Dumb Cr*p’s Just Too Damn Slow

The Politics of Disability in Newsies (2012)

Kay Berlatsky

In Newsies, one of the more prominent background characters is Crutchie, a newsboy who is one of Jack (the protagonist)’s closest friends. He’s been part of the group for long enough to be a fully accepted member, and he is competent at selling newspapers. He is also disabled, and the mobility aid he uses as a result of his disability is what he is named for. He is targeted for his disability by police and other outsiders who have problems with the newsboys, and the rest of the newsboys defend him. That is to say, mistreating him is framed as a bad thing, and caring about him is what the protagonists, who the audience is presumably meant to side with, do. In this way, it is shown that Crutchie is protected by being part of the in-group; he is part of the group of newsboys, and so they defend him from the outside, a protection that members of the out-group wouldn’t necessarily get. However, as is clear from his nickname, Crutchie may be accepted, but he is not necessarily respected. In order to be part of the “safe” in-group, Crutchie has to choose acceptance over respect, a dichotomy which the musical neither explicitly addresses nor narratively condemns.

 Crutchie is not the only newsboy with a nickname. In fact, most of them have nicknames – they’re a very obvious way to signal belonging, and many of the boys have contentious or nonexistent relationships with their parents, which lead to them wishing to adopt names that are not the names that they were given at birth. However, Crutchie’s is the only nickname that is about something that actively puts him in danger and makes his life more difficult. Romeo is nicknamed Romeo because of his tendency to flirt with women – we see this in how he interacts with Katherine, and it’s used all in good fun. This is a nickname about a personality trait, and, further, a nickname about a personality trait that is generally harmless. Romeo will not be captured or beaten on the street for the trait that led him to be nicknamed Romeo. Sniper is nicknamed Sniper because of his ability to pick the right people to try to sell papers to. Not only is this a personality trait that has not caused him harm, it is, in fact, a honed skill. For Sniper, his nickname is an indicator of respect. The same is, obviously, not true about Crutchie. His nickname is not about his personality, but rather about a physical disability, something that he has no control over and that the audience watches put him directly in danger not just once, but twice. He has no power over his nickname and how it is used to refer to him, but, the musical portrays, this is okay, because he doesn’t express any distaste about it and, anyway, it’s his friends using it for him, and it’s all in good fun and mutual understanding. However, it is the fact that it is his friends using the nickname that makes it upsetting. It is the first example of how conditional Crutchie’s acceptance is and how, because he needs that acceptance for safety, he really has no choice at all. Crutchie needs the safety of being part of the in-group, and so he has no recourse to ask to be treated with more respect, instead grinning and bearing it.

The conditional acceptance of the nickname becomes even clearer after the strike goes terribly wrong and Crutchie is arrested. When he’s arrested, Jack quickly stops calling him by name. It’s just for a second, and it’s not meant out of malice, but when Crutchie is an inconvenience, he stops being a person and becomes a “dumb cr*p” who is “too slow”. The newsboys tie Crutchie’s identity so entirely to his disability and to his mobility aid that, even when he is in danger and captured, it’s all they can refer to him as. Crutchie writes a letter to Jack, updating him on his situation, monologuing about their history and his fantasies about the future, but Jack’s song about Crutchie being gone is about him being a cr*p. This is an incredibly clear demonstration of how, while Jack may care about Crutchie, or even love him, he does not respect him, and the reason that he doesn’t respect him is because of his disability.

