Modern Femininity, Mama Rose, and Why She Deserved a Dream for Herself.

I’ve been trying to decide for years now if it’s messed up that “Rose’s Turn” is one of my pump-up musical theater songs.

Everyone has that playlist of songs that you go to before a competition, a job interview, a performance, or really anything that they need a boost of adrenaline and confidence for – or if you’ve just had a terrible day and need a pick-me-up to get through the next four hours of classes and assignments. “Rose’s Turn” is easily one of my top picks from my version of that playlist.

Like yeah, sure, Mama Rose is literally having a nervous breakdown in song, and I’m definitely not supposed to root for her or think she’s a great person, and I’ve just watched her inflict some serious psychological damage on her kids for two hours… and yet… “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, satisfying musical theater ‘I want’ songs EVER. Why is that? Why am I obsessed with this song? Why is it one of my go-to songs to screlt in the car when I need a boost?  

Hear me out – it’s because Bette Midler’s iconic 1993 performance of Rose’s Turn reads to a modern viewer as a fiery show of self-acceptance, a rejection of cultural norm, and a discovery of non-traditional femininity. It’s no secret that Rose doesn’t exactly embody traditional femininity, especially not in 1959, when Arthur Laurents wrote the book to Gypsy and Jules Styne and Steven Sondheim turned it into the classic musical. Traditionally, women are demure, beautiful, nurturing, and soft-spoken. They are not too confident, and while they may have goals, they aren’t working too hard or getting in anyone’s way to achieve them. They are subservient to men. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mama Rose is none of those things. She’s bold, brash, confident – she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. In the first scene, we see her barging into an audition and ordering everyone in the room around to make sure her daughters look like the stars that she firmly believes she can make them. She isn’t afraid to essentially ask Herbie to marry her in their very first meeting. She bribes and silver-tongues her way through every situation that dares stop her.

Mama Rose certainly tries to show us that she loves being this way. She exudes confidence. This is written into the book, but Midler also brings an anger and a passion to the character that makes her utterly impossible to ignore. She doesn’t care that she isn’t the star, that she often rubs people the wrong way – her character and perception are secondary to the success of her children. But throughout the show, we see little hints at Rose’s insecurities, in the way Midler delivers a line or in the ghost of a facial expression. Is she truly accepting of her lot in life? Is seeing the success of her children enough for her? As she slowly alienates all the people who love her – first June, then Herbie, and finally ever-devoted Louise, we see the cracks in her façade start to show.

And see, here’s the thing – I feel bad for Rose. I can’t help myself! Even though I am well aware that Rose is a toxic maternal figure, and she has not by any means done what is best for her children, I absolutely feel sympathy towards her. She has been forced to attempt to fit a mold that she will never conform to. Mothering is the “natural” occupation for women of this era, so where does Rose direct all of her dreams, her goals, and her ambitions? Onto her children. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it wasn’t commonplace for women to have their own careers while still being mothers. If you were a mother, that was your job. This was the age of the housewife and the picture-perfect nuclear family. I understand why Rose would’ve felt forced to direct all of her goals onto June and Louise – “don’t I get a dream for myself” was the cry of every stereotypical 1950s mother.

Today, it would have been far more societally acceptable for Rose to have that dream for HER, not for her daughters. Our modern concept of an “ideal woman” (at least from my perspective as a 22 year old who’s ready to get rid of gender roles) is unafraid to pursue her goals. She’s capable of juggling lots of different hats: mother (Rose), careerwoman (Rose?), dreamer (definitely Rose). She’s a master of networking, of finding opportunities where there are seemingly none, and getting to her end goal in whatever way possible. Midler’s portrayal definitely plays into this bold and almost conniving side of Rose in a way that shoves all those character traits front and center. And I ask you this, reader – if Mama Rose was Papa Rose, would we view the character differently? It’s appropriate for men to be pushy and know what they want. When men obnoxiously advocate for themselves, it’s seen as admirable and forgivable instead of unacceptable. Would these aspects of her character be seen in a warmer light?

Obviously, I’m not saying we should forgive Rose for the way she treated her children. She undoubtedly caused them a lot of trauma and stunted their growth and mental development. She was by no means a good mother.

However, Rose is a product of her time (and I usually hate that excuse). It’s so easy to see how these naturally occurring personality traits could have been warped by outward expectations and turned into the poisonous things that they become in Gypsy. And with that lens, it’s hard to NOT view “Rose’s Turn” as a satisfying and thrilling realization of what Rose has lost because of what society has told her is acceptable. It’s never been her turn. She doesn’t get a dream for herself. She isn’t allowed it. But God, she could’ve had it, and Midler makes that obvious. The showpiece that she makes “Rose’s Turn” gives us a vivid picture of how Rose could’ve turned her energy and charisma into an incredible stage persona. Rose is finally showing herself. She’s exploring her inner show woman. She is accepting herself as she is, while mourning what she has lost. And man, it is so satisfying. I was waiting for her to let loose from the first moment she sauntered into frame, and she finally does it here.

Yes, it’s a breakdown, but sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations. Who hasn’t had a screaming collapse in the worst moments of their lives, when all their buried frustrations are finally escaping out into the world? (okay maybe I’m revealing too much of myself here, but I digress…) That’s why I want to hear “Rose’s Turn” when I need to get my adrenaline going. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s loud and, for the first time, it’s truly unapologetic.

When I hear “Rose’s Turn”, I want to do it for her, and all the women she represents, who didn’t get dreams for themselves.

Jack + Rose (+ huge age gap + no love affair + no boat)

Jack Kelly is a guys’ guy.

Mama Rose is a guys’ girl.

How can a girl be “one of the guys”?

What.

The.

Heck.

And how could I include such a nasty patriarchal phrase in the first three sentences of my post?!?!?!

*crickets*

Same…

But really, Jack (played by Jeremy Jordan in Disney’s 2017 production of Newsies!: The Broadway Musical, directed by Brett Sullivan and Alex Calhoun) and Mama Rose (played by Bette Midler in the 1993 production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino) have a lot more in common than what meets the eye. Jack is different from the other “newsies,” and Mama Rose is different from the other women- and men. Why? Because they both exude masculinity like their lives depend on it. And not just the boy- being-boys- type of masculinity. But real power, control, leadership, confidence: what it takes to be a man of the men- a true, by-book alpha (*tips hat to society*). They know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it by all means necessary- and unnecessary.

