Nothing New(sies) Here: A Failed Attempt at Breaking Gender Stereotypes

Disney’s Newsies, tells the story of the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899, and does so through dynamic choreography, lovable characters, and empowering musical numbers. While Alan Menken’s music, Jack Feldman’s lyrics, and Harvey Fiertsein’s book all make for an enjoyable performance, the musical grapples with breaking down stereotypes and, ultimately, falls flat on its face. Specifically, in its depiction of Katherine, the ambitious journalist who takes on writing the story of the Newsies. Played by Kara Lindsay, Katherine is a character audiences should see as the modern woman who won’t take nothing from no one, especially some wise-crack (but oh so handsome) newsboy. However, she ends up as being simultaneously completely unrelatable and predictable as (you guessed it), the arrogant, dashing newsboy has a vulnerable side that softens her up, thus making her lose any and all ambition that was established in the early parts of the musical.

Katherine is presented as what most people consider modern feminists to be: bold, ambitious, and witty, which the musical amplifies through her quick retorts to Jack’s initial advances. In the interlude of “Carrying the Banner”, Jack pushes his friend out of the way to get to Katherine. Not only does this action emphasize his hyper-masculine characterization, but it allows for Katherine to establish her character only a few minutes into the musical. The man she is walking with begins to speak for her, but she pushes by him and speaks to Jack herself. Without even taking a second that most people would need to think, she responds to Jack by saying, “I have a headline for you. Cheeky boy gets nothing for his troubles” (07:39). Kara Lindsay embodies writer Harvey Fiertsein’s the words with the perfect amount of wide-eyes and gaping mouth, to imply that Jack’s offer to deliver the paper to her personally is not some generous offer like he’d think it is. From the get-go, Katherine should be something young girls aspire to be and women resonate with. But, as is a running theme in Newsies, Katherine’s character arc plateaus once the plotline shifts to her falling for Jack.

Her ability to spin a phrase and stand up to the demeaning retorts by the Newsies like, “Shouldn’t you be at the ballet?” (44:05) sets her up to be “different” from other girls. She’s snarky and bold, so isn’t that feminism? Well, kind of… but not entirely. What happens so often in modern media that wants to avoid falling into the trap of creating mild female characters with no agency, is that they overcompensate by making their characters too perfect. Basically Katherine’s only flaw is that her dad is the owner of the World. And that problem quickly finds its resolution and that’s the end of that. The problem with this kind of representation is that it is as equally inaccurate as the quiet and modest representation. Female characters do not have to always know the witty and smart thing to say, and they can have fatal flaws. However, Newsies falls right into line with other musicals, movies, and television shows that make their female characters so bold, snarky, and witty that they’re not even real people: they’re just characterizations of women.

Not to mention, the musical completely fails at providing Katherine with any sort of dignified resolution. Her song “Watch What Happens”, establishes in Act I that Katherine is a multifaceted character. She’s brave and ambitious, but also knows that female journalists are not only uncommon, but belittled. Kara Lindsay’s acting during this song shows a fierce determination in her eyes mixed with the perfect blend of uncertainty. Questioning her abilities, “Those boys are counting on you. Oh, those poor boys” (49:00), she begins to ramble her thoughts, concerns, and passions throughout the song. The quick tempo and speed at which she sings the lyrics both highlight her anxiety with taking on a project like this, while also reaffirming her sharp mind, which makes audiences aware of how good of a journalist she can be. How she sings the lyrics, and the composition of the song, going from determined and fast to almost a whisper and unsure, shows the internal struggle Katherine has with this task. She has this confidence in herself that exudes out of her when she has to be quick with a reply to the Newsies, but when it comes to actually reporting, she knows it has to be so superior no one can ignore it just because a woman wrote it, thus producing a heightened sense of anxiety. The song builds during the chorus, both through Katherine’s vocals which get louder and more assured, but also with the music. What starts as just a repetitive piano note to match her internal dialogue swells with the incorporation of brass instruments as she realizes the magnitude of what she’s about to do, and that she’s capable of doing it. The title, “Watch What Happens” is both about what the positive ramifications are of reporting about the exploitation of young boys, and how her career will inevitably take off after such a successful report.

