist sentiment is lacking for the majority of the show. Hamilton may be telling the story of a revolution, but it is in no way revolutionary in its depiction of femininity or the plight of women. When we look at the actors as an on-stage community, the female characters belong simply as subjects of attraction for the male characters. Although they may be singing empowering lyrics, the show affords them very little power.

Let’s look at the iconic Angelica Schuyler. She’s introduced as the highly intelligent, powerful, and independent leader of the Schuyler sister trio. Angelica sings lyrics like “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine. So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane. You want a revolution? I want a revelation,” effectively contrasting the image of colonial women as uneducated and lacking empowerment. Angelica seems enticingly controversial. She has the entire audience rooting for her. Will she find love? Who cares. Will she roundhouse kick Thomas Jefferson and earn voting rights for women? That’s the narrative that has spectators on the edge of their seats. She’s a badass. Upon analyzing the show in its entirety, though, it’s plain to see that Angelica’s overt performances of feminism are strategic and hollow as she spends most of the show pining after Hamilton. It’s disappointing, not only because Angelica abandons the independent woman narrative that spectators were loving, but also because she’s clearly way out of his league. Beyond this, the show only defines Angelica’s intelligence as relative to Alexander’s. When Angelica recounts the night she met Alexander, she sings “So this is what it feels like to match wits with someone at your level! what the hell is the catch? It’s the feeling of freedom, of seeing the light. It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite. You see it right?” This comparison of intelligence only propels the idea that a woman being as intelligent as a man is rare. In reality, Angelica is far more intelligent than Alexander, but because of the setting and gender norms in the show, Angelica would never acknowledge herself as such. While she may be introduced as an empowered, beautifully disruptive character, Angelica ultimately occupies a familiar gender stereotype as her power, intellect, and emotion is defined by Alexander’s existence.

I give the producers of Hamilton some credit for including Angelica’s character as a seemingly empowered, independent woman, albeit a strategic character to keep the show in good standing with Broadway’s feminists. When it came to viewing Eliza Schuyler as a representation of femininity, I was saddened. How much power can you possibly deprive a female character in a show that’s supposed to be “progressive”? And to pretend that Eliza finds the power she once lacked in her founding of an orphanage after Alexander’s death… it’s weak. Eliza, played by the incredible Philipa Soo, fulfills the stereotype of the naive, slightly anxious little sister of Angelica. In “Helpless” a sheepish Eliza stands on the side of the stage opposite Hamilton as Angelica speaks to him, watching anxiously to see how Hamilton is reacting to Angelica’s every word. The song follows the two through the beginning of their love story, which makes the song’s title all the more fitting. Eliza’s helplessness defines her role in the relationship with Alexander for the entirety of the show. Even once Hamilton has passed away and Eliza takes initiative to start an orphanage, she does so as a tribute to her late husband who she stood by despite his infidelity and general arrogance. In what I would argue is among the most moving solos in Broadway history, Eliza sings about the way Hamilton betrayed and humiliated her by not only having an affair but making that affair public knowledge to aid his political career that he has consistently prioritized over his wife. The vigor that Eliza exhibits in “Burn” as she burns the letters that Alexander sent her with tears running down her face contrasts the image of the naive Eliza that we see in “Helpless.” In “Burn”, Eliza sings, almost breathlessly, the following lyrics: “You forfeit all rights to my heart. You forfeit the place in our bed. You’ll sleep in your office instead. With only the memories of when you were mine.” Yes! This is the energy I wanted to see from Eliza. This is the badass woman kicking her unloyal husband out of their bed. It’s the breakup song we never knew we needed. But once again, the power that the writers afford Eliza in this scene is temporary and strategic. Eliza takes Hamilton back, exhibiting the same naivete and helplessness that she did when their love story first began. Eliza’s presence in the plot serves to show the desirability and the remarkability of Hamilton’s character. Eliza never gains the power she loses in marrying such an arrogant and, frankly, selfish man. She goes from being naive and helpless to being sympathetic and suffering heartbreak. Eliza’s story is the ultimate tragedy in Hamilton. This representation of femininity is disappointing; the show affords Eliza no agency — no moments of taking action. She’s defined by her subjectivity to the men who surround her, and the community in which the show is set simply accepts that as her position of belonging.

Finally, we have Mariah Reynolds, Hamilton’s mistress. All I have to say about this one is: seriously? Two female stereotypes weren’t enough? I understand that this is based on history and that Hamilton did have an affair, but the way the show chose to represent Reynolds as a scandalous seductress and irresistible sexual object was just awful and uncreative. When the soundtrack gets to “Say No to This”, I press skip as fast as possible to avoid the inevitable cringe that the song consistently evokes from me. With lyrics like “She turned red, she led me to her bed, let her legs spread and said: stay” and “But my God, she looks so helpless. And her body’s saying, “Hell, yes’”, I’m not sure how this song could be appreciated by any woman. Mariah Reynolds’ character embodies the sexualized fiction of women that is promoted in the media and things like porn. I am all for women owning their sexuality, but when that sexuality is defined by the sexual desires of a man, the red flags are clear. The way Hamilton objectifies Reynolds throughout the entirety of “Say No to This” is, by far, the most overt example of the way this show perpetuates stereotypical images of women. Women are not sexual objects, nor spectacles of beauty who exist solely for the enjoyment of men. All of the power afforded to Mariah Reynolds’ in this scene comes as a result of her sexual body and the idea that her overwhelming desirability is irresistible to a man. Ultimately, this power is relative to Hamilton’s sexual desire for her.

Considering how far Hamilton goes to dismantle stereotypes of race and masculinity, it’s frustrating to see how little was done for the show’s women. The overt performances of feminism felt hollow and strategically placed by producers who were more concerned with the social reception of the show than the authentic representation of powerful women. The female characters do not get nearly enough stage time and when they do, their emotions and narratives exist only in relation to Hamilton himself. The on-stage setting and community cultivated by the producers of Hamilton is a community that facilitates patriarchal norms and actively denies female characters power. Does this mean I’ll stop belting “Burn” in my car alone just because Hamilton is more problematic than my sophomore self knew? Definitely not. But, I will do so knowing that Eliza deserved far better, and I will continue to hold the producers accountable for performative feminism and denying some truly bad-ass female characters power. They can’t freestyle their way out of this one. Anyway, queue Lin Manuel’s lip bite.

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