This is what I mean:

Girls like him.

And the guys do too- just look at the way they look at him. Jack could be reading a grocery list or giving a social movement speech, and those boys WOULD NOT CARE either way.

Oh, and he man spreads while standing AND sitting.

Here you have it: a dude shrugging at being a dude.

But seriously, Jack is charismatic, independent but loyal, bold, and ready to rally. He’s a leader. He’s got a big heart, but he’s ~ guarded ~ and tough. And it shows in the dance numbers. Notice how Jack isn’t hopping in and flipping around with the other guys? Yeah, that’s for a reason. Instead, he is strong in his step and what they call “stage combat”- not quite dancing or acrobatics- and the effect of the tap shoes (attention-demanding, louder and ‘manlier’ than ballet, etc.) only adds to the emphasis on his confidence in word and act. His steps follow his words which follow his practically inflated chest, emphasizing the importance of his words and giving them a bit of a pump-up background beat with the tap shoes. (I’m sure if you were in the audience, you’d feel the energy of his steps.) Sometimes we see Jack wearing a muscle-exposing tank top with suspenders and dirt smothered all over because guys do physical work, duh, but most times we see him all cleaned up, ready to serve his crew’s union a plate of justice.

We know from his backstory that Jack has had a rough upbringing. He wants to bring a sense of good and accomplishment to his newsboys, so by staying angry, he stays focused. Physically and emotionally, he’s pretty stiff, but if he wants to lead a group of young males into the fight for justice AND be victorious AND be an icon, he needs to. Jack knows he needs to “be a man” to fight for himself and for others. It’s dangerous work, certainly not for the faint-of-heart.

Mama Rose, like Jack, fights for what she wants. The only difference is that her “crew” doesn’t want her to, so she’s more of a self-elected leader than a group-wide-respected one like Jack is. Instead of having her dreams and desires amplified by that of the group, Mama Rose projects hers onto the group (aka her two daughters).

Mama Rose is a woman in charge; she is a not-to-be-messed-with, absolute queen of a character.

She’s wild.

She’s brash.

She’s determined.

She’s unstoppable.

She’s accomplishing and doing.

She is… being masculine.

Being masculine is exactly that- being it, not having it. We talk a lot about how gender is performative, but that’s because it is, or at least the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity are. Do these characteristics “belong” to males? Yes? No? The boys were confident first? I don’t know.   

But regardless, Mama Rose is the perfect example of gender as a performance. Why is she “crazy”? Because she’s relentless, unsilenced, strong, wild-eyed, and ambitious. She’s an absolute hellbender. In a masculine lens, Mama Rose is unwavering, praiseworthy, and hungry to achieve. In a feminine lens, she is desperate, manipulative, threatening, and selfish. Why? Because gender norms. Where a female Rose “forced” Louise into the burlesque number, a male Rose would have “volunteered.”

This is a character that would do anything for her daughters (compared to Jack and his newsies) to have the success she did not. Mama Rose is incredibly desperate to be heard, seen, and appreciated. But she doesn’t get the “thank you for sacrificing everything (including your sanity) for me.” We know how it ends…

In this plot, we see masculinity playing out differently in male and female bodies again: A female wanting appreciation is needy, but a male wanting the same is not respected enough. Jack didn’t need what Mama Rose needed because he had it; he was respected and looked up to and appreciated, but Mama Rose was not. Would she have been if she was more than “being masculine” (like physically a male)? I don’t know. But what I do know is Mama Rose is an atypical woman because of her masculine tendencies and characteristics, and because of her biology, “being masculine” makes her less of a woman. So she’s a successful guy’s girl but appears unsuccessful because she is cRaZy for acting out male characteristics in a female body, and Jack’s a successful guy’s guy who appears successful because he exists in a male body with strong male traits, and this is not the Titanic. Oh, and you can “be masculine” without being a man.

World’s Best Mama

About a month ago on a Friday night, I was introduced to a powerful, fierce, and desperate woman while lying in bed and snacking on some deliciously pre-made popcorn. While cuddled up in my cozy movie watching outfit, I pressed play on my laptop and started to immerse myself in the movie Gypsy.

Were there times were I wanted to fast forward through the movie? Yes. But were their times were I was genuinely MESMERIZED by Bette Midler’s performance as Mama Rose? Also, yes.

A little background for the people in the back who don’t know anything about this movie:  Gypsy is movie musical based on the memoir of the famed burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. Bette Midler, who actually won a Golden Globe for this performance, stars as Mama Rose, the world’s ultimate stage mom. Chasing fame, Momma Rose is destined to make her two baby girls the biggest stars in Vaudeville… no matter what the cost is. The musical features numerous production numbers that showcase the talents of various cast members including Peter Rieyer and Cynthia Gribb. Although written by playwriter Arthur Laurents in 1959, Emile Ardolino directs the 1993 version into a well-produced film that brings comedy and drama all into one place.

Okay now that everyone’s on the same page, let’s dive into what you came here for.

I think Gypsy allows audiences to engage with the idea of gender and sexuality in a positive way. So many times, we (women) are portrayed as weak minded and willing to do ANYTHING for men, even if that means giving away our biggest hopes and dreams. Although Gypsy doesn’t completely annihilate that entire ideology, we can see that women in this movie have a stronger role of being ambitious, unique, and headstrong bad-asses.

Some key elements within the movie that depict my clam include the musical number of  “Some People” sung by Rose. In this number, Mama Rose is singing about her dreams of making it into Vaudeville with her daughters through motivation. The song starts off with trumpets bellowing out, and you genuinely get the intention that the song is going to be fast-paced, energetic, and upbeat. Bette Midler then goes on for about a minute singing about how some people are lazy in the ways they go about success, but then she belts out the lyrics “But I at least got to try”.  In a usual film production, a female character would most likely continue the “Oh well, I tried” dialogue, but its enticing and different that Mama Rose is so driven to be triumphant in her goals. Thus, the lyrics and dialogue really show how ambitious she is; therefore, it emulates the positive representation of women in Gypsy.

