Set in the 1920s, the meta-musical Gypsy tells the story of an ambitious mother, “Mama” Rose, trying to make her two daughters, June and Louise, succeed as stars in the American show business, then dominated by vaudeville but waning in wake of the rising popularity of the strip-tease genre. Based on a true story and more specifically on the autobiography Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper published by one of the daughters Louise (known professionally as Gypsy Rose Lee) in 1957, Gypsy originally opened on Broadway in 1959 and has since been adapted for television and re-produced multiple times. With lyrics by Stephen Sondeheim, music composed by Jule Styne, the book written by Arthur Laurents, and production done in association with Storyline Entertainment, All Girl Productions, and RHI Entertainment, the 1993 televised version of the meta-musical directed by Emile Ardolino was able to bring the story of mother-daughter onto the small screen, starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Louise/Gyspy Rose Lee. To provide a quick synopsis of the plot, Mama Rose is the epitome of a show-mother: overprotective, persistent, and unrelenting in her pursuit to make her daughters steal the show. This is not, however, to say she is without flaws (more on this later). Her two daughters June and Louise are presented from the very beginning in juxtaposition to one another; while June is “dainty”, feminine, and talented at dancing and singing not to mention she has the blonde bob thing working in her favor (because why wouldn’t gentlemen prefer blondes *cough cough* said Marilyn Monroe), Louise is clumsy, tomboyish, and subjected to her sister’s shadow as a brunette. In the beginning, Mama Rose noticeably favors June over Louise, promising to make her a star, largely neglecting her less-talented but ever loyal daughter–that is, until June decides to ditch the whole “kiddie” act and leave behind her mother’s unfulfilled promises and overpowering control over her life to elope with one of the boys in the crew. With Mama Rose’s shift in attention from focusing all on June to now only Louise, we see a transformation in the mother-daughter dynamic and equally importantly, Louise’s shift in her self-image and the ideals she both internalizes and reflects regarding femininity.
Frankly, from the very beginning of the televised musical, I constantly found myself rooting for Louise to be recognized by Mama Rose and receive the same attention and love June did, perhaps because I identified with her as a fellow brunette and with being at odds with the long-time representation of blondes (and not brunettes) as the standard of western beauty ever since I was a kid. However, I have to admit I was sourly disappointed when Louise went down the road oh-so less travelled and chose the fate of becoming a stripper–all for the validation and love she never was able to receive from her own mother. It was quite tragic and hard-to-watch because before choosing this fate, Louise never considered herself to be beautiful and her own mother never even acknowledged her individually. Her sense of self and arguably her ego and even sense of arrogance by the time she has become a successful stripper at the end of the musical made me question if any of the old Louise, the Louise that was thoughtful, caring, and selfless, was left. By becoming a stripper, Louise essentially subjects herself to the standards of beauty prescribed by society i.e. she tries to fit the mold, and unfortunately, I think she lost a lot–maybe even all–of her initial quiet, boyish charm (and a lot of the brownie points she had from me at the beginning). It was frustrating to me as well because in the context of today’s viewers, Louise provides yet another example of a female character needing to be sexualized for approval and validation by society, which does not portray femininity in a progressive way but rather reduces women to objects of lust.
I think it’s also quite interesting what a side-by-side comparison of Louise and her mother Rose reveals about their relationship and also about representations of gender and sexuality furthered by this musical. For one, it’s a bit ironic that Rose has very few men in her life or, more accurately, refuses to let them into her life and leave her again, while Louise’s work involves being surrounded by and appeasing the sexual desires of men all around her. But if you think about it, both are actually alone and perhaps even feel lonely if not for each other even though they might not realize/admit it. For Rose, her daughter Louise gives her a sense of purpose and for Louise, her distinction as the best stripper out there gives her a sense of pride and confidence she never experienced before. Approval by others gives her purpose for maybe the first time in her life–I know, sad but true. Second, by the end of the musical, there is an interesting reversal of events: whereas Rose barely gave any heed to Louise in the beginning as she was regarded as non-essential for the act, by the end, Rose is hanging on to Louise, trying to do anything even as small as turning on the bath to make herself feel useful and needed by her daughter.
