Cultural Relevance? Not in Paris

If you’re anything like me you’ll browse streaming sites for way too long, trying to find the perfect thing to watch. After skimming many synopses, I settled on An American in Paris, mainly sold by the nostalgia of music by Gershwin from my high school band days, but not knowing much else about it. The musical adaptation from 2015 directed by Christopher Wheeldon and Ross MacGibbon with book by Craig Lucas, is based on the 1951 film of the same name with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Right off the bat I was pleasantly surprised when the three main male characters were introduced, each wanting to pursue the arts. Jerry Mulligan wants to be an artist, Henri Baurel a nightclub performer, and Adam Hochberg a composer. Ballet is the main form of dance in this musical, and the men take part too, doing leaps and pirouettes with fluid movements traditionally seen as feminine. Male characters who aren’t overly masculine and have discussions about the purpose and meaning of art? Yeah, sounded pretty promising to me too. Unfortunately, that ended real fast as soon as Lise Dassin, the love interest came into the picture. Despite its recent adaptation, the gender roles seen in An American in Paris still have traditional and outdated values, making it culturally irrelevant for a modern audience.

Before we get into everything, let’s quickly set up the love triangle. We have Jerry, an American soldier who chose to stay in Paris after the war, who runs into Lise and has a “love at first sight” moment. Adam, also an American soldier who stays in Paris, loves Lise as well. Then there’s Henri, he’s French like Lise, has been dating her, and wants to propose.

The main message I got from this musical: women have little agency in their relationships. Not exactly the first thing I want to be thinking about after watching a musical, but it’s happened more often than I would like. First, let’s discuss Lise as a character. She’s very feminine with her doe eyes, colorful, flowy dresses, and red lipstick. She looks down a lot and speaks quietly. Her feminine characteristics themselves don’t make her weak as a character, but they do emphasize the idea of femininity being weak when she acts with little to no agency in her interactions with Jerry.

From the get-go, Jerry will not take no for an answer. He goes to the department store where Lise works and causes a scene while singing that he has “beginner’s luck” in love because he happened to run into her twice in two days. Lise begs him to stop but he continues singing and disrupting the customers. At one point he picks her up and puts her on a counter while she protests, but once she’s standing on the counter and is looking out at the scene below with everyone in the store dancing, she smiles and laughs for a brief moment. That’s when I knew she was doomed. She was going to fall for Jerry’s obnoxious charms. If someone you saw twice but never talked to came to your workplace and started wreaking havoc at the risk of you being fired while professing their love for you, would you agree to meet them later? The absurdity of the situation makes Lise seem naïve. She also feeds into Jerry’s egotistical confidence. When Jerry asks Lise to meet him by the river, she refuses but he says, “I’ll see you there.” She questions “How can you be so sure?” to which he replies, “’Cause I’ve got beginner’s luck.” And of course, she shows up.

Right before Lise meets Jerry by the river, we see her writing a letter to her parents about her relationship with Henri and debating whether their love is romantic love or not. She starts singing about meeting the man she loves, and the lyrics contain themes of traditional gender roles. Take a look at some of these lines:

“And he’ll be big and strong”

“And when he comes my way, I’ll do my best to make him stay.”

“And so all else above, I’m waiting for the man I love.”

Changes have been made to the original lyrics which included lines about dreaming about the man she loves every night and never leaving the home he’ll build for them, but the original lyrics above still convey a sense of her needing a man in her life. In fact, a lot of the original songs from the film with more obviously problematic lyrics are not included in the musical. The lines above come from another song by Gershwin called “The Man I Love,” which was actually not in the original film. The writers behind this musical recognized the outdated gender roles of the original film, but their efforts to recharacterize Lise fell short, leaving her with little agency.

We start off the river scene with Jerry being Jerry and saying that Lise’s name is “Beautiful. But “sad,” trying to get a reaction out of her to stop her from trying to leave. He goes on saying “How about Lizzie? Or Eliza? Liza.” Lise says she likes her name, but Jerry replies that “Liza’s happier.” Lise keeps trying to leave, but every time she’s about to go he comes up with another way to get her to stay, soon launching into an attempt at a heartfelt moment when he confesses that he wants to forget everything about the war. Lise answers sincerely that she wants to forget too, but instead of empathizing with her Jerry immediately lights up again, having finally found some common ground he can work with. He claims that “With me you don’t have to be that sad girl. You can be Liza,” and bursts into song. He continually uses her emotions to his advantage, describing what their lives would be like together as she looks dreamily off into the distance or smiles to herself, enamored by his words. He keeps calling her Liza while he’s singing and at first, she corrects him every time. But she eventually stops, until by the end when he finally calls her Lise, she corrects him and says Liza. This is also when I remembered that she still barely knows him. Jerry’s been trying to manipulate Lise’s feelings for him, and she still gives up her name for his convenience.