Another example to support my claim of bad-assery among women includes the way Bette Midler performs Mama Rose. Everything about the character is over the top, and Midler delivers it with precision and passion, the only way that she knows how. Her ability to portray a mother who is in essence a shameless monster of a woman is admirable. She uses over-exaggerated movements to portray Mama Rose’s personality and excessive facial expressions to makes us believe in Mama Rose.

Lastly, the musical number that really stood out to me was the final performance from Rose “Rose’s Turn”. At this point, we’ve made it more than two hours into the movie, and we are waiting for Rose to finally have her turn in the spotlight. Before the song begins, Rose speaks about how if she ever let out her talent, “there wouldn’t be signs big enough, or lights bright enough” to even encompass her success. Overall, the song is chaotic. In the beginning, the lyrics and music are fiery and upbeat, and the way Midler performs as Rose, depicts how she is visualizing herself as a star. The second part of the song, Rose realizes that for the first time that she has to let go of the dreams that she has held for her daughters. The music completely changes and  for the first time, we see Mama Rose really become vulnerable with herself and this is shown when she whispers “Mama’s got to let go”. The third part of the song picks up again, and in a way Rose is angrier and continues to repeat the phrase “starting now…”. In the last part of the song, Rose finally realizes her potential and sees that she is able to be her own star and live her own dreams.

Overall, I thought Gypsy did a really great job at representing gender in a different and unique way that hasn’t been shown. I really felt connected to Mama Rose and was happy that she was finally able to let go and be the woman she always should have been.

Bring Back Manly Men

A real American man– he is driven, strong, demands respect, and is not interested in frivolous behavior… or at least that’s what has always been represented in the white American male. And because white has been presented as the “norm” in the United States, that is what we expect from “real men” in general. As the lovely Candace Owens would state, “bring back manly men”, and Joseph Pulitzer from Disney’s Newsies the Broadway Musical is a prime example of such an American man. Meanwhile, Rose as played by Bette Midler in the 1993 Gypsy, possesses surprising similarities to Pulitzer’s character despite being a woman. Rose owns the same ambition and authority that Pulitzer displays while still maintaining her feminine characteristics, showing that the attributes of “real manly men” can belong to women too without sacrificing femininity. 

Let’s first begin by examining how Pulitzer is the epitome of unsympathetic, career-driven, “all business” masculinity, the perfect man of the patriarchy. Below is a compilation of scenes of Steve Blanchard playing Pulitzer in Disney’s Newsies, successfully portraying the hardened businessman. You can watch just the beginning to get a sense of the character since he stays relatively the same throughout the entire production. 

The first time we see Pulitzer is with his feet up on a table as his hair is getting trimmed. His first line opens with “gentlemen”, not only addressing a handful of men, but a woman as well. Clearly, we can see who’s presence he’s feels is necessary to acknowledge. His posture does not claim grace, as a woman would be expected to exude, but rather an authority to sit and to do as he pleases.  He then proceeds to vent about how Teddy Roosevelt wants to ban football for being too violent, showing how he values some “rough competition”, as a man should. Pulitzer dresses in a suit, which is generally associated with business, in a masculine way. (Thank goodness. Could you imagine if he wore a dress instead??) During the first song he sings, the choreography designed for Pulitzer is stiff and in many ways is not dancing at all. He walks around his office with authority and stands tall, putting his hand on his hip at the end. He is a serious man whose words are more important than dancing around the stage.

Pulitzer’s lack of vulnerability in his business and his emotions (besides anger) is maintained throughout the majority of the musical by a generally serious expression by the actor, Blanchard, even in response to an attempted joke by another character. Any such vulnerability would reveal weakness, which would be unacceptable as an important businessman. The only vulnerability we catch a glimpse of is at the very end of the musical when Pulitzer implies that he cannot afford to lower the costs of the papers back to their original price. He doesn’t actually say this, however, but simply tells Jack that there are “other considerations”, therefore admitting weakness without truly admitting any weakness, which would be devastating to his strong, manly reputation. 

Then we have Rose, the mother desperate for her daughter’s success, clinging to her role in bringing Louise fame. At first glance (see her picture below), she may not seem like she’d have the stoic personality that Pulitzer has, and honestly this assumption would be true. She does not hold the same reign on her emotions, but she is, however, more alike than one might think. 

Rose is a woman in charge. From the beginning of the 1993 production, we see that she would do just about anything for the success of her daughters when she threatens the theater producer into letting her daughters perform their act. Sure, Rose may not seem career-driven in the same way that Pulizter is with his business, but it is her own ambition that drives her to make up for her own unsuccessful performing career through one of her children. Later in the musical, Rose is volunteering Louise to do the burlesque performance. Rose holds her chin high as she speaks to the men to show that she’s not afraid of them and that she believes she knows best. She even points her finger at the two men, conveying power and showing them “who’s boss”.

Where Rose starts to veer from her similarities with Pulitzer is how she reveals her own desperation, especially through the acting of Bette Midler. After making a deal so that Louise will perform the burlesque act, she enters the dressing room breathlessly and reaches up to grab some fabric, turning around and raising her eyebrows in excitement. It’s like a giddy child, so excited to have a glimmer of hope of stardom again for her daughter. Going into the number “Rose’s Turn”, Rose yells and screams about how she made Louise a star because she couldn’t be one herself. Bette Midler flails her arms showing her characters outrage. Finally bursting into her own show-stopping solo, Rose shows the world she really is a star. Previous actors playing Rose had given the character a bit of a “crazy” look in this moment, as though she had really finally lost it. Bette, though, shows the audience that rather than having lost her mind, Rose is finally releasing her disappointment and anger from her past. For once, the bold and ambitious (and slightly power-hungry) woman doesn’t need to sacrifice something else- her brain. 

In this number, we get to see Rose not only shine as a star, but she loosens her ruby red dress to give the audience a little cleavage, showing she’s embracing her womanhood in her most climactic moment. Steve Blanchard as Pulitzer very clearly never strayed from his masculine identity and yet somehow we see two quite similar characters here. Bette Midler as Rose steps into the musical scene and demonstrates that a person can be both “manly” in the sense of being commanding and driven while also embracing a feminine identity. The two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe the manly men we really need are actually present within women right now. So yes, we’ll give you manly men, but it just might come from women instead.

