What does it mean to be an American? Is it ethnicity? Is it inextricably tied to whiteness? Is it culture? Common beliefs, ideals, and experiences that unite every single person under one cohesive identity? Oklahoma! the musical highlights aspects of American identity under a period marked by whiteness. Whiteness, as we have discussed in class, sets the cultural norm for our American society. Whatever is considered “white” is considered normal. If I can recall from my A.P. U.S. history class, manifest destiny was the big thing in the 19th century, highlighting the superior morals of white folks as they stole Native American land and ventured further west. As small towns kept popping up throughout the western frontier, the societal hierarchy was ever more important in keeping a town running. With most towns, there were men, women, and children, and each played a vital role in developing and maintaining a town. Roles that were always needed like farmers, merchants, cops, teachers, mayors, and so on.
So… we have all these roles, and we have a stellar cast. That begs the question: who should play what? Well, as seen in Oklahoma!, most of these roles should be played by men apparently. No woman was a lawyer or a merchant or a mayor. Most women in the musical were teachers or simply played the part of “woman”. How boring is that?? Most of the women played the expected role of a woman at that time: to be an object of sexual desire for the male main protagonist. –Note the emphasis on male– Women had no other purpose except to be eye candy and to be fought over by men. This is most exemplified by Ado Annie, the young naïve teen that falls for any man she sees because “she can’t say no.” Oklahoma! reinforces the societal role of a women in 19th century America through Ado Annie’s character. Yet, it also interestingly features Laurey Williams, the female lead of the show.
While Laurey Williams functions as another “woman” character in the musical, she is also the niece to Aunt Keller. She also works on the farm and wears masculine attire throughout the first act of the musical. Wow, she’s an actual somewhat developed person. As seen in the opening number “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” by Curly McLain, she is seen sporting jean overalls and a flannel. Traditionally an attire fit for a male farmer, she herself breaks the feminine stereotype embodied by Ado Annie. Covered in dirt, she continues with her business, ignoring the advances of Curly in “People Will Say We’re In Love.” She denies her attraction towards Curly as she continues her business on the farm. As Laurey states “don’t throw bouquets at me,” she rejects her role as an object of desire and in turn, rejects the traditional notions of womanhood. She rejects the heteronormativity of being a woman, where a woman’s sole value is tied to their heterosexual relationships with men.
Even back then, young people were getting it on, specifically heterosexual young people. Because of this, a woman’s value came from validation by men. *shocker* Men sought out women for sexual pleasure. Womanhood emphasized feminine features, feminine clothing, and feminine mannerisms. Woman were subservient and dolled up for the sake of men in this heteronormative era. A woman’s identity was inextricably linked to their sexuality because their sexuality gave them value in 19th century America. While Laurey Williams rejects the basic idea of womanhood as in she chooses not to dress so feminine, she partakes in a work intensive occupation dominated by men, and overall does not act very feminine, she gives in to her heterosexuality. By giving in to her heterosexuality, she eventually gives in to 19thcentury America’s idea of womanhood.
Laurey Williams ends up being an object of desire by the main protagonist of the musical, Curly McClain, and the second lead of the musical, Jud Fry. In first act of the musical, she acts for herself and for her Aunt. Her main priority was the farm and its success. By the second act of the musical, her character shifts priority entirely; she buys into her heterosexuality. Her feelings for Curly is something she can no longer ignore. As she acknowledges her feelings, she becomes jealous when “supposedly” Curly finds a romantic partner. By becoming jealous, she embodies her role as a woman. She begins to act lady like, going so far as being courted by Jud Fry to the town dance. She ends up becoming an object of desire! The rest of the musical becomes a war of attrition by Curly and Jud as they try to win her attention and most importantly her heart.
Now, I personally love dances as much as anyone. And as we know, dances and more so prom is the quintessential American experience. It defines our American youth. This age old tradition can be seen in Oklahoma! where the town dance is the focal point of the story. It very much drives the plot of the musical because it is where Jud and Laurey’s relationship as well as Curley and Laurey’s relationship is fleshed out. By trying to make Curly jealous, Laurey entertains the idea of being with Jud. Even if she never wanted to be with Jud in the first place, she still chose to go with him. She knows she is desirable as she channels that towards her feelings for Curly. From her jean overalls, she dons a dress. She wears a beautiful white dress as she waits in the fields for her “Romeo”. With the other ladies around her, she gives into her femininity. She plays coy and acts all flustered as she daydreams about the dance.
The Laurey Williams we meet in the second act of the musical is very different from the Laurey Williams we meet initially in the first act. She goes from a hardworking farmer unfazed by Curly’s advances to a doting woman trying to make Curly jealous. She goes so far as to put herself in a vulnerable position with Judd, even acknowledging she might be sexually assaulted by Judd in order to make Curly jealous. After the town dance, where she cries out to Curly after her traumatic attack from Judd, she embodies the female stereotype of 19th century America. 19th century America defined a woman as a damsel in distress. Someone to be saved. Someone to be fought over. Someone to be desired. Laurey now seeks a strong man (Curly) to protect her. As she is cradled in his arms, she cries out her raw emotions. How she dislikes Judd and more so, how she really feels for Curlly. She misses him. Period. What a dramatic climax to this “love story.”
Laurey William’s character arc throughout Oklahoma! highlights the relationship between gender and sexuality. A woman’s value, expectation, and overall societal role was defined by her sexuality. If a woman wasn’t heterosexual, she had no value. No man would want her. She wouldn’t be a mother. She couldn’t play the motherly role. Laurey Williams tried to be a feminist icon, refusing to be wooed by a man and more so, choosing to set her own path. Ultimately, when she chose to confront her sexuality and her feelings for Curly, she became the very thing she tried to avoid, a subservient woman claimed by a man. While Ado Annie simply plays into the stereotype of a pretty and naive girl, Laurey Williams growth throughout the musical calls attention to how heterosexuality defines womanhood. One could argue that to escape womanhood and make true societal progress, womanhood should not be tied to heteronormative relationships and bearing children.
So then, what can Oklahoma! teach us about gender and sexuality today??? What can it teach us about progressing woman’s right and the feminist movement? When a woman falls in love, she plays into the motherly role where she is expected to bear children and raise a family. Does this mean falling in love hinders women’s rights and the feminist movement as a whole? No, it does not. More so, the expectation that follows falling in love like raising a family should change. In order for us to progress, womanhood should not be tied to their sexual preferences and in turn, not be tied to their childbearing abilities. For a woman to pursue her dreams of being a farmer, a lawyer, or whatever, society needs to forget about her sexuality and only judge her for her character. Sexuality, specifically heterosexuality, should not be tied to a woman’s worth and societal expectation.
Interestingly, society today is hypersexualized. As seen within the rap genre, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj has fully embraced their sexuality and rather, uses it to advance their platform. They are considered powerful icons because they talk so openly and brazenly about their sex lives. They lend their voices to other women and their own sexual experiences. The feminist movement is at an interesting point where sexuality does not restrain a woman, it rather empowers them. Nicki Minaj and Cardi don’t play into the doting housewife stereotype yet Laurey Williams does when she confronts her own sexuality. Laurey Williams goes from potential feminist icon to subservient housewife. What’s the difference then? While Laurey Williams lets her heterosexuality define her worth and role, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj let their sexuality empower their careers and ambitions.