“You are a phony celebrity. You’re a flash in the pan, and in a couple of weeks, no one is going to give a shit about you. That’s Chicago.” -Billy Flynn
“KYLIE IS PREGNANT,” “KIM AND KANYE ARE GETTING DIVORCED,” “KENDALL SHOWS OFF HER MODEL FRAME;” these are just a few of the many headlines that circulate mainstream media. Although all of these headlines revolve around the Kardashians (which is no accident, as they are frequent headline occupiers), many of the more gossipy, scandalous, and therefore more entertaining stories involve female celebrities. The motive of any magazine is to produce the headlines and stories that society wants to read or hear about, reflecting women’s role in entertainment and what society wants or even expects from women. Though headlines and celebrity gossip are seemingly unimportant, after watching Chicago, I’ve realized it is a greater reflection of societal norms and values since it corresponds to the information that people seek, which is inherently influenced by their biases and preconceptions about societal structures, including but definitely not limited to the patriarchy.
Chicago reflects this big, and quite frankly scary, idea in a profound, comprehensive way that resonates strongly with the viewer. Chicago is the “longest-running American musical in Broadway history;” it was revived on the stage in 1996 and has carried strong ever since. Written and first debuted in 1975, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb transport audiences to the roaring twenties in the roaring city of Chicago. There is no shortage of flash, booze, and jazz—John Kander writes bluesy hits that I can’t seem to stop humming. Fosse’s choreography brings these numbers to life, as do Ebb’s lyrics, all of which create an incredible, theatrical spectacle that later was translated into a cinematic masterpiece. Created in 2002, Rob Marshall directs the three main characters to perfection—Velma, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Roxie, played by Renee Zellweger, and Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, beautifully portray this infamous story of crime, scandal, and celebrity. Both Velma and Roxie shoot someone and are being tried for murder. Locked up in their jail cells, they rely on the help from Billy Flynn, a famous lawyer, to figure out how to set them free and ultimately save their lives, mostly by figuring out ways in which to appeal to the (conveniently) all male jury. Through its plot line and theatrical numbers, Chicago captures the longstanding perception of women as props meant solely for entertainment value with little other purpose or worth, highlighting one of the many ways in which women are objectified. The film argues that they are to be looked at or observed, but not to be taken seriously—their lives don’t really matter. This idea is exemplified through the plot thread of the actual lives of these women being at stake, and to save their lives, they must make the jury want to keep them alive by giving them what they seek and putting on a “show.”
Fosse and Ebb use performance as a medium for illustrating a woman’s purpose of entertaining and serving the needs of men. They capture this by having some of the numbers, that represent a moment in a character’s life, be an act on the jazz club stage, with the announcer, intricate costuming, and a glamorized performance depicting the act. This is most prominently displayed through “the Hungarian Disappearing Act,” which was essentially a casual, glorified way of depicting her hanging, revealing that this woman’s life was purely for entertainment in society’s eyes. “It’s show business,” as Billy Flynn would say.
This line opens the number, “Razzle Dazzle,” which prominently displays women as entertainment and the inherent misogyny within that that the musical proclaims. The number occurs simultaneously with Roxie’s trial; the film cuts back and forth between a circus-like performance taking place in the trial room and the actual trial (one of the benefits of cinema), once again highlighting the idea that the trial itself is a performance that Roxie and Billy are putting on. Billy even mistakes the jury for the “audience” by calling them that and then quickly correcting himself, solidifying the idea that these women’s lives are a spectacle for the “audience’s” viewing pleasure. They both put on quite a show during the trial itself—they are very theatrical in their movements and expressions, with big swooping arms, raised voices, crying, and fainting. Billy preps her to do this during the number—he emphasizes the importance of theatrics and “dazzl[ing]” the men in order to win her case and have her life be saved.
This highly androcentric perspective is portrayed in the characteristics of the number itself. Billy—who is conveniently the star of the number while Roxie does not say a word—is surrounded by scantily-dressed women in gold jewels and red feathers posing around him. They seem to be on display without an ounce of autonomy, only moving with an occasional delicate twist of the arm or graceful leg lift or swirl from the ceiling on silks. They serve no purpose except for visual aesthetics, “complementing” Billy and the male jury members and acting as props. All of this is to point out the misogynistic undertones of the number itself, beyond the obvious messaging through the song’s sexist lyrics. Most of the lyrics place the responsibility on the woman to “razzle dazzle” the men in order to get what they want; this involves stunning, shocking, blinding, and wowing them, assigning men the power in this dynamic. He describes women as shiny objects that they can use to their advantage in order to distract these men (“How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”), showcasing the blatant objectification that existed in this world.
To add to this idea of women distracting men, the composition illustrates this well by incorporating high hats. A lot of high hats. These stick out and are very consuming to the ear, representing this “flash” or distraction objective Billy describes through his lyrics. There are also many chimes that paint an image of sparkles or “sequins” falling around these women with men left agape, reflecting an all-too-prominent standard in society of the man staring at the woman as the woman does something with her body to impress him. This outdated image is also backed by the old-fashioned instrumentality of the song. Upon hearing the piano, brass, and trumpets, my mind instantly thought “old-timey, feel good, American jazz”—verbatim from my notes. This era of musicality is a reflection of the outdated standards and expectations of women at the time, that have still carried over in many ways.
It works, though! Roxie is found not guilty! Smiles and cheers fill the screen until—bang!—another woman has shot a man. The reporters move right along to the next headline, leaving Roxie in the dust. Roxie is upset and frustrated rather than joyous and relieved that her life has just been saved, revealing how she has internalized this need to be the headline that without, her life has little value. Ultimately, we see how female performers and celebrities, like Roxie, internalize the harmful stereotypes and behaviors that show business as a capitalist enterprise perpetuates. People are just looking for the thing that will make headlines and make them the most money, which ultimately means appealing to the wants of society, reflecting society’s misogynistic views of women. This is applicable not solely for show business or for headlines but in many aspects of life. Women having to act or appear a certain way to appeal to a certain audience in order to achieve what they want is something that I think about often, especially when thinking about eventually entering the workforce in a field, STEM, that used to be heavily dominated by men. It is easy to get caught up in these ideas in order to get ahead, but after watching Chicago and writing this blog post, I’ve realized the importance of staying true to yourself and values. And even though Velma and Roxie get somewhat of a happy, successful ending, I wouldn’t say the journey was worth it. Definitely one I’m not willing to take.