42nd street as a product of the patriarchy
by emily Willett
It has glitter, glam, and girls?! It’s no surprise 42nd Street became nothing short of a musical phenomenon that returned to the stage only four years ago. Written in 1980, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble create a show within a show, with a plot that followed a timid, talented chorus girl, Peggy Stewart (played by Clare Halse), on her claim to fame. She navigates the highs and lows of show business through—wait for it—glamorous song and dance. Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics combined with Harry Warren’s composition allows her story to come alive, as well as the stories of other leading characters like accomplished yet difficult actress Dorothy Brock, aggressive producer Julian Marsh, and leading man Billy Lawlor. Gower Champion’s choreography brings the musical to life, contributing to critical reviews calling it a “gorgeously made musical.” Gorgeously made, however, does not mean gorgeously conveyed. Through the lyrics, costume, acting, and choreography, 42nd Street glorifies misogyny through the objectification of women. The number “Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” is a prime example. Billy sings about the sole purpose of seeing a show (“Dames”) while putting forth sexist ideas that the writers and choreographer only emphasize through the chorus girls’ portion of the song, “Keep Young and Beautiful.” As a female-identifying viewer, I do not wish to see harmful stereotypes expressed through song and dance, especially when they are not followed up or addressed in some productive manner. Although not as obvious, such gender stereotypes still very much exist in today’s world. Musical numbers such as this one certainly lack in the “positively contributing to society” category.
The number opens on Billy, sing-expressing his thoughts about women (enough said). Peggy, as directed by Mark Bramble, passes him and noticeably crouches in nervousness, fear or embarrassment (most likely a combination of all three), to which Billy pays no mind. He continues singing and even gives her his hat, clearly establishing a power dynamic between the two. As this dominant figure, the audience hangs closely to the words coming out of his mouth, which include, “who cares if there’s a plot or not,/ when they’ve got a lot of dames!” This line not only diminishes the intricacies of show business, but it also underscores objectification of women, since the reason given for why men attend is simply to admire the “dames.” The male chorus echos with lyrics about how women are “temporary” and how they “don’t recall their names,” to which I say, oh-my-god-what!?! This blunt misogyny stares the audience right in the face, not only through these awful lyrics, but also through their costumes. Each man is wears (bow)ties, suspenders, and top hats, all of which reflect a typical image of masculinity (at least for the time period). The costumes also play to these men’s good nature and even innocence through the sweater vests and large smiles, depicting them as “good boys” allowing them to get away with the harmful things they say.
As the men clear the stage, they unveil a group of women, posing and looking at themselves in handheld mirrors. This image immediately sets the tone for the women’s embrace of their surface-level feminine beauty, created not only through the mirrors but also through their choreography. With leg movements to create symmetry and geometric shapes, the chorus girls’ dancing very much appeals to the song’s targeted audience, prioritizing visual aesthetic and pleasure, over showcasing their talent. Champion purposefully draws parallels to Ziegfeld’s Follies, also designed to appeal to the sexual desires of men, as well as Theoni Aldridge’s costume design (nothing screams “object of affection” like sparkly leotards) and Dubin and Mercer’s lyrics.
The chorus girls listen intently to the lyrics sung by male ensemble (and written by Maggie Jones and Bert Barry) absorbing every word with smiling faces and enthusiastic nods, despite the demeaning line (and even title) “keep young and beautiful / if you want to be loved.” The anti-feminist statements keep coming—“take care of all those charms / and you’ll always be in a guys arms” once again enforces the idea that it is a woman’s sole purpose in life to be loved by a man (which is, not to mention, very heteronormative), and to do so, they must take care of their “charms” and be physically and sexually appealing. Not only is “charms” a sexual innuendo but also defined as “giving delight or arousing please,” which is precisely what the entire number suggests in regards to female sexuality and the male gaze.
“Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” functions as a product of the patriarchy by perpetuating sexist concepts and physically establishing power dichotomies between the male and female characters. Perhaps it is because the number is metatheatrical, depicting a 1920s period number in Pretty Girl, or it’s a product of the 1980’s feminist backlash, but either way, the lyrics, costumes, acting, and choreography express blatant misogyny. Looking forward, I hope to see more female empowerment interwoven in the book, lyrics, choreography, and acting of characters in the musicals I continue to watch, or at the very least, I hope to see less explicit sexism. Musicals are meant for entertainment, and because of the circumstances, I can’t say I felt very entertained. 42nd Street draws on old-fashioned ideals of entertainment that are rooted in misogyny (which are even spelled out in “Dames”—ironic).