Maria the Tomboy

Who is the target audience of The Sound of Music (1965)? – Is it women? Or specifically, the tomboys out there who can really relate to the protagonist Maria? Or maybe it’s just children who are interested in learning how to sing? Well, even if those little kindergarteners are not the main audience, this film—directed by ​​Robert Wise, starring Julie Andrews, and including music written by the prominent duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—certainly is the textbook for all primary school music classes with its renowned musical number, “Do-Re-Mi.”

At a first glance, the audience could interpret The Sound of Music as a film that relays the story of a woman who doesn’t quite fit the standards of a “proper lady” and how this characteristic of hers becomes a great charm. The appearance of Maria plays an important role in setting up the tomboy of the character: her short hair, ugly dress, and makeup-less face.

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Unlike the typical long and voluminous hair, colorful and classy dresses, and sparkly makeup that women wore to appeal to men, Maria maintains a short cut hairstyle, a bland dress—which everyone in Captain von Trapp’s mansion brutally criticizes—and a bare face. These costume choices make it apparent that Maria is someone who prioritizes convenience over fashion.

Not only visually, but Maria’s attitude also excludes her from the group of “proper ladies.” She is exceptionally talkative, even in situations where women are expected to stay speechless; from her very first encounter with Captain von Trapp, Maria straight-up refuses to abide by the house rules of using a whistle to call the children. The film once more affirms her strong intuition to point out a flaw when she sees one when Captain returns home after he visits Vienna and disapproves of the children having fun on a boat ride with Maria. Even in the very moment of the Captain trying to fire her, Maria shoots words like they’re bullets about how the Captain is unnecessarily obsessed with keeping discipline and that his children deserve some playtime.

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Furthermore, Rodgers and Hammerstein dedicate a whole musical number to other nuns talking crap about Maria.

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The whimsical melody and the light high flutes playing staccato notes in the back well describe how the nuns view Maria. The lively mood of the song alleviates the problem of whether or not Maria should be kicked out of the abbey (which is what the song is actually about), which also matches Maria’s personality of making everything joyful. The lyrics add on by verbally describing Maria’s character; “She climbs a tree / And scrapes her knee / Her dress has got a tear” and “She’s always late for everything / Except for every meal” clearly illustrate how unorganized and out-of-standard Maria is. In the musical number, the nuns call Maria “A flibbertigibbet! / A will-o’-the-wisp! / A clown!” as well as “a cloud [you cannot] pin down”—which leads to my interpretation of Maria: a free spirit. Her attachment to freedom is frankly symbolized by the hill that appears three times throughout the film. It is the hill where Maria is first introduced; the hill to which Maria escapes from the strict rules of the abbey and where she can freely sing and dance and run around. She introduces this freedom to the children who she also loves dearly by bringing them on a field trip and teaching them how to sing and dance. The symbol is emphasized once again when the whole family crosses the hill to search for safety and freedom from the war.

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The director intentionally chooses a hill that is above and distant from the whole civilization, representing isolation and freedom from the world. This selective setting implies a detachment from not only society but its norms and stereotypes as well, which also aligns with Maria’s atypical character. However, when Maria is back amongst the people, her free spirit is considered “not woman-like” by both the abbey and Captain’s house.

The director further emphasizes Maria as a character who breaks the standard stereotypes of women when he introduces the baroness. The Baroness is a literal personification of all the typical qualities of a “proper lady”: perfectly set blonde silky hair, flattering dresses with lots of jewelry, and visible makeup. She is the epitome of beauty and elegance as shown through her style as well as her soothing voice and smile.

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The two drastically different characters of the same gender highlight both personalities much more, and by resolving the film with Maria as the winner of Captain von Trapp’s love, the film transmits a message that even without being a typical woman, one can be loved by her innocent and enthusiastic personality.

However, after multiple re-watches, the flaws of this film stand out. Though Maria should be the symbol of a figure against the gender stereotypes of women, the character did not completely break the qualities, as she still had blonde hair (one of the biggest symbols of a pretty lady after the famous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953) and, though they were ugly, wore dresses only. These feminine characteristics of Maria prevent her from completely being ostracized by society. Also, Maria is essentially white, which allows her more freedom to be individualistic and rebellious against societal norms. If Maria was not white, but of a different race, her so-called “unique” aspects of her personality wouldn’t stop at only being called weird, but would most likely lead to her losing her job and having no hope of being loved by a wealthy man. These loopholes in detail weaken the film’s argument that it is okay not to follow societal expectations.