Jerry has control over the situation. He’s the one singing and the one guiding the choreography, leading Lise around and trying to get closer to her. But despite Lise’s discomfort at his advances, she doesn’t do much to stop him. She’ll remove his hand from her shoulder, or edge away from him when they’re sitting on the bench, but she never leaves. Right after Jerry agrees that they can just be friends, he tries to kiss her, and she pushes him away. But even after that, she still leaves smiling as they agree to meet at the river every day as “friends.” Lise physically lacks control during much of their dance numbers together as well. Whenever her and Jerry have a ballet duet, he lifts her a lot, spinning her around and catching her in the air, or supporting her weight as she leans to the side and spins on one foot. She depends on him to perform these moves and he is in control when he lifts her in the air. Everything about their relationship has centered on Jerry having agency in the situation and Lise mildly following along.

Another character I want to talk about is Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother. Throughout the musical, Madame Baurel takes charge. She has a sharp tongue and a stern look and gives orders to those around her. Henri hides the fact that he wants to be a performer, knowing that his parents care a lot about appearance because of how they had to hide Lise during the war and would not approve of his dreams. During one of his performances his parents are there, and they find out his secret. Madame Baurel berates him after the performance, meanwhile Monsieur Baurel surprises everyone by exclaiming that Henri is remarkable and should pursue his dream. The instant he says this Madame Baurel is taken aback and quickly tries to recover by agreeing with him, saying “Oh, er, well yes, yes of course.” I couldn’t believe that she would drop everything she was worried about during the war so suddenly just because of her husband. Why couldn’t she form her own opinion about Henri’s career? Why did she need to wait for her husband’s approval first? For as much agency as she seemed to have, it was all a façade where underneath she was just following her husband’s lead.

Looking at these examples, it becomes clear that the traditional gender roles make An American in Paris culturally irrelevant. Okay, but why does that matter? It was based off a film from the 1950s, of course it might seem old fashioned and not everything needs to be revolutionary after all. But that’s just it. The fact that the story is still culturally irrelevant even after the adaptation, reflects the lingering gender roles that persist in our culture today (or 2015, if you want to be specific). The adaptation is a reflection of modern values, and we see that through the changes that were made to the song choices and lyrics. But the extent to which inequality between men and women is portrayed even in this revised version is problematic because it perpetuates these themes in popular culture. As many classic stories get brought back to life on the Broadway stage, it’s important to recognize and address the issues they may have simply due to the different cultural context they were created in. After all, it’d be nice to have our crème brûlée and eat it too.

Gender Representation in The Prom, But Give it Some Zazz

I’m going to be honest. I didn’t care for The Prom. It’s a recent film adaption of the Broadway musical on Netflix, with Ryan Murphy of Glee directing. The plot was all over the place and most of the characters were not likeable. But for an attempt at being a progressive film which ended up being a mainstream version of an LGBTQ+ film designed for straight people, it did have complex and nuanced depictions of gender in its effort to challenge the current social narratives. The most surprising part is, they come in the form of two side characters, Mrs. Greene, and Principal Hawkins.

The Prom is a satire on Broadway itself. It tells the story of four Broadway actors in need of a career boost, who attempt to help a girl named Emma who wants to attend the school prom with her girlfriend. Mrs. Greene, the PTA president, cancels prom to prevent Emma from attending, which is where Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and Trent step in to try to help Emma for publicity. The four of them along with Tom Hawkins, the school principal, help Emma get the prom that she deserves.

Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins may seem like typical characters with nothing interesting at first glance. Their outfits are plain and their personalities ordinary next to the eccentricities of the Broadway actors. But their gendered behaviors and actions provide a complicated and nuanced depiction of gender that challenges societal ideals. So, for once, the Broadway stars won’t be the stars of this analysis, no matter how much they try to shove themselves into the narrative (except for maybe just two guest appearances from Dee Dee.)

Let’s start with one of the most obvious representations of gender, physical appearance. Mrs. Greene, president of the PTA, is always wearing business clothes, in varying shades of pinks and purples. The film emphasizes her position of power despite being a woman in her appearance, with her pink blazers helping her stand out amongst the crowd and reminding you of her femininity. Her makeup is always perfect, paired with earrings and a classic hairstyle. These are all typical portrayals of femininity.

Principal Hawkins’ character follows suit (literally), by dressing in a masculine style, wearing almost exclusively suits and sporting a beard. Both characters are stereotypically masculine and feminine in their appearance, which doesn’t challenge the current expectations of gender expression. However, it is their behaviors and actions which contrast with their standard looks that make you realize why the producers made this choice.

Mrs. Greene being the strong-willed president of the PTA needs to be authoritative. She stands up for her beliefs and is charismatic enough to rally the rest of the parents behind her. The way she acts contrasts with her feminine appearance, as she takes on characteristics that are more often associated with men. However, this is in part by her being in an authority position. Women must be more assertive to be taken seriously, even if it leads to them being deemed bossy or controlling when the same is not said for men in positions of power. The choice to have her wear stereotypically feminine colors undermines and contrasts the more masculine undertones that come with her being an authority figure. Women in higher up positions in the workplace usually dress more masculine, in blazers and pants and dark colors, rather than anything too feminine since masculinity is associated with power and leadership. Mrs. Greene embodies the ideals of being a strong and assertive woman in power, while also reclaiming her femininity in her position.