This is further demonstrated by Jack’s treatment of Crutchie’s crutch. When the newsboys have their run-in with their antagonizers at the subway, Crutchie is attacked and beaten up, having his crutch taken from him. Jack defends him. Jack defending him is an important moment to note in terms of how Crutchie is a member of the in-group, and relies on that membership for protection from the outside danger he faces as a direct result of his disability. If Jack and the other newsboys hadn’t been there to defend him, Crutchie conceivably could have been killed, or at the very least sustained further permanent damage. However, in defending Crutchie, Jack takes his crutch. He takes his friend’s mobility aid, something that is as essential to Crutchie’s independence and movement as a biological limb, and beats someone up with it. He then proceeds to run away with it, leaving Crutchie on the ground, without giving second thought to how or if Crutchie will be able to follow.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Crutchie is then picked up by an ensemble newsboy, who runs away with him. This makes sense in the context of the musical – he can’t be left there, and he’s a liability without his crutch (a crutch that, of course, Jack took from him). However, the newsboy who picks him up does not ask him before doing so, and he does it directly after Crutchie’s autonomy is hugely violated and he is beaten up for the crime of being disabled. As a disabled person with many disabled friends, the idea of someone picking any of us up under the assumption that we couldn’t walk ourselves, without even asking first, is deeply upsetting. It removes agency and also puts the person being picked up in danger, as many injuries and disabilities can be exacerbated to incredible degrees by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Picking up Crutchie and running away with him is just as likely to result in him acquiring a new injury as it is to result in the whole group escaping safely. This part of the scene is crucial. It shows that the other newsboys are willing to risk their lives and safety for Crutchie, and even implies that they have done it before and are used to doing it. Crutchie has a group of friends (or family) who are ride or die for him, and he knows it. What he also knows, though, is that in times of risk or stress he has no autonomy, and if he indicates that he needs or wants any autonomy, he runs the possibility of having his protection taken away from him.

The narrative of the musical supports this messaging, this idea that a disabled person can be loved and cared about, but not respected. Instead of demonstrating any sign of Crutchie being upset about how he is treated, or showing another disabled person who is treated differently, or giving Crutchie any narrative agency, he is reduced to a backseat role of a cr*pple who is happy with what he can get and barely acts on his own. When Crutchie is taken prisoner, he doesn’t try to escape, or to befriend other prisoners and try to work with them or raise morale. Instead, he performs a dramatic song pining after Jack, in which he does not get to dance or even move from his bed. He is in prison to justify Jack being upset, not to have any sort of story or narrative of his own. Furthermore, he is not in the big dance number, “King of New York”. In dance-heavy musicals, dance numbers are often used to represent pivotal story points, or the characters involved making a big choice, which is especially true in the song that repeatedly declares “I’m the king of New York” – a song about claiming agency. Crutchie is not permitted to be a part of that.            

What this narrative framing does is position Crutchie as the sacrifice necessary for the rest of the newsboys to win. He is attacked and this helps galvanize everyone else, even though it temporarily upsets Jack. Crutchie, the disabled character, doesn’t need to be there or have any of his own agency or impact – instead, his friends care about him from afar and worry about him, and that’s part of what motivates huge groups of people to turn out in support of the strike. Even when not in the scene or being directly talked about, Crutchie’s story is one of being cared about and an important part of the group, but not offered or permitted to have any agency. This perfectly mirrors the way he is directly treated by the newsboys, and stands out loud and clear against the Newsies narrative of an oppressed group seizing agency and power. The newsboys as a whole deserve agency and respect from the world around them, but in order to have the safety that comes naturally to most people, Crutchie must sacrifice that same agency and respect and smile while doing so. 

Who Cares About Patriarchy?

How Fiddler on the Roof Uses Two Separate Ensembles to Show the Effects of Oppression

By Kay Berlatsky

Fiddler On the Roof is a musical about the life of Jewish people, an oppressed group, and how that group relates to the Russians, who possess and exploit power over them. As part of the exploration of this dynamic, Fiddler establishes a strong concept of community between the Jewish members of Anatevka, while simultaneously creating a separate, but equally strong concept of community between the outside Russians. In this way, there are essentially two separate ensembles – the ensemble playing the Jewish people of Anatevka, which functions in one way, and the ensemble playing the Russian gentile enforcers, which functions in another, very different way. Fiddler uses these two separate ensemble groups to depict how community norms within an oppressed group are affected by an external oppressor, while simultaneously demonstrating that power dynamics within an oppressed group vary greatly from the power dynamics of the oppressor. 