Rose: The Flawed Masterpiece of a Mother

Binula Illukpitiya

I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a discussion with my theatre friends about the greatest musical character. Every time, I’ve stuck to my guns and rooted for Sweeney Todd but with watching Gypsy, I cannot help but change my answer now to Mama Rose.

The 1993 musical was directed by Emile Ardolino based on the life of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Taking place in the 20s, the story is of a theatre performing family where the mother, Mama Rose, and her two daughters, June and Louise, are fixated on the prospect of making it in show business. Louise, the neglected daughter, is able to find success in life despite her mother, who has her parenting clouded with delusions of fame, creating an emotional and psychological environment not conducive to success. The lyrics of Stephen Sondeheim, composed music of Jule Styne, book written by Arthur Laurents, and production between All Girl Productions, Storyline Entertainment, and RHI Entertainment work together in harmony to paint a story that acknowledges American art of burlesque and theatre while radiating the American dream and perseverance through struggle.

Although ‘Gypsy’ (the stage name of Rose’s daughter, Louise) is the title of the play, Mama Rose is undoubtedly the most dominant actor in the play. She’s neither monster nor angel but rather, something in between. Without question, she is a horrible, monster of a parent who is willing to emotionally manipulate her daughters to have them reach fame. But on the flip side, it is without question that she cares for them and is willing to dedicate everything in her life to them. The relationship she has with Herbie is loving and genuine however, clouded by her greed and ambitions. The brilliant contradictions between the awful and amazing sides of Rose make her. Rose smashes the traditional role of a woman by creating a truly unique identity riddled with both awful and amazing characteristics while also challenging how important sexuality and romance can be compared to other priorities.

When trying to understand Rose, it is of utmost importance to first contextualize her life. We aren’t given too much into her early life however, we are told of her mother leaving for life outside of the home. The result of this as seen throughout the musical is Rose having abandonment issues that seep into her romantic and family relationships. She spent June’s childhood dreaming for her to be a star and desperately wanting her to become famous. However, when the best opportunity to become a star came for June in the form of getting to go to acting school, Mama Rose refuses. The act and June were the only things Rose cared about in the world. They were her life. To me, it was clear that the refusal of June to attend school was from fear of abandonment.

Rose’s entire identity in the musical is centered around her being a mother. That being said, Mama Rose is far from a perfect mother. In fact, she is abusive. It is not of a physical nature, but rather chronic emotional and psychological harm done through the years is significant and should not be overlooked. She spends the majority of Louise’s childhood neglecting her in favor of her daughter June, practically forces Louise into stripping along with depriving the two of what they truly desired in life. This is completely different from the stereotypical female mother role that we are accustomed to seeing in theatre.

Rose may not fit into the traditional gender role of mother; however, the musical does not cast this in a negative light. Instead, she is able to thrive as an ambitious yet imperfect mother who goes on a journey of self-development. We see her being the ambitious and driven through everything she is willing to give up and sacrifice in order to make her dream come through. We see her being fun and passionate during the rehearsals that she puts her heart and soul into. She isn’t afraid to be loud and let her voice be heard no matter who is in the room. The feminist inside me lights up from seeing how much of a strong, proud, independent, and goal-oriented mother Rose can be especially considering this takes place during the 20th century where the traditional stay at home wife without a career is the norm. Through the good and the bad, we see Rose time and time again shatter traditional gender roles.

The other aspect of Rose that we get to see play out in the musical is her as a romantic partner. We are told multiple times throughout the production that Rose was married to two different men in the past. Seeing as her entire life seems revolve around achieving fame for a daughter, it seems out of character for her to have invested so much in relationships. However, this is where I found Rose to challenge what sexuality and romance truly mean.

In most media, sexuality has traditionally been a form of showing affection and setting up a romantic dynamic between characters. I do not doubt one bit that Rose had an attraction and love for Herbie however, her ambitious nature shines here again. Despite her three relationships, Rose’s heterosexuality seems almost utilitarian. Herbie is dragged around for years helping with booking the act being a manager for the performance all in hopes of one day marrying Rose. She was always willing to delay a wedding if it meant even the slightest step forward to accomplishing her dream. On the other hand, all of the women in Gypsy put an elaborate display of their heterosexuality. June’s performances on stage always took advantage of her being the ‘pretty blonde’. Tulsa and Louise had their romantic scene moment dancing in the street together. The burlesque strippers and eventually Louise had large displays of their sexuality through dress and performance. Rose on the other hand, nothing. The essence of her character was trying to follow her dreams while sexuality and relationships were on the backburner. Watching this almost two decades later, I can’t tell if this deviation from the norm is an intentional feminist is move or the production failing to imagine an older mother figure with a sexual nature.

While it is not a complete resolution, we do get to see Rose’s reflection of herself at the end of the film through the song “Rose’s Turn”. Louise, having now turned into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rose end up in an argument that causes Rose to start singing about her life and what it has amounted to. In the end, she realizes that she always claimed that everything she did was for her daughters but in reality, it was for herself. In the end, she finally stops projecting her own dreams and desires through her daughters. Through acknowledging her desires and seeing how living vicariously through her children was her entire life, Rose grows as a mother and as a character. When Rose talks about wanting to see both her and Louise on magazine covers, it shows that Mama Rose hasn’t thrown away the dreams of fame she had. Instead, she is more open about it and able to talk and laugh it off without hiding behind the premise that it is a wish for her daughters. This level of character development paints Rose as woman still learning about herself and a parent still learning how to be a better mother.

Altogether, Gypsy paints a beautiful tale of the personal growth of an incredibly unorthodox female archetype. The flawed but still amazing Mama Rose rewrites our notions of what a woman can be through challenging the traditional role of a mother, exploring how romance and love does not need to be the defining quality of a woman, and through challenging the value we as a society places on sexuality and the display of it. In the current times where we strive to perfect and categorize every aspect of our being, Mama Rose is a reminder of how a successful and realistic character can thrive when room for nonconformity and personal change is given.