Additionally, Maria is still a “female” in her heart, as her strongest quality is innocence. Wise well-emphasizes her innocence throughout the whole film through her love for singing, dancing, and playing. Particularly in the musical number, “Favorite Things,” Maria uses a somewhat childish method of avoiding the storm by listing things that make her happy: “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels / Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles / Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings / These are a few of my favorite things,” “When I’m feeling sad / I simply remember my favorite things / And then I don’t feel so bad.” Not only in this song, but almost as soon as they meet, Maria empathizes well with the children and wins their hearts, proving that she shares commonalities with the young mind.

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The societal expectation that the purpose of women is to find a wealthy man, create a family, and take care of children remains as well. When Maria returns to the abbey after realizing that she loves Captain von Trapp, Mother Abbess sends her back to the house with the mission of “living the life that [she was] born to live,” or in more explicit words, pursuing her love and supporting a family as a motherly figure. As Maria ends up being the actual mother of the von Trapp family, it makes the audience question: do all women, despite how unladylike they are, end up being a mother?

Wise also leaves some questionable scenes regarding gender stereotypes involving other characters as well. First and foremost, Captain von Trapp is also the epitome of a “manly” man by being shy of emotions, not knowing how to handle kids, being unnecessarily strict, etc. It may have been intentional for the story to only focus on female gender stereotypes, but we cannot ignore the fact that males are also restrained from gender stereotypes.

Also, in the well-known “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Rolfe attempts to teach Liesl about the world, despite him only being a year older. He promises to protect and guide her like a reliable man; “You need someone older and wiser / Telling you what to do / I am seventeen going on eighteen / I’ll take care of you” (but he’s only 17!). By assigning a note to each syllable, Rodgers lengthens the song to allow the actor to enunciate each word. Also, his facial expressions and straight posture make the audience wonder if he’s talking to a kindergartener. Rolfe also sets a great example of what men expect of women: “Totally unprepared are you / To face a world of men / Timid and shy and scared are you / Of things beyond your ken”—again, touching on societal expectations towards females.

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Though The Sound of Music attempts to encourage the elimination of gender stereotypes, especially regarding women, it lacks full coverage. This could be due to the period in which this film was produced: 1965—when people just started noticing racial discrimination and didn’t even touch on sexual stereotypes yet. Nevertheless, this film still stands as an impactful attempt to mitigate the standards that women had to live up to. The film is especially relevant to the current world, where women are still fighting to break free from gender stereotypes; artists of many genres constantly try to popularize the atypical image of women. Recently, South Korea has been facing this change in its main music industry. The K-pop girl group, ()I-DLE (formerly known as (G)I-DLE), earns great fame and praise for one of their recent songs, “Tomboy,” by speaking about being called a tomboy for behaving outside of the societal norms for a “girl.” The lyrics trigger gender expectations by tolerating exes “Tattoo my ex’s name,” swearing “Yeah I’m fxxking tomboy,” and enjoying sex and drinking “I like to sex on drinking whiskey.” By publicly targeting the ubiquitous opinion that women are supposed to be pure and submissive, ()I-DLE states that it is absurd for women to be called a “tomboy” just by doing some socially stigmatized actions (that ironically men can do). Also, by removing the “G” from their name, which represented “Girl,” ()I-DLE supports non-binary gender identities and calls off the stereotypes that define a certain gender. Along with great fame, this song received much attention for its message, especially in the middle of a very conservative country.

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Similarly, considering how conservative the world must have been when this film was released, the audience should acclaim this film for being bold and pointing out a big flaw in society, just like Maria did when she saw one.

It’s not “So Long, Farewell” to The Sound of Music Just Yet

About the musical

The Sound of Music (1965; film) is an American Musical film produced and directed by Robert Wise and was originally written and composed for the stage by the legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959. Based on the true story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers, it begins with Maria, played by Julie Andrews, leaving the Abbey where she was training to be a nun and traveling to the von Trapp residence where she has been charged with taking care of the imitable Captain von Trapp’s, played by Christopher Plummer, seven children. Maria is independent and free spirited and never takes life too seriously, which is the complete opposite of the strict and no nonsense Captain. Taking place in Austria in the 1930s preceding World War II, Maria helps the Captain rekindle his relationship with his children while also forming relationships of her own with both the children and the Captain. This joyful storyline eventually becomes taken over by a darker threat of Nazi Germanic control.

Still Popular today

Despite coming out over fifty years ago, The Sound of Music (1965; film)is still a crowd favorite. This optimistic and sanguine film checks all the boxes. Notable actors that are charming and loveable? Check. Catchy music that is still being sung and reused while also inspiring new modern-day projects? Check. A plot that involves both an independent female protagonist as well as a swoon-worthy love story? Check. A more serious note of underlying political commentary? Check. These few features of the film are only scratching the surface of what makes this film a persistently popular culture phenomenon. 