         The difference between the two ensemble groups is very clear. The first group consists of the Jewish people of Anatevka. They are who the audience is expected to sympathize with, and their existence as a community is established immediately, with the song “Prologue: Tradition”. “Prologue: Tradition” establishes musical unity, a connection to history, a shared understanding of values, and the concept of a closed group. The entire town of Anatevka sings “Prologue: Tradition” together, sharing their roles with the audience and making it clear that there is a general sense of in-community understanding of everyone’s responsibility. While the song also first introduces Tevye as the narrator, he is introduced as narrator specifically to say that “We stay because Anatevka is our home”, immediately leading into the ensemble singing together to back him up. That is, the focus of the prologue to the entire musical is on shared tradition, which is only shared by the Jewish people. It is not, of course, shared by the secondary ensemble. The secondary ensemble encapsulates the Russian gentiles. They do not have a song of shared tradition or unity, and they do not sing together to establish their existence as a group when they are introduced – instead, they interrupt “To Life”, establishing that their unity exists only in opposition to the Jewish people of Anatevka. The identity of the Russian gentiles is very, very different from the Jewish identity in this way. These differences serve to frame the Jewish people as a people with a full history and full identity and the Russian gentiles as an oppressor, intentionally showing how the dynamics within the groups differ from each other. 

         This is distinctly relevant in how the show is received by outside viewers. The dynamics within the Jewish ensemble group are complicated, and are explored in their full complexity – however, the dynamics within the Russian ensemble group are not, because they are intentionally framed as just the oppressor and nothing more. This framing, though, is not obvious to all audiences. People who identify within the “in-group” (i.e., Jewish people) are much more aware of the ways that that ensemble’s complexity are reflected than people in the “out-group” are, and so, because of the framing of the musical, different people engage with the two different ensemble groups entirely differently.

         The clearest example of this is in discussion of patriarchy. When you look simply within one of the ensemble groups – the Jewish group – patriarchy appears to be a major issue of the musical. Gentiles, it seems, are more likely to do this, as the Jewish ensemble is more fleshed out than the Russian ensemble, and so it is easier to invest more thought in them; however, gentile viewers do not necessarily have the context to understand a good portion of the traditions and dynamics, and so analyze the Jewish ensemble without understanding the need to factor in how they are affected by the external, Russian group. This was incredibly clear in class discussion, which featured condemnation of Tevye, a lack of sympathy for him, a strong support for Chava marrying a gentile, and extended, unnecessary discussion of patriarchy. Within the Jewish ensemble, it appears as if patriarchy is the problem. Tevye has the “power” in his family, the rabbi is a man, the women are expected to marry who their fathers tell them, and men have most of the religious influence. This, when viewed in a vacuum, is definitional patriarchy and, when you separate the two ensembles – as the musical allows you to do, in large part – it is very easy to view either of them in a vacuum.

         However, the two ensemble groups cannot be separated entirely. Look at them together. Think about them together. The power does not belong to Tevye. Patriarchy is constructed upon power, is entirely reliant on power, and so what is Tevye, a patriarch without power? He’s not an oppressor, he’s not cruel or uncaring, he is not even, really, a patriarch. And the musical shows this through its usage of the two separate ensembles. 

         In “Wedding Dance”, the Jewish ensemble argues about tradition. Tevye and Lazar Wolfe specifically argue about a broken promise about who Tevye’s eldest daughter was to marry – this argument is patriarchal, as it is an argument between two men over the future and possession of a young woman whose only agency is to convince at least one of those men to agree with her. However, this argument eventually wears itself out – community norms are broken and begin to change, and men and women start to dance with each other. This is crucial. “Wedding Dance” shows how the Jewish community in Anatevka is not necessarily trapped in tradition, but, rather, is willing and able to change and grow and move forward, adapting those traditions for the future. The argument is patriarchal, but the community, as a whole, is attempting to move past that and, if left to their own devices, would almost definitely be able to do so. Of course, they are not left to their own devices, because they are Jewish people in Russia and there is no story about Jewish people in Russia that can allow them to live life uninterrupted. The second ensemble, defined exclusively in contrast to the first, enters. There is a pogrom. The Russian gentiles that make up the second ensemble come into a wedding, a symbol of growth and change, and destroy it, simultaneously disrupting the growth of the community, any feeling of security, and any real hope for the future.

         This pogrom serves the purpose of, once and for all, splitting the two ensembles. There is no more dancing together like there is in “To Life”, and there is no longer any way to view them as a single ensemble even though, in theatre terms, the ensemble encompasses everyone. They are two entirely different groups, separated incontrovertibly by power, and by showing that, the pogrom scene shows the differences in power dynamics within both groups. Tevye, although shown as angry and patriarchal, has just as much destroyed as any other member of Anatevka. And, furthermore, he (and the rest of the Jewish ensemble) is specifically interrupted in the process of growth. Anatevka, at the wedding, is taking a step forward in terms of how they view and approach gender. Men and women are dancing together, Tzeitel is celebrating her wedding to the man of her choice, and the rabbi has ruled in their favor. All of this growth is happening, and all of it is immediately interrupted. This is what Fiddler on the Roof uses its ensemble to show about the concept of belonging and shared identity within Anatevka – the oppressor, at any time, has the power to destroy it. It is nigh on impossible to progress as a community or as a society when in constant fear, and, by interrupting a wedding with a pogrom, Fiddler on the Roof shows that without question.