My feelings are still quite mixed on how Mama Rose and Louise’s relationship went downhill. The sticky thing is Mama Rose is like a double-edged sword: she both makes and breaks the rules of femininity in that she’s headstrong, fiercely independent, and essentially a girl boss willing to risk it all for her daughters without any man’s help–even Herbie’s–but at the same time she is unable to break free from the repressive misogynistic ideals of the entertainment industry. In fact, I’m shaking my head as I write this, but Mama Rose was an accomplice–no, she was the one who got Louise into strip tease because she was so blinded by the idea of success. She sacrificed her own daughter just to live her own dreams through Louise, giving into her own morals, and in doing so, losing Herbie and all his previous respect for her. She perpetuates the regressive ideals of femininity forwarded by the show business to exploit her daughter’s youth and “fresh” sense of sophistication in a selfish way. Short-sighted by her greed to make Louise famous, Mama Rose goes head-to-head with Louise by the end of the musical, struggling to stay relevant to her daughter. She calls Louise names like a “circus freak” and “the burlesque queen who speaks lousy French” to poke at her daughter’s sense of pride and conscience. Louise retaliates by remarking, “Nobody laughs at me because I laugh first” and ordering her mother to “turn it off.” The two do end up reconciling after the conclusion of the number “Roses Turn” with Rose admitting to her selfishness in pushing her daughter and Louise reaffirming her desire to be noticed by Rose, albeit sloppily. I was rather unsatisfied with their reconciliation because it seemed to just gloss over and even lend approval to Louise’s stripper transformation and fame as a justification/substitute for Rose’s initially neglectful but eventually overpowering control over Louise’s life. It implies that it’s okay to run away from one toxic relationship and pursue sexual objectification as liberation. Ironic isn’t it? That to be “free” of the limits imposed by her mother and society championing the ideal of the blonde dame Louise has to be risque and her persona sexually charged. Furthermore, the musical does not hint at any of the lasting damages that could be caused by internalizing such harmful representations of femininity and having such a rocky mother-daughter relationship that could manifest much later down the road. I mean, for starters (and to be rather blunet), what will happen when Louise gets old and she falls out of favor of the stripper business and gets replaced? Will she, too, try to relive her glory days through her children as Rose did?
Let’s briefly take it from the top and consider how these (damaging) ideas of femininity slowly worked their way into Louise’s mind and created cracks in her relationship with Rose, starting with the number “May We Entertain You?” featuring Louise as a kid alongside her superstar-sister June. During this number, which repeatedly gets played even as the sisters June and Louise have become much too old for a kiddie number, Louise largely blends in with the boy ensemble, even playing the role of a cow in one of the numbers, hidden away from the audience’s sight. Her style of dress is boyish, featuring her in brownish overalls and a newsboy cap, as she longingly looks at Tulsa, hoping to be recognized by her crush but gets friend-zoned by Tulsa, who’s absolutely clueless or just not into tomboys like Louise or both. (A quick emphasis needs to be made here again showing how Louise was not considered pretty by society’s standards, her mother’s standards, and even Tulsa’s standards until she started stripping, unfortunately revealing the exclusive standards of femininity to a binary between the innocent blonde dame and the sensual stripper.) However, when this same song is played in a much later number “Let Me Entertain You” in Act Two by the stripper-version of Louise (i.e. Gypsy), all eyes are on Louise and she is front and center. She is also wearing extravagant–not to mention promiscuous–ball gowns and fur coats and jewelry that show off her body shape, which is in stark contrast to the loose-fitting, dingy, and modest clothes she wore at the beginning of the show. (And now I’m remembering that this song gave me a major ear bug and left me triggered but unable to stop humming along even when I realized that the song sung by the kids and by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee were one and the same….)
In closing, Gypsy illustrates how femininity as presented by Louise’s transformation from the quiet and charming girl-next-door to a stripper as well as by the change in the dynamic of Louise’s relationship with her mother both reflect how gender is shaped by culture and how the performance of gender goes well beyond physical features of beauty.