It’s almost spooky season, and that means rewatching Bette Miller’s iconic role in the classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus. Whoops! Wrong spectacle.
However, her performance in the 1993 made-for-television production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, is iconic in its own right. At face value, this production is not an aspirational spectacle for young girls, but hidden behind its curtain are a plethora of feminist critiques. Bette Miller is the perfect embodiment of loud, gregarious, strong-willed Mama Rose—complete with fiery red hair.
Rose embodies her role as stage mother, acting as a true “Mama Bear,” striving for the best for her two cubs June and Louise (who later becomes Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose dedicates her life to making her girls stars. The beginning of the film resembles many “wannabe” Broadway stars’ struggles to stardom. She begins as somewhat of a nobody in Seattle, Rose’s ambition rewards the girls with consequent gigs around the country at any Vaudeville theater that will have them. In her role as a mother, Rose defies the traditional gentle, dainty, proper female stereotypes in all aspects of her character.
Rose’s first solo number titled “Some People,” written by Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sets the stage, exhibiting her “go-getter” personality. Rose is not like “some people.” In fact, she is very much not like what a woman was “supposed” to be during the musical’s 1920s time period. As reminded by her father and future love interest quite often, she should be married (to a man, of course). The world expects her to have a steady family, with her children in school and her husband making money to support their family. She certainly should not be living in her Papa’s house as a middle-aged woman with two young daughters begging for eighty-eight bucks. In this regard, Rose’s character does not conform to social norms. At that time, it was unacceptable (or at least unusual) for a woman to have dreams beyond motherhood. While Rose is a devoted (albeit sometimes misguided) mother, her nurturing techniques are rather unconservative.
Rose has bigger dreams for her girls. Even when offered a hand in marriage to a man she arguably loves, she chooses the single route. Again, Rose defies gender stereotypes by denying what most would see as the obvious decision. The gender roles in Rose’s romantic relationship are almost reversed. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and agent, portrays the gentle, subversive partner, while Rose calls the shots. Herbie chases Rose, in this instance.
While Mama Rose is undoubtedly a strong female character, some of her parenting choices and treatment towards her daughters are questionable. At the beginning of the film, we see Baby June, played by Lacey Chabert (Chabert later stars as Gretchen in Mean Girls, truly embodying the role of “girly girl”) as the ideal, pageant queen, frilly, perfect female child performer. Her sister Louise, played by Elizabeth Moss, is there to ensure June shines on stage—whether that means dressing up as a cow or newspaper boy. Side note—June is in fact cast as a blonde and Louise as a brunette. I guess blondes do have more fun? Nevertheless, at the beginning of the film, Rose reinforces these role distinctions between her daughters, consistently doting on June, speaking words of confidence to her about her future stardom. Rose is so steadfast to follow her own path, why is she not more supportive of her daughters to defy the same gender norms she does?
The real kicker comes after older June (now played by Jennifer Raye Beck) decides to abandon both her mother and dreams of stardom to run off with a boy. Here we see another typical female giving up her dreams of a career (well, maybe they were Rose’s dreams for her) in the name of love. After Rose comes to terms with making Louise a star instead, the team arrives at a Burlesque theatre. While this rather mature theatre is surprising to the pure, innocent Louise (played by Cynthia Gibb), it is the place where she finds herself and her place in society.
Rewind to Baby June’s musical number titled “Let Me Entertain You.” Here we see an amusing, playful, childish upbeat song performed by Baby June. Dressed in a white, glittery, ballerina-like costume, with a bow almost as big as her head, June’s outfit paints her as an innocent, but talented little girl, somewhat like Shirley Temple. Were she a boy, she would not be able to capitalize on this aspect of her identity—or her female body. In this number, she refers to herself as a “bundle of dynamite,” highlighting her childlike demeanor. She then continues to boast about her ‘versatility’ and talents as well as her ability to make us feel good as she sings:
Rose has June act younger than she is in the following scenes, having her continue to capitalize on her young female body (rather creepy in my opinion, having an adult pretending to be a young child). Viewed on its own, this song seems innocent enough, and simply explains June’s talent and ability to bring joy to her audiences.
Back at the Burlesque theater, Rose and Louise are both in shock when they see the audaciously unladylike performances occurring.
Rose is so appalled she attempts to make a run for it until Louise convinces her they need the money from the gig. Louise does her first “striptease” act as a backup for a missing performer where the announcer mistakenly gives her the name “Gypsy Rose Lee.” This is the beginning of a transformation of Louise’s traditionally prude, conservative female characteristics to use her body and femininity in her performance. After Gypsy adjusts to the role of “stripper,” viewers see her fully embrace this new identity of herself. Rose has mixed feelings about seeing her baby girl act in such a provocative way.
Should she be a prude? Married? Independent? Sexy? A Stripper?
Gypsy’s ending transforms Baby June’s original “Let me Entertain You” number into Gypsy’s signature act. This new context transforms the meaning of the song. Gypsy sings to a room of mostly older men hoping to see her take her clothes off. Her “versatility,” and “talents” convey added meaning, as does her ability to “make them feel good.” It’s sexual connotations could objectify Gypsy. However, the song helps Gypsy embody the same traits of independence and rejection of social norms as her mother. Rose may not fully approve, but this new identity—a truly new identity with a name change from Louise to Gypsy—is Gypsy’s own. She is no longer the “company” of Baby June.
But…. why is Gypsy’s only path to fame one of objectification and capitalization of her feminity? In this way, the movie reaffirms traditional female gender norms which emphasize physicality and beauty. Nevertheless, Gypsy not only brings attention to taboo topics such as stripping and the complexity of women using their bodies to their advantage. The musical explores the nuances within the traditionally female stereotype and makes viewers question their initial assumptions. Women are continually and regularly objectified and used for their bodies, but when they do it on their own accord, society labels them a “whore.” Shouldn’t a woman be able to be whoever and whatever she wants? I wouldn’t call Gypsy Rose the new face of the feminist movement, give her some credit for helping us consider these themes in a Broadway musical.
Thanks for reading 🙂