         The story that the ensembles tell is one of conflict and oppression, and how community held assumptions, specifically about gender, vary entirely based on what position a community occupies on the social ladder. This story is summed up by what Tevye says to Chava when she wishes to marry an outside gentile. He says: “Some things do not change for us. […] Some things will never change.” When looking at just the Jewish ensemble group without the context of outside power dynamics, as the majority of gentiles seem to do, based on class discussion, this seems cruel. Tevye is denying his daughter happiness simply because she wants to marry an outsider – isn’t this oppressive and patriarchal of him? Isn’t he incredibly backwards? How dare he steal that from her? But, when you place this conversation in the context of the Russian ensemble group, it becomes very clear that that isn’t what is happening. Tevye is trying to protect his daughter from a man who he has absolutely no reason to trust, after being betrayed by a Russian he’d dared to be friendly with, with the full understanding that it is unsafe to change. This scene drives home the point made by the pogrom scene. The Jewish people of Anatevka are not allowed to change, are not allowed to shift their dynamics, are not allowed to attempt to grow, because if and when they do, it will all be destroyed. 

         In conclusion, Fiddler on the Roof uses ensemble not to make a point about community belonging, but rather to make a point about how community belonging is destroyed by the presence of a separate oppressor. By crafting and clearly distinguishing two separate ensemble groups, Fiddler is able to play them against each other, clearly demonstrating how the existence of one group, the oppressor, deeply and unalienably affects the growth and progress of the other group. These two separate ensembles show how Tevye is not a patriarch, and, instead, oppression leads to fear of growth and change and an inability to pursue it that is then nevertheless condemned by outside audiences. 

The Weapon of Womanhood

In The King and I, Anna, a white woman from England, comes to Siam in order to teach the children of the royal family English. She has a tragic history involving the loss of her husband, as well as a son who is accompanying her. This history, when combined with the differences between her culture and the culture of Siam, lead to her feeling out of place and disrespected, and is used in order to garner sympathy for her from the audience. Her son, too, feels this way, although his feelings are explored less than hers in this regard. Anna arrives in Siam and nearly immediately begins to confront the King of Siam in his demands for respect, as well as his enforcement of cultural customs, including his disrespect of women as autonomous beings. This leads to an extended complex relationship between the two, which seems at times romantic, and at other times like a brutal exploitation of power. Through an intersectional lens, examining both Anna and the King of Siam on the basis of race and gender, their relationship shows that Anna does not simply defend her personhood as a woman, but rather uses her womanhood as a tool to weaponize her whiteness, exploiting her racial power over the King of Siam in order to bend him and the rest of the country to her will.

            The first scene of The King and I involves Anna arriving in Siam on a ship, along with her son. The staging is strikingly beautiful. The music swells, the ship towers over everything around it, the costumes are exquisite. It is a gorgeous opening to a musical – so gorgeous, in fact, that you almost don’t notice the Siamese marketplace coming into view just below the ship. Anna, in her English ship, coming to teach English to the poor people of Siam who have been robbed of the chance to learn it, sails in above the world she is going to be a part of. This staging accomplishes a couple of things. The first, and most obvious, is that it establishes Anna as separate from the background cast members. She is on a different level from them, and so the audience is forced to pay attention to her specifically. This makes sense – she is the protagonist of the musical, and it’s important to make an audience aware of that early on, so that they know where to direct their sympathies. However, the second thing that the staging establishes is much more insidious. Not only does Anna, flying in on a ship, exist on a different level from the Siamese, she specifically exists above them. They must look up to see her – cannot, in fact, avoid looking up at her, as she towers over everything –  and if she chooses at them, she must look down, although there is no reason why she would have to make that choice. And yet, Anna is the one who, after disembarking, sings a song about how “no one will ever suspect [she’s] afraid”. It is a natural thing that a woman surrounded by foreigners should be afraid – so natural, in fact, that you can almost forget that she is the foreigner, not the default or the natural state of existence. Anna is framed as having all the power, but because the audience’s gaze has been fixed on her as the protagonist, and white audiences have been trained to sympathize with white characters, the audience sympathizes with her fear of the other that is, from all appearances, based on little more than the other being other.

