Transformations intrigue us. We gasp at the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s metamorphosis as children, fixate on before and after diet photos, and unhealthily pore over Breaking Bad character analyses for days (I’m guilty of the latter). And just like Walter White’s becoming of Heisenberg, Louise Hovick’s development into the titular Gypsy Rose Lee sparks interest. What prompts this change? What does this transformation say about her character and her environment?
Director Emile Ardolino adapted the television film musical of Gypsy from the 1959 stage musical (which in turn took inspiration from Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography). With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tracks the transformation of Louise Hovick from the shy, oft-overlooked sister of vaudeville headliner June to a bold, independent burlesque star. With that established, let’s try to answer the aforementioned questions.
First, what prompts this change? Easy: Madame Rose, Louise’s mother, volunteers her as a replacement for the main stripper because she believes it is a breakout opportunity. Louise, although initially unconfident, grows more comfortable as she receives (gross as it is to say) “support” from the burlesque theater audience. As Louise recognizes that she can play this role successfully, she capitalizes on it to become a burlesque star.
What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? This question is much harder to answer. Gypsy Rose Lee clearly empowers herself by embracing her sexuality, and throws aside traditional notions of demure femininity as defined by the patriarchy. However, despite the decline of this form of stage entertainment, burlesque theater is still popular enough for Gypsy to succeed… a popularity which suggests more insidious elements. Although a message of triumph, Louise’s transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee also presents a sad truth: the influence of the male gaze, and more broadly, the power of a patriarchal society.
Coined by Laura Mulvey, the “male gaze” refers to a heterosexual perspective that objectifies women in a sexual manner. Succeeding in popular media, especially in the early-to-mid 20th century, with a large – if not majority – heterosexual, male audience, meant catering to this male gaze.
Gypsy implicitly brings up the male gaze in an earlier dialogue between Louise and Tulsa, a boy that coworks in June’s act. When explaining the reasoning for why he tries to dance more than his female partner for a nightclub routine, Tulsa opines, “They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.” Tulsa is subconsciously aware of the male gaze – catering to a probably very male nightclub audience. Yet still wanting to be the main lead, Tulsa believes he must dance more.
Bette Midler playing Madame Rose in “Rose’s Turn” actively caters to the male gaze. She realizes the her desire to be a star manifests unhealthily in her aggressive pursuit of fame for her children. Madame Rose plays in an empty theater and objectifies herself to an imaginary audience (uncomfortable as it is for the viewers). She draws attention to her breasts (“How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”), accentuates her body through suggestive movements, and refers to herself as “Mama” in a sultry voice. Madame Rose, despite playing for an imaginary audience, anticipates needing to cater to the male gaze. Both this and Tulsa’s example illustrate that the male gaze is ever-present, that it insidiously underpins popular media. Although the actors don’t explicitly recognize this male gaze, they knowingly create products for a majority-male audience, and by doing so, give hegemonic power, or consent, to patriarchal society.
Louise’s quick shift from passive, shy girl into confident, independent woman also illustrates this power. Louise embraces her sexuality to gain personal agency as a burlesque star. And just like Tulsa and Madame Rose, she recognizes the male gaze and its power in patriarchal society – after all, she is a stripper. Such a contradiction could be confusing – that she empowers herself through her sexuality, yet that patriarchal society exploits her. While Louise does find empowerment, it is only through her sexuality; that is, within the confines of patriarchal society.
So what? Although this movie carries a message of triumph and self-empowerment, it still reminds viewers that we live in a hegemonic patriarchal society which we perpetuate. And just like Louise, Tulsa, and Madame Rose, we support its hegemonic power in some way, whether it be normalizing the male gaze in popular media, or accepting stereotypical, restrictive gender roles for women in everyday life.
And as a heterosexual, Korean-American male, that reminder is especially noteworthy. Not only did society teach me these problematic gender narratives as universal truths, but I also at one point believed them. And as I grow more aware of our society, it’s becoming increasingly important to ask: is this belief, or truth?
*While researching the male gaze, I was introduced to this phenomenon through this article. The Hawkeye Initiative is a website made “to draw attention to how deformed, hypersexualized, and unrealistically dressed women are drawn in comics…” (FAQ).