The power of music

Music is the main element responsible for moving the story along, the title is literally The Sound of MUSIC. This can be seen from the very beginning with the prelude song, “Prelude / The Sound of Music,” where Maria is seen dancing and singing in a picturesque field all by herself. Andrews gives Maria such an energetic and youthful performance full of big hearty swooping motions and enthusiastic belting that it makes me want to stop what I’m doing and find a field to do the exact same thing. This scene sets the stage for understanding Maria and how she goes about life: happy and free.

Then there are also the iconic and catchy songs such as “My Favourite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi” that can be heard at Christmas time and in elementary school music classes everywhere. “My Favorite Things” has not only become a classic Christmas song, it has even been an inspiration for modern day artist, Ariana Grande in the form of her hit song “7 Rings,” and if that’s not a reflection on the timelessness of this musical, then I don’t know what is.

Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” music video, inspired by “My Favourite Things.”

As for “Do-Re-Mi,” this could be considered the origin story of the Trapp Family Singers, at least regarding the film. The von Trapp children don’t know how to sing, which is largely because of their father becoming withdrawn from all things playful and artistic after his wife passed. Maria’s character identity is largely based on her ability to sing, which Andrews embodies perfectly while also being in perfect pitch. Maria introduces the children to solfège of the major musical scale with this simple but extremely helpful song. The song, while not especially complicated, is what changes it all for the von Trapp kids because once they feel more comfortable with these musical elements, they acquire the ability to better get through to their partially estranged father. 

We finally hear the whole von Trapp family, including the captain, sing together when the captain overhears the children singing “The Sound of Music” to his guests. He has an obvious emotional response to hearing and seeing them sing together where his eyes seem to light up in joy and recognition, which is when he begins to sing along. The children have a moment of questioning where they stop singing for a moment, until they realize that their father is not only appreciating their sound, but also joining in, and then we finally get to hear all the von Trapp family sing as a group. This scene in the movie was, in my opinion, the most warming and heartfelt, and definitely brought tears to my eyes because it’s where we finally get to see the love the captain has for his children and in turn the love they have for him.

The Captain’s homeland

Once Captain von Trapp finally does come around, he even has a song that’s special to him. “Edelweiss,” is a flower meaning devotion and was his statement of Austrian patriotism in the face of pressure from Nazi Germany. This song really embodies the captain’s view on the political situation that is currently affecting him and his home country. It is the first song that the captain really takes the initiative to begin, and it’s also one of the last songs the von Trapp family is seen performing. They perform it in front of a crowd full of fellow Austrians as well as officers from the German Navy who are waiting to take him to their base and force him to accept a commission to their war navy. This performance is a statement to the German officers and to the Austrians that they are still going to represent and love their country in this battle with an unforeseen outcome.  With lyrics such as “Edelweiss, Edelweiss / Bless my homeland forever,” it becomes a sentimental response to the politically adverse climate that’s currently occurring. It also gives this scene as well as the remainder of the film an emotionally charged atmosphere that creates a much deeper meaning to the film as whole. 

Women empowerment?

Many might question if this film has any aspects of feminism or women empowerment because it seems to be mainly about a man and woman falling in love, which has come to be synonymous with a woman becoming dependent on a man. I wouldn’t say it’s an altogether feministic masterpiece because it’s less blatantly feminist and more of a coming-of-age story of a young woman, Maria, and could even be applied to the eldest daughter, Liesl. For Maria though, she is thrown into her job as a governess by The Reverend Mother because it’s obvious that her sole purpose is not to be a nun, she even says herself that she saw the nuns singing when she was a child and decided that’s what she wanted to do. This decision was not because she was particularly religious or had a strong yearning to be a nun; she just wanted to have fun singing with a group of people. She finds just what she’s looking for in the form of the von Trapp children, after she teaches them, what music is, of course. Maria has choices that she can make for herself about her life trajectory such as whether to become a nun or whether or not to take the job as the governess, and this at least gives her some semblance of agency over her life. On the other hand, these roles that she can choose from do seem to be limited to stereotypical roles assigned to women and seemingly with no option of pursuing something outside of gender normativity. Maria is very headstrong, which gives her some power to stand up for herself by going against the captain’s orders on how to care for his children and eventually help the children reunite fully with their father, but even in this defiance she is still playing into stereotypical roles women are expected to play such as the motherly figure and the peacekeeper.