But then the song takes a turn, which is the first inkling that Katherine, despite being a headstrong woman with a drive no one can undermine, is unfortunately going to end up with Jack. While those rooting for “Jackerine” may be excited about her change of heart, it is incredibly disappointing for yet another female character to essentially forego all her traits from most of the first act because the writer has to have a relationship arc.

If the second verse of “Watch What Happens” wasn’t enough of an indication that we were going to get a Jack-Katherine storyline forced down our throats, “Something to Believe In” sure does. Before the Act II song begins, Katherine and Jack are fighting (fingers crossed they don’t end up together). But don’t worry, the classic trope of mid-fight make-out happens and every issue is resolved with just a little bit of relieved sexual tension. “Something To Believe In” completely unravels all of Katherine’s previously established traits. The lyric “I have something to believe in now that I know that you believed in me” (1:45:30) states that Katherine essentially had no confidence in herself until getting Jack’s reassurance. So I guess we’ll just forget the whole “Watch What Happens” scene. While Jack repeats the same sentiment, it makes sense for his character: he was questioning his decision to go further with the strike and even took the money from Pulitzer, only changing his mind after hearing Katherine’s idea. The piano backing and soprano voice of Kara Lindsay is intended to bolster the sweetness of this confession of her feelings. They hold hands after Katherine’s verse and stare into each other’s eyes as they sing in unison, culminating in a passionate kiss as the triumphant brass instruments swell. The music, blocking and lyrics are a great way of affirming their feelings, and for unraveling all of Katherine’s traits.

By the end of the show, sure Katherine wrote the story, but other than it reaching Roosevelt and helping the Newsies, there is no real indication of how it helped Katherine achieve any of her previously stated goals. All we get is the knowledge that Jack is staying in New York, and is thus staying with Katherine (thank God!). Considering the fact that so much of Katherine’s character arc in the first act is about her establishing herself as a legitimate journalist, the ending leaves so much to be desired. If you were to meticulously edit out all instances of Katherine and Jack’s romance, the plot would still work on its own. The forced relationship helps appeal to more audiences, and is typical of a Broadway musical. Very rarely is there a musical that does not push two heterosexual characters together. The problem with this happening in Newsies is that it is unnecessary to the plot, and thus feels like something the writers included because, duh, who doesn’t want to see a beautiful woman and handsome man end up together. The musical doesn’t make any commentary on their differing statuses other than a comment or two from Jack like “What? A little different from where you were raised?” (1:40:14), and any issues that do arise are quickly resolved through a kiss and a song.

The bigger, more glaring problem with the unnecessary inclusion of this relationship is how it undermines Katherine’s character. Somehow Newsies managed to create Katherine as someone who embodies both extremes of how to write a female character. She begins as a too-perfect-to-be-real character with her unnaturally quick witted responses and only gets one moment of depth in “Watch What Happens”. Then, she all of a sudden becomes the exact character the “too perfect to be real character” overcompensates for. She falls head over heels for the guy, despite his arrogant disregard for her obvious disinterest, and loses all of that ambition, agency, and boldness she had in Act I. She suddenly only found confidence and motivation after Jack believed in her, and her songs switch from a quick tempo with witty plays on words to doe-eyed angelic love songs about finding purpose through Jack. While Newsies tries to represent Katherine as someone who breaks from typical expectations of what a woman is, both in 1899 and 2017 standards, it fails miserably by giving her ambition that does not amount to much by the resolution other than an artificial and unnecessary relationship with Jack. Therefore, try as it might, Newsies does not break down stereotypes (or shatter glass ceilings), which is apparent through its poor representation of Katherine, despite doing everything in the first act to make us hope for otherwise.

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