On the other hand, Principal Hawkins, also an authority figure, acts less like the usual men that we would see in these roles. In his first encounter with Dee Dee, she says that he doesn’t fit her usual demographic of gay men, to which he replies that straight people like Broadway too. Our first impression of Principal Hawkins is that he not only likes Broadway, but is an avid fan and isn’t afraid to admit it. In Dee Dee’s experience, she has seen that men liking Broadway is seen as effeminate and is associated with gay men. Later, when Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee are on a dinner date, he opens up to her and says that Broadway provides an escape from his everyday life through a soulful solo number. Despite outward appearances, Principal Hawkins shows a level of depth and vulnerability that is not often seen from men in film in general, let alone for a side character.

This opposing gendered behavior between Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins does raise the question of favoring men over women. We have Mrs. Greene as a strong woman who made it to being the president of the PTA, and who is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs. We have Principal Hawkins showing that there’s nothing wrong with men being vulnerable and showing emotion. But are we not made to favor Principal Hawkins over Mrs. Greene, despite them both breaking stereotypes? The obvious answer is that Mrs. Greene is the antagonist whose homophobic beliefs leave little left to be admired about her, while Principal Hawkins is the voice of reason and is just trying to help Emma get to prom. It’s just the role of their characters in the plot, so what’s the big deal?

If audiences see Mrs. Greene as the enemy, then are we not also seeing a woman in power as the enemy? Principal Hawkins’ character is praised for his vulnerability and breaking the mold by getting a romance story and a happy ending, while Mrs. Greene is almost constantly shown in a negative light. We learn from her daughter Alyssa that her husband left her, and ever since she’s been pushing Alyssa to be the perfect student in hopes that he will come back. Besides this one small glimpse into her personal life and her redemption at the end of the film when she accepts Alyssa’s identity as a lesbian, we are made to despise her throughout the entire film. In fact, her homophobic beliefs make it uncomfortable to like her as a character (assuming you don’t share her beliefs), so how are you to like anything else about her? She is a homophobic mother who initially couldn’t accept her daughter coming out and is no stranger to personal attacks when it comes to upholding the conservative beliefs of her town. She is also a woman who made it to a position of authority, and a single mother whose husband left her for reasons we are not privy to. Yet both parts of her are antagonized in the film whether intentionally or subconsciously.

On a lighter note, everyone’s favorite part of musicals: romance. But this time, a subplot between Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee, which presents a complete 180 on the traditional musical romance. From the get-go, Dee Dee gets Principal Hawkins to take her out to dinner, subtly making the first move. Later, Principal Hawkins finds out that Dee Dee and the others originally came to help Emma for publicity, and he leaves her. To win back his favor, Dee Dee goes all out in a performance of his favorite song performed by her on Broadway.

Their roles have been reversed. Instead of the boy losing the girl and then fighting to get her back, Dee Dee has taken on the role of the boy in love and challenges that old trope. Their love story also avoids the objectification that often comes with traditional Broadway romances. Principal Hawkins, although perhaps given more depth to serve as a more compatible love interest for Dee Dee, still serves other purposes in the plot that make him a stand-alone character as well. In fact, he is the one who solved the original conflict in the film. He worked with the state attorneys and helped win the legal battle against the PTA cancelling prom. His purpose in the plot is greater than to just be a love interest. Their romance goes against the traditional narrative and flips it on its head by having Dee Dee and Principal Hawkins switch roles.

Through all of this, remember that Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are side characters. They are hardly a part of any of the musical numbers or spectacle. Even in Principal Hawkins’ solo number he is singing about being entranced by the fantasy world and escape of Broadway. They are spectators just like us. It reveals the nature of the “real world” outside of the Broadway world and makes their stories more directly applicable. The setting of this musical reflects our own society, so any challenges to the default narrative suggest ways of change in our society. This raises a lot of questions that we are left to ponder.

We have seen how Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins show a nuanced representation of gender and don’t fit neatly into the stereotypes often seen in the media. But their representation isn’t perfect and still reflects the dominant narratives in our society. What about patriarchy? Mrs. Greene has less agency than Principal Hawkins as a woman and a single mother. For Principal Hawkins, he has a choice over how he acts and chooses to embrace the more emotional and vulnerable aspects of his personality. Mrs. Greene feels that acting more masculine is her only option to keep putting up a front in order to get her husband back. We aren’t even told her first name like Principal Hawkins. She is still tied to her husband’s identity through her last name and does what she does for him.

The Prom has complex representations of gender roles, but it still shows how those representations function within the dominant frameworks of our society. Gender roles can be challenged, and successfully so. This film normalizes the breaking of gender stereotypes by using Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins to ground the film in realism. But we must keep in mind the intersectionality of one’s identity, and how it can be harder for some people to challenge narratives than others because of the amount of agency they have. Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are cisgender, straight, and have conventional gender expressions; they only break stereotypes through their actions. In reality, people have such complex identities and face prejudice from multiple systems at play. Nevertheless, perhaps changing the narrative is one aspect of this musical that doesn’t have to stay within the make-believe world of theater.