Okay, maybe not. But still! The musical Gypsy definitely satisfies the male gaze. By that, I mean that Gypsy, the television directed by Emile Ardolino, encourages the objectification and sexualization of women. Viewers can see this in a few different ways, but I want to focus on the character Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb. More specifically, my analysis looks at the evolution of her character and how her relationship with her femininity affects her success and happiness. Let’s begin with “Let Me Entertain You,” a musical number performed twice within the musical but with significan difference in each rendition. Through analyzing the costuming, performance, and music of both performances, viewers can observe how Louise’s character evolves and what this evolution suggests about the film’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
Part 1: “May We Entertain You” – Baby June and Baby Louise
Let’s first dissect the costuming. Viewers first hear this song when June and Louise are young. They stand next to each other on stage, full of confidence and energy, ready to perform. Dressed in a bright colorful, frilly dress, June draws all of the attention. In comparison, the overalls her sister Louise wears swallows her small frame. This begins a pattern where June always dresses in high-quality feminine clothing whereas Louise dressees in scrappy boyish clothing. Viewers can literally see the distinction between the two characters. Everyone around June, who dresses according to female expectations, rewards her with attention and undying glory. By contrast, everyone who meets Louise, who dresses according to masculine expectations, casts her aside. Their clothing is a physical manifestation of their feminine difference and how others treat them as a result.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film.
The film further highlights their difference in their performance of the number. The choreography positions Louise as an accessory. She is a tool to help June shine. During the second line of the song, for example, Louise kneels on the ground and June literally dances circles around her sister. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that. June is the cherished child, while Louise is forgotten.
June both looks and acts the part of an idealistic young girl in a sexist society during this song, and the music further characterizes the division between the girls. June sings proudly: “I will do some kicks/ I will do some tricks” to which Louise responds with, “I’ll tell you a story/ I’ll dance when she is done.”
Louise explicitly waits for June to perform before she will, proclaiming her second place status. So this song defines the relationship between the two girls, but what about the relationship between the girls and their larger society?
“May we entertain you?/ May we see you smile?”
These lyrics position the two little girls on stage to ask permission to perform and impress an audience. Servitude is their purpose, even as children. The reprise of this song will further support this ideal of servitude and satisfaction (*ahem* particularly for male spectators).
Part 2: “Let me Entertain You” – Louise
I’ll set the scene. Before this moment, Louise was the insignificant sibling. At this point, she spent her entire life living under the shadow of her sister, ignored by virtually every other character in the musical. But the very second she steps onstage in a sensual satin gown, she feels different. And so does the audience.
As a costume choice, her first dress highlights her female figure. The mermaid silhouette draws attention to her waist and radiates the energy of a poised and voluptuous woman. The silk fabric is delicate and smoothly bends with every curve of her body. This is a dramatic contrast to the oversized costuming she wore previously. The shift is so jarring that the other characters feel drawn to her, unable to hide their awe as she walks onstage to perform independently for the first time. She wears long white gloves that stretch all the way up to her bicep and a feathery boa across her chest. Altogether, the costume gives the illusion that she is tantalizing yet demure. She only hints at the beauty that lies just beneath her clothing. Similar costuming choices appear consistently throughout the number, beginning a montage of her performances. Her dresses are both skin-tight and flowing. The long silhouette highlights her height and curves. She is the personification of sexuality and prestige. This is the image of a woman embracing her femininity and finding power because of it.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film
Her performance only adds to this picture. She begins the number shyly and awkwardly. She has never worn a dress, let alone worn one in front of an entire audience – especially male. Mama Rose reserved the dresses for June, not for her! She has only ever known baggy pants and overalls (and a cow suit, apparently). Her body language is uptight and shy, but she is curious, drawn in by the attention that she has never received. But the tension unravels with the drop of her first glove. Viewers watch Louise blossom into her confidence and stardom with the loss of every article of clothing. By the second stanza of the song, she stands tall and confident. She rolls her shoulders back and holds her head high. She has the audience in the palm of her hand, and she knows exactly how to play with them. Just give them a little leg here… and a shoulder there… and her audience melts. Even the suggestion of her naked body is enough to give her complete power over the audience and her career as a whole.
The lyrics even further support her sexuality as a means for success and power. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two numbers lies in who sings lead. June sings the lead in the first appearance of this song, but now, Louise is the sole singer and completely owns the stage. Furthermore, instead of questioning “May we entertain you?” Louise purrs the slightly more alluring lines of “Let me entertain you/ Let me make you smile.” The sexual undertone is heavy as she continues with “And if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good/ I’d want your spirit to climb.” Through her words, audiences hear the power dynamic between Louise and the audience. She will please them, but only if they behave for her. The audience is at the complete mercy of what Louise is willing to give, and they love it. In fact, they pay her for it. These routines give her massive stardom, and she rises to a level of opulence of which her mother and June could only dream. She has surpassed the success of her sister and transcended the desires of her mother. By embracing her sexuality and femininity, she is happy, confident, and successful.
Part 3: Putting it all together (by stripping it down)
So how does Louise’s character arc support the idea that women are tools for sexualization and objectification? Let’s review. Throughout the majority of the movie, characters regard Louise as insignificant. They ignore her and maker her feel as if she is not good enough to receive even an ounce of attention. How does the movie visually depict this? It virtually erases her femininity, clothing her in oversized masculine attire with little makeup and no stylized hair.
But the moment Louise wears something sensual, the very second that she acknowledges and highlights her femininity, she receives all of the attention and power that she was denied for years before. It’s almost as if the movie screams in your face, “Ladies, look at the old Louise. Do you want to be ignored and belittled? No? Then act like this shiny and sexy Louise instead! She has everything she wanted in her wildest dreams!” It’s like a campaign for women to invite men to ogle at their bodies because Louise did it and look how happy she is now!
That being said, I completely support women embracing the reality of our misogynist society and using their sexuality to reclaim control over their bodies. But it is harmful that Louise wasn’t ever accepted before claiming her sexuality. The film constructs this narrative that it is not okay for women to ignore beauty standards. Because if they do, society will reject them, and they will fail. So maybe the moral of the story isn’t quite to quit our jobs and become strippers, but apparently, we should be comfortable with the idea.