The Patriarchy Works Hard but Bette Midler Works Harder

I truly believe that most issues can be blamed on the patriarchy. Whether it be the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, the “not all men” narrative, dress codes, or the absence of women in politics, the patriarchy sucks. I could go on and on about all the ways the patriarchy makes life worse for women, but that is not the point of this post so I shall refrain. The part that is relevant to this post is the lack of accurate female characters because they are all written by men. The 1993 made-for-television production of GYPSY the musical starring Bette Midler is an excellent example of this. This show stars women, but it is written by men. How can I man accurately characterize a woman when they have no idea what it’s like to be a woman? Answer: they can’t. At least not Jule Styne who wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics, and  Arthur Laurents who wrote the book for GYPSY. Their characterization was flawed, but Bette Midler saved it. Let me entertain you with how she did it (haha get it)….

First, let’s discuss the overly confident characterization of Mama Rose. She is, of course, a single mother. Single mothers are always characterized as being confident because they have to be (according to popular entertainment). No one can argue that Mama Rose is not an incredibly bold character. From the first scene where she walks onto the audition stage and directs the backstage cast, tells the orchestra what to play, and threatens the director, I could tell that she was an incredibly bold and confident woman. All of the songs that she sings help to further characterize her as an incredibly bold woman. For instance in “Small World”, she is very flirtatious and forward with Herbie. She is basically asking him to marry her in a song when they first meet. You can’t get more bold than that. In all of Rose’s songs (there’s a lot of them), she is accompanied by strong, powerful music. Full disclosure, I don’t know much about music or official music terms, but Rose’s songs have powerful instruments that inspire confidence in her character. She is also always looking to the future in her songs and talking about the next great thing she is going to do.  The men did a great job of writing Mama Rose as an incredibly bold woman who never falters. You cannot knock them there.

GYPSY - Everything's Coming up Roses - Bette Midler 1993 - YouTube

However, the idea that Mama Rose would be incredibly bold and never faltering is flawed. Let me explain. By just listening to the cast recording or watching the first couple scenes, one would think that Mama Rose’s boldness translates to internal confidence. However, Bette Midler let’s the audience know that that’s not necessarily true. Specifically in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, Bette Midler adds insecurity to Mama Rose’s character. Her facial expressions and hand gestures make her seem as though she is having a near psychotic break because she doesn’t know what to do after her star June leaves. She also seems to be convincing herself that it will work to make Louise the star of the show. She ignores Louise and Herbie for most of the song as well as not singing to the cameras which show that she is talking mostly to herself rather than trying to convince them that this will work. These subtle choices by Bette Midler help to show that Mama Rose is more insecure than her traditional characterization shows her to be. I believe that Bette Midler chose to characterize Mama Rose as secretly insecure because that is significantly more realistic.

Amazon.com: Gypsy: Bette Midler, Peter Riegert, Cynthia Gibb, Edward Asner,  Christine Ebersole, Michael Jeter, Andrea Martin, Linda Hart, Anna McNeely,  Jennifer Rae Beck, Jeffrey Broadhurst, Tony Shalhoub, Emile Ardolino, Bob  Weber, Bonnie

Bette Midler works incredibly hard in this scene to show that Mama Rose does have insecurities and isn’t overly confident all of the time. Why does she work so hard you might ask? Because, you guessed it, the patriarchy. As I’ve said, Mama Rose’s character was written by three men. She obviously knows what it is like to be a woman much more than these men do. She knows that Mama Rose would never actually have the unbridled confidence that she is written to have because Mama Rose is a woman, and the Lord knows the world beats women down and makes us doubt ourselves for everything we do. Especially because Mama Rose is living primarily in a “man’s world” as the advocate for her daughters, she would be incredibly beaten down by the patriarchy. Being told that you aren’t good enough and will never measure up takes its toll on a person and eventually causes cracks in the bold, confident exterior that Mama Rose portrays. The men who wrote this, while they might understand this idea, cannot fully conceptualize it because, well, they are men. Bette Midler does understand this though which allows women watching GYPSY to actually relate with Mama Rose. Am I saying that for women to be realistic they need to be insecure? Absolutely not. Well, actually, maybe? I’m not sure, but I do know that the way Mama Rose was characterized as unwaveringly confident is not accurate. The idea that women can’t be confident is wrong, but the idea that women are unwaveringly confident is also wrong. Both of these ideas characterize women as one dimensional without the ability to have more than one emotion at the same time. Bette Midler saw that Mama Rose was characterized this way and said “this isn’t going to work.” She took it upon herself to add insecurity and therefore dimension to Mama Rose’s character. She saved Rose and made her so much more relatable to the audience as well as redefining what it means to be a woman. In summary, the patriarchy works hard, but Bette Midler works harder.

by Emma Alexander

Shakespeare Would Hate the Hopeful Ending of Gypsy

“Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!”

            Thus begins the most famous nervous breakdown in theatrical history. But we’ll get to that later. First, some context.

            Gypsy is a 1959 musical classic with music by Jules Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Based loosely on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous American burlesque performer and striptease artist, Gypsy tells the story of crazed stage mother Rose as she tries to turn her two daughters, June and Louise, into vaudeville stars.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with Mama Rose, though for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’m not a middle-aged narcissistic stage mom, and there’s realistically very little I should be able to relate to in Rose’s story. If anything, Louise or June should be more up my alley, considering I’m a late-adolescent theatre kid. But there’s something intoxicating about Rose’s ferocity and ambition that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw a production of the show nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, in my most recent viewing of the 1993 TV film version of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler as that lovably monstrous mom, I was finally able to parse through why I love Mama Rose so much as a character- and why I think you should too.

But before we get too far into things, let’s start with an important note: Rose is an abusive mother. There is no denying that. The things she does are terrible, and they result in permanent psychological damage to her two daughters. I do not intend to excuse her behavior. In fact, I find the ending of Gypsy somewhat disappointing because Rose never quite gets what’s coming to her, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. I don’t think Rose should be forgiven by any means, but she does deserve to be understood.

