Pantsuits versus Lingerie: How Gyspy Subverts Beliefs About Women’s Power

By Hayden Paige

When I came to college, did I ever imagine writing an essay (that I would be submitting to a literal professor) singing the praises of stripping? Not in the slightest. But is that what this essay will be about? Yes. Yes, it will.

“Misogynistic” is the term most people would use to describe sexy dancing or envision women getting almost naked on a theatrical stage to please horny men. These men clearly are objectifying women as sexual objects rather than seeing them as multidimensional beings. Yet, the 1993 made-for-television musical Gypsy challenges the idea that embracing one’s sexuality is inherently misogynist. Instead, Gypsy highlights the way females can deploy their sexuality to gain power.

Louise dons a cow costume in the film adaption of “Gypsy” on BroadwayHD.

This musical film follows Rose, the archetype of the domineering stage mother, as she pushes her daughters, June and Louise, to perform vaudeville acts out of her misguided desire for fame. It is obvious that Rose strays pretty far from the ideals of traditional femininity, as she rejects the ideals of marriage, yells at the men around her, and often employs brazen vocals. While my grandmother might rebuke such “unladylike” behavior, I do not find it troublesome. My issue with Rose is that she desperately attempts to enforce her own beliefs about sexuality on her children. To achieve what she believes will lead to success in show business, Rose forces her daughters to essentially suppress their burgeoning sexuality by pressuring them to act more youthful and, in Louise’s case, perform with a masculine appearance. It is problematic to tell women to suppress their sexuality or femininity as a means to gain power because it reinforces the idea that acting feminine is inferior. It suggests that those who embrace their femininity and sexuality are less empowered. However, women should not have to wash away their femininity to be taken seriously. Through Bob Mackie’s excellent costume design, Louise’s costumes become less and less feminine as she grows older. Starting with a more gender-neutral clown costume as a young child, she then must dress like the other boys on stage wearing trousers and overalls when performing behind June. Her loose pants and shirt buttoned all the way to her neck prevents people from viewing her silhouette. The cow costume she ultimately wears strips away any semblance of her figure.

Cynthia Gibbs, who portrays Louise, excels at revealing the pressure Rose places on her to act masculine in their vaudeville but also how Louise has internalized her stage persona and translated it into her real life. When wearing these costumes, she seems unsure of herself. The suppression of Louise’s sexuality is not just performed on stage but also permeates her everyday life. In their initial Vaudeville performance of the song “Let Me Entertain You,” Gibbs’ dancing appears highly robotic. She is stiff and unsure in her movements as she marches and waves her arm in front of her. Gibb’s constrained movements highlight the lack of freedom the character Louise has under the control of her mother, who essentially forces her into a masculine appearance. Later, when they enter the burlesque theatre, Rose calls the strippers “filth” before she realizes how she can benefit from the situation. This word choice highlights Rose’s belief that flaunting one’s sexuality is somehow dirty. Rose wants Louise to mask her sexuality as she believes showing it off will make her lose her respect and dignity. Herbie even walks out on Rose because he disagrees with Rose encouraging her daughter to essentially reduce herself in front of men.

Louise explores her sexuality in the film adaption of “Gypsy” on BroadwayHD.

Only when Louise truly embraces her sexuality does she transition into a more confident, empowered woman. When she dons a dress for the first time at the strip club, I felt like I was watching someone who just had cosmetic facial and breast enlargement surgery look at themself for the first time after the bandages have come off. I could feel the sexual tension between Cynthia Gibbs and the mirror. As she caresses her body, Gibbs’ choice to take a slight, not-so-subtle pause when holding her breasts highlights her newfound sense of identity as a woman. Jule Styne’s musical score perfectly reinforces Louise’s shift in self-image, as the soft violin music in the background oscillates at a high pitch, increasing feelings of tension. Then, the sound of a bell kicks, symbolizing her freedom. In high school, the ringing of the bell would mean I would finally be free from the horrors of calculus. By playing on these associations of a bell with freedom, Styne reveals the freedom Louise feels now that she has escaped her mother’s influence and can embrace her sexuality.

The dichotomy between the different performances of “Let Me Entertain You” convey the newfound empowerment Louise gains as she taps into her femininity and sensuality. In Gibb’s portrayal of Louise, the viewer can clearly observe how she gains ownership of her body. Her stiff, robotic movements from the past routine are gone; once dressed in a more feminine mannor, she begins to move much more naturally. Through Jerome Robbin’s choreographic expertise, she now exhibits greater musicality as she dances burlesque onstage. With shoulder rolls and shaking hips, Gibbs portrays Louise as being able to exhibit a more fine-tuned control over her movements. The link between the more sensual dancing and Louise’s bodily authority speaks to the way in which tapping into her femininity has granted her this greater autonomy.

Additionally, Louise begins to project her voice, a demonstration of her confidence in what she has to say. Sondheim’s lyrics in Louise’s new performance of “Let Me Entertain You” further highlight her empowerment. Louise states that she is “not a stripper” but rather “an ecdysiast, [which] is one who,/ or that which,/ sheds its skin.” While at first, I thought such language was just Louise’s excuse to avoid the stigma of stripping; but upon further inspection, I recognized the difference between being a stripper and ecdysiast. The term stripper evokes ideas of someone just taking off their clothes or “stripping” away part of them, reducing them in essence. Meanwhile, an ecdysiast “sheds its skin,” which implies that there is a new layer underneath. Rather than taking away part of oneself by stripping, the character of Louise views herself as taking off the old part of herself to expose new skin. Such nuances reveal how Louise sheds her more tomboyish persona in favor of tapping into a new part of herself. Rather than simply donning a new costume to perform her sexuality, she shows a part of herself that always existed but was just waiting to be revealed.

Director Emile Ardolino’s choice for Rose to hang the cow head in her daughter’s dressing room further speaks to this idea of using a costume as a sort of mask of one’s true self. Gibbs’ eyes glare as she firmly demands that her maid to take it down, emphasizing the repulsiveness Louise feels with this stark reminder of a time when she had to cover up her feminine identity. Just like she changed her name to “Gypsy Rose Lee,” Louise continues to reject what her mother laid on her. Now, Louise favors stripping, which she feels is the most honest, “stripped down” version of herself. As a burlesque performer, Louise has the autonomy to choose what she does or does not want to show, thus taking back the power of her own body.

For such a long time, like Louise, I would cover up. My high school dress code specifically stated that no “sexual-looking” clothing was allowed. We had to completely cover our shoulders, cleavage, stomachs, and thighs at all times. The dress code instilled within me a belief that I needed to maintain what they referred to as a “professional appearance” to be taken seriously. I remember Ms. Letchworth explicitly complimenting me for wearing a t-shirt under one of my dresses to show less skin, literally telling thirteen-year-old me that I looked so much more “respectable” than some of my peers who were “pushing the limits.” Yet, as I got to college, I came to the realization that people telling me what to wear to prevent me from being objectified felt just as misogynist. Thus, I was very impressed that Gypsy, despite the original book being written in 1959, created a progressive representation of sexuality, that women do not have to choose between embracing their sexuality and feeling empowered. Instead, Gypsy reveals how women can be both feminine and powerful.