I’ve got to hand it to Disney– if they can do one thing correct it’s completely mischaracterize being a teenager, specifically in regards to romance. But in Newsies, we get to see teenagers devoid of dimension in a whole new century! Instead of a classic Disney Channel plot point such as dropping a science fair project the morning its due (gasp) or being rejected by your crush and also opposite-sex best friend to the big dance (aww), we see class consciousness, child labor, union formation and… the American Dream? Lofty undertaking, Walt. Don’t fret, though– it’s just as inaccurate of a depiction of the dynamics of adolescent relationships as we have come to love and accept of this particular company (monopoly?).
Newsies follows a group of, well, newsies, on their journey to fair treatment from the publisher of the paper they distribute. These boys live very difficult lives, having to steal food and clothes to survive and without families. These children, as young as eight, work for hours for unlivable wages from the greedy Joseph Pulitzer. This sounds like it could be the start of an inspiring case for ditching capitalism, but that’s a discussion for a different blog post. The newsies have essentially formed their own family, with unity being their glue. This show tackles not only this struggle for equality, but the relationships between these kids– all platonic of course (the Disney Corporation still maintains the official position that gays do not exist). These relationships all center around their leader, 17 year old Jack Kelly, who is the epitome of benevolent male leadership– a guy with integrity, charisma, power and empathy. While Newsies was definitely not made with the intention of being seen as a commentary on turn of the century gender relations and sexuality, I think that is exactly what makes it a good case study for analysis.
The depiction of Jack Kelly is very intentional– he is fit, attractive (heyyy Jermey Jordan), unassuming and looks like an overall good guy. He is meant, again, to be the best that masculine can be. He, along with his newsie counterparts, are deemed as overwhelmingly benevolent and masculine, with only good intentions– even during mess ups. What’s totally brushed over is the concept of toxic masculinity, which is very real, contrary to what Ben Shapiro may think. There are things that, for the most part, and looked down upon in male groups– one of these things being emotion. I would be lying if I said I don’t even slightly cringe when seeing a grown man crying or expressing his emotions in a less-than-masculine way, and I am a queer man in 2021. These notions of what a man can or can’t do or be are so ingrained in my subconscious, and I don’t spend much time at all in mascuiline groups. I bring these points up because, throughout the show, Jack has bursts of emotion and gives heartfelt monologues in rooms of his peers, and it’s just difficult for me to believe that a group of rough and tumble guys from 120 years ago would be so receptive to this, and it would not diminish his status. I am actually happy that Disney chose to do this– while I definitely don’t think it is realistic, they probably assumed their audience would be mostly children and young adults, so setting this example of acceptance of expression could begin to change the narrative.
Continuing this conversation about the portrayal of masculinity, I just thought it was interesting to note how the song that encapsulates the entire theme of the show, masculinity and all, is segmented by a ballet-like dance break. “Seize the Day” is an overtly masculine piece, paired with masculine vocal and acting choices. This being said, the group dancing is something more connotationally feminine, but it didn’t feel like an emasculated performance. They were able to successfully portray feelings of power and revolution through, again, a ballet-like dance number, which is just an oddly more progressive display, in comparison to my view on gender as a whole is displayed in Newsies.
In terms of the dynamic of a male group of adolescents, this show falls very short in portraying a realistic one, in my experience at least. The one main component missing is competition, and in turn, jealousy. Jack assumes leadership with no opposition at all– and for a group of guys with the sole intention of standing up for themselves and knowing their worth, it is just a little odd to me that there is no one else vying for leadership. This aids in my describing these characters as one dimensional. The reason why this large component of youth masculinity is missing is because it isn’t relevant to the plot. The newsies really just seem to be bodies, there to echo what Jack says and react to his decisions. This being said, Jack takes pride in this comradery and his ability to lead, and never takes advantage of this power he was awarded. He is the ultimate “nice guy”. This just ties back to my broader take on masculinity’s depiction in Newsies— it is a sugar coated rendering, void of an addressing of the pitfalls or norms that come with the territory of being a man.
At the end of the day, I understand that this is just a Disney work, so expecting a nuanced take on gender and sexuality is rather naive. This doesn’t have to be how it is however. I love Jack and the group of newsies and their immense fraternity, but Newsies is not an accurate representation of what being a man is in the way that I am a man. Seeing groups of male friends like this, in all different forms, be so accepting of each other and under the leadership of such a great guy, always subliminally alienates me even more from my male peers, and makes me honestly jealous of what they have. While this show is about fun and revolution, we should overall start a move towards more nuanced representation, especially in media aimed for kids. Jack and his friends are an idealistic dream (especially when played by Jeremy Jordan), and it’s time Disney and all production companies alike start giving realistic and attainable representation to their audiences.