The most obvious contributing factor to anyone’s Mama Rose Mania is the sheer icon status of the character and of any actor who has ever taken her on. Over the years, Rose has been played by such superstars as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Imelda Staunton, and Bernadette Peters, among others. The star power required to belt such anthems as “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and “Rose’s Turn” is second to none. So perhaps you might be asking if it’s not the character with which I connected as a young aspiring performer, but the roster of incredible actors she represents. And I think you wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that assessment. In my mind, the sheer act of portraying such a complex, challenging, unapologetic woman is an act of feminism on the part of the actor, regardless of the character’s many sins. Plus, she’s an alto lead! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Mama Rose isn’t just an opportunity to showcase female talent, she’s also the embodiment of what patriarchal systems do to women who don’t fit them, and how the pressure to conform can rip a woman- and her family- apart.

In particular, I want to talk about Rose’s identity as a mother. It’s so essential to her character that she’s come to be known almost exclusively as “Mama Rose”, even though she’s never actually called this in the text of the musical. Even we as the fans have given her no identity outside of her motherhood. The society she inhabits is no different. We learn that Rose has had two husbands, both of whom left her when June and Louise were still very young. As a single mother, Rose is expected to put her own ambitions aside and devote herself entirely to her daughters without the financial or emotional support of a partner. But ambitions don’t just die out when they turn unhelpful. They continue to linger and fester. This is revealed in the first number of the show when Rose sings to her father, “…I at least gotta try! When I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, All the things that I gotta be at. C’mon, papa, what do you say?” Rose is haunted by the thought of all she wants to see and do, and Midler’s frantic energy and fiery eyes further enforce Rose’s longing for a life of her own. However, she never gets the chance to pursue these dreams because her daughters must come first. The two men who left her (presumably the respective fathers of June and Louise, though it’s unspecified) receive no repercussions for being absent in their children’s lives. This leaves Rose alone to frantically try to combine her identity as mother, as defined by society, with her existing ambitions. She could’ve kept pursuing a career in show business for herself after her children were born rather than forcing it on them, but this likely would’ve been looked down upon as a selfish thing for a mother to do. Women are frequently asked to put their own careers and ambitions aside for their children or partners. The ironic part is that if Rose had chosen to pursue her own career while raising her children, June and Louise likely would have been much better off. But she doesn’t. She does what she views as the selfless thing by putting her daughters’ careers above all else. Her identities as mother and manager fuse together. When we meet her in the musical, she is no longer just Rose, she has become Mama Rose, and that identity is the direct result of societal expectations of what a single mother should do, namely, sacrifice everything for her kids.

At the end of the show, we finally come to “Rose’s Turn”, the iconic and powerful finale in which Rose must confront herself. She pleads with the audience, “Someone tell me when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?” This is the sentiment that has been slowly bubbling under the surface from the first moments of the show. Rose just wants a dream for herself. And the suppression of that dream, as a result of her status as a mother and the expectations of that role, results in her failure to connect with her children and her complete emotional breakdown in the finale.

Which finally brings me back around to the show’s ending. I told you I’d get there eventually. Though “Rose’s Turn” is the last song of the show, a brief scene afterward between Louise and Rose gives the audience a sense of hope that the two might reconcile. In the Midler version, Louise gives her mother a gentle smile before exiting, and Rose lingers for a moment longer to gaze at the stage, as though taking one last look at her dreams before moving on forever. I, personally, hate this ending. I mean, c’mon! Rose is the ultimate tragic figure! Her ambition is her fatal flaw, just like Macbeth! And she descends into madness after being rejected by her daughters, just like King Lear! Her story deserves a Shakespearean ending! It’s not that I want Rose to be unhappy, but I definitely don’t want her to give up on the ambition that has defined her nature from the first moment of the show. Shakespeare would never backtrack on a character’s defining feature like that.

I think the musical should end with Louise cutting her mother out of her life entirely. Hear me out. This would still be a hopeful and in some ways empowering ending because Louise is able to cut the toxicity out of her life and forge her own path. But it would also be the ultimate tragedy for Rose, whose biggest fear is abandonment. What better way to demonstrate the pitfalls of the theatre industry and the damage done to ambitious women by patriarchal systems than by giving us an ending Shakespeare would applaud? I want a tragic heroine!

Regardless of the moderately disappointing final scene, I think I do have a clearer grasp of why I’ve been so drawn to Rose for my entire life. She is fundamentally unable to change who she is for anyone. Of course, that ultimately has disastrous consequences for her family, but that’s also the fault of the systems they had to navigate and fit within. I don’t really think Rose was ever meant to be a mother. But I think her kids would’ve been a lot better off if she wasn’t expected to put aside her dreams for them. And what about those absent fathers, huh? Why don’t we ever blame those guys?

I think I relate to Rose’s inability to be anyone but herself. As a queer person, I’ve found identity to be both fickle in some cases and utterly immutable in others. Rose’s story is that of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, with the immovable object being the theatre industry and the patriarchal expectations set upon her as a mother. And I, for one, think we need to drop the “Mama”. She is Rose. Just Rose. And that’s more than enough.

“How Do You Like Them Eggrolls, Mr. Goldman?”: Female Sexuality as a Means to Power in a Male-Dominated World

Ethel Merman. Bernadette Peters. Patti LuPone. And, of course, Bette Midler. Such musical theater giants have all taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose, and productions of the 1959 musical Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim,are often noted specifically for their leading ladies. In fact, with so much emphasis on Mama Rose and her daughters, there are few male protagonists present in the musical, and their actions do little to impact the plot, with Mama Rose often ignoring their input. Despite the heavy emphasis on women’s roles in this musical, Rose and Louise are often placed at the whims of male producers and audience members with fairly small roles in the musical as a whole. Consequently, I believe this musical, through the perspectives of Rose and Louise, does an excellent job of showing how, when men control the means to success, women often must cater to the desires of men in order to gain mainstream recognition, particularly in the entertainment industry.