            To put it in simpler terms, what the framing of the opening scene establishes is Anna’s whiteness, above all else. She comes from England, and she is above everyone else, and she is a colonialist, and she is white. She is very clearly a woman, but that is only brought up in the context of her whiteness – the captain of the ship asks if she is sure she will be safe, a woman alone in Siam. The implication here has very little to do with her womanhood on its own and everything to do with how dangerous the Siamese may be to a white person. Once again, the musical draws upon racist stereotypes and beliefs in order to establish Anna as sympathetic and in need of protection. Her whiteness is more key to her relationship with any other characters in the show, especially the King, than her womanhood is, and the opening scene establishes that by placing her on a physical pedestal high above everyone else.

            The King is, through a simplified lens, the opposite of Anna. He is a man, not a woman, and native to Siam, not white. And, contra-positively to Anna, his race is also what is key to his relationship with others, more so than his gender. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, part of his relationship with Anna is heavily based on her frequent demands for him to stop mistreating women, and her insistence that women are people. However, on closer examination, the musical shows that the reason he mistreats women and sees them as less than full people is because he is Siamese, not because he is a man. It is just the way that things are done in Siam, and Anna needs to get used to it if she is going to live there. Regardless of how accurate a characterization of Siamese culture this is – which does bear discussion, especially in relation to England,  a country not known for its egalitarian treatment of marginalized groups – it frames the King of Siam’s race as much more crucial to his opinions than his gender is. If his degradation of woman  were meant to be as a result of his gender, then there would be Siamese women who agreed with Anna and who were as upset as her about their mistreatment. But they are not, because they are used to it, because they belong to a culture that, in Anna’s eyes, and the eyes of the majority of the audience, at this point, is too primitive to know any better. Race, not gender.

            The King and Anna’s relationship, then, must be reexamined through the lens of understanding that race is the priority. Anna refuses to prostrate herself before him, claiming that she will not be mistreated like Siamese women are. She refuses to put herself on a lower level than him, or to respect cultural customs, or to live in the palace as she is expected to do. According to Anna, all of this refusal is about self-respect. It’s about seeing herself, a woman, as a full person, and not someone who is willing to grovel. However, is that really true? She has all the power of a colonialist empire behind her, and the palace is reliant on her to teach its children English. She has all this power and she knows it – when she finally snaps and exclaims that the Siamese are actually barbarians, or when she threatens to quit if she is not treated exactly as she is expected to be, she knows what she is doing and what power she holds. She has the power to teach the court how to be respected by the English when they come to visit, and the power to take away that respect if she is treated differently than how she wants to be treated. She has the maps, the language, the knowledge of far off places. Rather than defending her womanhood, then, asserting her demands becomes about weaponizing her whiteness.

            It can even be seen in the continuation of how the opening scene frames Anna. Anna enters the musical above the Siamese, and by refusing to bow to the King and actively protesting against customs to which everyone conforms, she does her best to keep herself above him. At first, he protests. He is a man, and so, says the overt text of the musical, he has power over her, and does not have to listen. However, he quickly begins to compromise. And this, says the subtext, is because Anna is white and he is not, and so it is an inevitability that he will succumb to her demands.

            In fact, it literally kills him to disobey her. The King of an entire country is struck down as if by divine intervention when he attempts to raise a hand against Anna’s will. While presumably it is well agreed upon that whipping someone for disobeying you is wrong, it is not an internal realization of that wrongness that stops the King. No, it is Anna stepping in, Anna saying what is right, and Anna rebuking him with such force that it results in his ignominious death. This is the final display of Anna having all the power, and the King having none, and nobody questions it. To all intents and purposes, Anna kills the king, and nobody attempts to punish her or banish her from the kingdom. This is because she is white, and so her having that kind of power is assumed – by the writers, the audience, and the characters alike. In The King and I, gender is little more than a façade behind which to hide a racial dynamic influenced by hundreds of years of colonialism and the power of language.