As for Liesl, played by Charmian Carr, she’s just a young sixteen-year-old girl looking for her path in life. Her father has seemingly abandoned her and her siblings emotionally, she has no mother and no older siblings to look to or ask for advice. The only person who seems to have an interest in Maria’s life is seventeen-year-old Hitler enthusiast/messenger boy, Rolf. The song, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” which is coming from Rolf, who is only one year older than Liesl, is definitely a little condescending towards her as seen by him calling her “little girl” and warning her of being too naive and being taken advantage of by older men. Then when it comes to her verse, she obviously has an agenda, which is to get to Rolf. She plays into her naivety and tells him things he wants to hear to rile him up, such as calling herself “innocent as a rose” and saying, “I’ll depend on you” (i.e. Rolf). All throughout the duet they are seen dancing in a gazebo at night while it’s raining. They partner dance close together at times, but Rolf will back up when getting too close because he doesn’t want to be seen as one that’s taking advantage of her, but at this time in her life she wants Rolf, and she knows it, even though the audience can clearly tell Rolf is not the man for her. While this scene definitely doesn’t do the film any favors for being seen as one that empowers women, the prevailing idea is that Liesl is young and looking for her purpose in life. She might currently think that purpose is getting with Rolf, but she has the agency to change that, and with the help of Maria in their “Sixteen Going on Seventeen Reprise,” she realizes that she doesn’t actually need Rolf. She has the ability to keep searching for her true passion in life, without traitor Rolf.

Women empowering ideas in this film aren’t as obvious as they are in others, and it might even be a reach to call them women empowering, but it’s more about the fact that all the female characters are still looking for their place in life. This gives the idea that they have some semblance of agency in finding their dream and pursuing it, even if the dreams given are limited.

not a love story but still very much a love story

As a hopeless romantic, I can’t help but swoon at every love story, no matter how corny or unrealistic, I come into contact with. That is to say, I did indeed swoon when Maria and the Captain are in the gazebo professing their love for each other through the song, “Something Good.” Them standing so close to each other, both singing “I must have done something good / For here you are, standing there, loving me,” was the climax to the evident build up their relationship had been going through. Yes, the Captain had intended to marry the Baroness, but their chemistry was minimal, and neither of them really loved each other, which of course makes it okay for him to break up with her for another woman, especially if that woman is Maria. Despite their relationship being a major component in moving the story along, it’s also accompanied by things already talked about such as family reconciliation, female agency, and Austrian patriotism. All of these aspects help to create a better well-rounded outlook on the events that took place for this family, and without one aspect, the story would be one-dimensional and would lack the ability to attract a large audience. Plus, who doesn’t love a good romance story nowadays? Probably a lot of people, but let me have my moment okay!

the power of music part two

Every major plot line in The Sound of Music features a unique and memorable song to accompany it. Music is the way these characters communicate and share their feelings with each other. While music is the main component in moving the story along, it also gives the film a prevalent sense of optimism no matter the situation, which could seem to make light of the heavy political situation that was going on at the time. It almost gives the idea that no matter how dire the circumstances such as being summoned to serve in the Nazi Germany Navy as a devout Austrian, you can overcome it through music, which in the real world is obviously not true. On the other hand, the music can evoke these feelings of joy and optimism from the audience, which sometimes is the sole purpose of watching any form of entertainment. Not everything watched must be deep and dark and perfectly accurate, it’s okay to make light of heavy things because it makes it easier to get through. Music might diminish the extremity of situations, but it is also an engaging and relatable experience that can draw people in and get them to listen, and potentially help them learn something new. 

The von Trapp family escaping Austria headed for Switzerland.

the sound of music in today’s time

It can definitely be said that The Sound of Music is not the most inclusive when it comes to casting. Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the actors who play the seven von Trapp children are all very much white, and while it is historically more accurate, it doesn’t give any representation of racial minorities. This being said, race is not a central theme in this film; it’s never mentioned, and does not contribute to the plot, which allows for more representation of people of color in these roles. So, if this film/musical is ever created again, it would be great to see more diversity when casting these roles.

Also, watching this now was very interesting with all of the anti-Semitic comments being made by big time celebrities like Kanye West. The von Trapp’s are not Jewish, so they are not the ones being targeted by the Nazis and the comparisons are not the exact same, but they are still trying to escape. This film obviously portrays the Nazis as the overall antagonist of the story, and when comparing this to things that are currently happening in the world, it’s crazy to think that the events are almost a century apart, yet the hatred is coming back full circle. If I were watching this in 1965, I’d believe that it’s a sentimental portrayal of this family and their escape from the Nazis but watching it now gives a new meaning, and it even makes me wonder if our world is coming close to another similar event happening, which is honestly very scary to think about. 

Despite The Sound of Music possibly being out of touch in today’s time, it’s sheer optimism and cheerfulness when facing hardships makes it, in my opinion, a timeless musical. If I’m ever feeling down, it’s something I can put on to lose myself in the lives of a singing family from the 1930s and maybe feel a little bit better.