In the 1993 television production of Gypsy that we watched for class, Bette Midler played Mama Rose, and much of how she portrayed the character involved her immediately asserting her dominance over men. From the opening scene of the musical, she marches into an audition that her daughters June and Louise were at. Despite the man running the audition’s adamant refusal to allow mothers into the auditions, clearly trying to avoid this very situation, Rose refuses to leave and tells Louise to “sing out.” In this scene, she repeatedly ignores the orders of a man in a position of power over her. Simultaneously, in her lines that she is interrupting with, she is also encouraging her daughters to be outspoken like her as she tries to improve Louise’s stage presence. However, these actions of ignoring a more powerful man also have immediate consequences for her and her daughters’ success, considering that they do not get cast in the variety show, presumably at least partly because of Rose’s interference in the audition. In the very first scene of the musical, Rose has already shown that she is willing to break gender stereotypes by fighting against powerful men, but the musical has also shown that there will be consequences to her success as a result of these actions.

Notably, the only time we see Rose herself, not Louise, find success in promoting her daughters’ careers is portrayed through the song “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone”, in which Rose is extremely ingratiating to a casting agent, to a comical extent, in fact. Rose and Herbie’s success at getting June’s act onto the Orpheum Circuit is marked with a song about Rose trying extremely hard to be a good hostess, offering Mr. Goldstone anything she can think of. Though throughout the rest of the musical, Rose fails to book her daughters’ acts, on the one occasion she does succeed in reaching her goal, her success is portrayed through a number in which she essentially sucks up to a powerful man and ultimately assumes the role of a traditional female hostess, albeit in a comical fashion. Contrasting this, when June is offered a contract on the condition that Rose leave her, Rose tries to argue with the producer, Mr. Grantzinger and forces June to not sign the contract. Once again, Rose cannot become successful because she refuses to let powerful men control her, turning down a potentially lucrative offer because it puts power over her and June in the hands of a man that already has power within the entertainment industry.

Perhaps most importantly to the plot, Rose refuses to listen to men even when they are close to her and when she seems to love them. This is demonstrated through her relationship with Herbie, a relationship that lasts several years but finally ends when she signs Louise on to become a burlesque dancer without consulting Louise and in the process postpones her long-awaited marriage to Herbie. Although the immediate cause for Herbie deciding to leave could be taken as Rose’s decision to force her daughter into becoming a burlesque dancer, it also seems as though Rose’s demeanor has long been upsetting to Herbie because of her domineering nature, and this was simply the last straw. Also important is that, in making this decision, Rose has clearly placed her and her daughter’s success in their careers over her relationship with Herbie since she is postponing the marriage. Rose’s domineering of Herbie has occurred throughout the entire musical, with their first meeting being Rose pressuring Herbie into becoming her and her daughters’ agent through the song “Small World”. Though Herbie eventually agrees with her, and the song becomes a duet, it begins with Herbie being uninterested in her offer since he had recently stopped being an agent. In fact, Rose has such a domineering position over Herbie that their main love duet in the musical is titled “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and is sung directly after Herbie threatens to leave her because she cares too much about the act. Though the song is portrayed in a mainly light-hearted manner, it is a clear early indication in the musical that Herbie thinks Rose cares too much about her and her daughters’ careers and that she has the power in the relationship, as is demonstrated by the title of the song itself.

Throughout the musical, we see Rose continually ignore Herbie or intimidate him. One of the most obvious examples of this is when, in the song “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, Herbie seems almost scared of Rose as Louise clings to him. The actor who plays him, Peter Riegert, seems to have made a clear decision to portray Herbie as stunned, concerned, and intimidated during this scene through the use of his body language since he stands to the side and looks on, unable to affect Rose’s scheming. Meanwhile, Bette Midler plays Rose as physically domineering, gesturing very widely with her arms and physically taking up space on the set. The expression on Riegert’s face seems to convey that Herbie feels powerless to stop Rose’s decision to make Louise a star. However, Rose’s power and refusal to fit into the gendered norms of a heterosexual relationship do eventually drive Herbie away several scenes after this, which has a negative impact on her own personal life. She is unable to stay in a relationship, and the musical implies that this is her fault for being too domineering in a way that is unexpected for a woman, especially in dealing with a male romantic partner. Not only is Rose’s professional life negatively impacted by her willingness to stand up to men who would traditionally have power over her, but her personal life is also hurt by her domination.

Louise’s eventual rise to stardom through burlesque creates a sharp contrast to Rose’s unwillingness to bend to men’s demands. Louise becomes more powerful than Rose ever does, but she is only able to do so because she bases her career around pleasing men. We see that, when she performs for the first time, she is terrified of catering to the men in the audience, which Cynthia Gibb portrays through her acting choice by walking very tentatively and, at one point, turning back to her mother in fright, who in turn encourages her to keep going. However, eventually, through the montage shown in the reprise of “Let Me Entertain You”, the audience both in the show and the real audience watching the movie looks on as Louise, now going by Gypsy Rose Lee, grow in confidence, much of which is shown through her body language, which Gibb now makes much smoother and more decisive, and through her spoken dialogue between verses of the song. Her willingness and level of comfort with her career catering to men’s sexual desire is shown through the jokes she makes as part of her act. At one point, her jokes even reference the fact that her entire audience is men since she addresses the audience as, “monsieurs and monsieurs”, implying there are no women there. She has clearly realized that, by appealing directly to men, she has become financially successful and is seen as a celebrity, and as a result, she has decided that it is worth overcoming any sense of shame or embarrassment she was feeling at the beginning of the montage.

Rose’s and Louise’s contrasting views on catering to men’s sexual desires in exchange for success finally come into direct conflict when Rose comes to Louise’s dressing room after one of Louise’s performances and begins an argument with her, clearly upset that Louise has become successful without her. One of the first things Rose does to start this argument is call Louise a stripper, clearly contrasting Louise’s own view that her career has given her power in some ways, giving her financial and social success as she becomes famous. Instead, Rose still sees her as a stripper, which Louise, in “Let Me Entertain You”, had said did not apply to her because she was well paid. By calling her a stripper, Rose is combatting Louise’s position by saying that her job, however much success and acclaim it has won her, is still using her own body to cater to men’s sexual desires. While Louise views the career as positive since it has allowed her to gain wealth and fame, Rose sees it as degrading because it is, by nature, catering to powerful men. In this scene, we see these two characters’ viewpoints on interacting with men in power directly clash. In doing so, Laurents’ book demonstrates how women had to be submissive to men in the early twentieth century in order to become successful. Rose has refused to do so, and as a result, she never gained commercial success. Louise has made the opposite decision, and she has been rewarded with wealth and fame. In “Rose’s Turn”, we see that Rose acknowledges this fundamental truth of gender politics by unbuttoning the top of her dress while saying, “How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”, calling back to the one prior time in the musical that Rose capitulated to a powerful man’s demands. Now, by pantomiming Louise’s strip routine while calling back to that previous scene, Rose connects all acts of fulfilling men’s wishes in the musical, while singing a song wishing for fame, clearly demonstrating the theme of women being submissive to men as the only way in which to achieve mainstream success.

Through Rose and Louise’s differing attitudes towards powerful men, the musical Gypsy illustrates the position the entertainment industry, and society in general, placed women in during the early twentieth century. One of the main reasons Rose cannot find success in her professional life, and to some extent her personal life as well, is because she never allows a man in a position of power to control her. If a position seems too beneficial to the man she is dealing with, Rose will refuse to participate, even if that means a potential loss of finances, as her refusal to allow June to sign Mr. Grantzinger’s contract demonstrates. Contrastingly, Louise takes a job that some, including Rose, would call denigrating but becomes massively successful because of it. Because men control much of the cultural capital in patriarchy, for a woman like Rose or Louise to succeed in a public career, they must perform and behave in a way that fits into these men’s expectations and desires. Unfortunately, while women are beginning to control more cultural capital over time, this is still somewhat true today, as actresses and female singers are often expected to be beautiful as well as talented. Though Gypsy is set nearly a century in the past, it teaches an important lesson about limitations that can still be placed on women who wish to be in the spotlight today.

Through Rose-Tinted Glasses: Looking at a Descent Into Villainy

Main characters exist so that we know who to root for. But the minute you press play on Emile Ardolino’s 1993 film production of Gypsy, Arthur Laurents takes every expectation you’ve ever had about a strong female lead and turns it on its head. What we know about sacrificial mothers gets dragged through the murky story of Mama Rose and her two daughters until we aren’t sure which way is up or who we were supposed to root for all along. 

In Laurents’ case, this means taking the standard character of the strong, controlling mother and pushing her to madness. Because of her gender, we expect Rose to be loving, kind, and selfless but instead we discover she is obsessive, rude, and abrasive, and we don’t quite know what to do with her. 

The first time I saw the production, I found it so difficult to let go of this idea that Rose had to be the hero somehow. She is a mother, she cares for her children, and her children even love her back sometimes. I waited through every harsh word, selfish decision, and delusional sabotage, searching for that clue that would tell me when her redemption arc was about to begin, but never found it.

It took me until the closing scenes to finally sit there and say, “ok, fine, maybe she is the villain.” This confusion, where Laurents actually forces his audience to consider the characters and their choices, is what makes Gypsy so powerful. We expect one thing based on the stock characters we have encountered a thousand times before, and when they don’t follow the path we expect, we have to decide how to deal with the aftermath. 

At the first introduction, we see Rose as a caricature of a stage mom, a helicopter parent, a woman who fights hard for her children. Sure she’s comically overbearing and a bit intimidating and nobody knows what to do with her, but that’s just because she’s a powerful woman. Hey, we like powerful women! Feminism! After all, it’s about time we grew past characters like Laurey of Oklahoma! who have hardly a personality trait to call their own, and on to women like Katherine of Newsies who seem to fill the strong female roles America has been calling for. Girls who talk back and tap to keep up with the male ensemble. Girls who act more like boys, but still primarily support the male character arc.

But Rose is another beast entirely. She is larger than life. She is everything and more. And she is terrifying. 

“Some People” is our first hint that Rose may not be the loving mother we want her to be. The song is not a soprano lullaby, nor even a defiant belt. Bette Midler’s delivery is gritty, passionate, and clearly limited by the silver screen. Her voice nearly drowns out the beautiful orchestrations, contrastingly abrasive to the ear in all its power. The song is meant to be belted to the second mezzanine, where it slams you back in your seat and demands to be listened to. Midler steamrolls through the set as she sings, delivering sharp gestures and lyrics like oaths. Everything she does radiates power. 

At the Act I finale, when the curtain goes down after “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” you find yourself sitting there in shock and horror wondering not how these characters will fix this situation, but what atrocity this fearsome woman will commit next. The song setup is typical of the “belted act 1 finales of female self-assertion” genre that audiences have come to know and love.1 However, we are not left empowered or invigorated like we would be for “Defying Gravity,” but instead shaken by the display of madness so blatantly subverting what we know about female leads in musicals. 

This is no Laurey we have in front of us. 

Every expectation that we had for how this female should act is left in the dust as Rose blazes forward like a white hot bullet. Laurents has taken the stereotype of stubborn middle-aged women and pushed it to its breaking point, yet you still find yourself sitting there wondering what redemption will look like. We are blinded when we see that she’s a woman, she’s a mother, and deep down she probably only wants what’s best for her kids. This is what makes it so difficult to recognize and reconcile Mama Rose’s descent into villainy, even while we watch all the clues unfold before our eyes. Theres a reason WatchMojo ranks it as the hardest female role to play on Broadway. 

1 Wolf, Stacy Ellen. Changed for Good: a Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1–18. 

Beautiful All Along? Gypsy, Beauty Standards, and Expectations of Femininity

By Valerie Kraft

Ah, the age-old trope: give a girl some contacts and a hair straightener, and suddenly you’ll discover she was Beautiful All Along! Just with some minor adjustments, of course.

But beautiful to who? Herself – or to the male gaze and the beauty standards that have been forced upon her since birth?

These were questions I struggled with growing up as someone who looked identical to the “before” picture in every teen movie makeover scene. I think back to a young me – with frizzy hair, braces, and glasses that definitely did NOT suit me, and remember watching movies like The Princess Diaries. As the infamous Paolo holds up photos of the “old” Mia at the end of her makeover and remarks, “only Paolo can take this and this and give you a princess,” I realized that I was the “this” in the equation – not the princess.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, such a realization is insignificant. I wasn’t devastated or suddenly obsessed with beauty or begging my mom for makeup, but such messaging isn’t so easy to shake off. When my mom and eye doctors mentioned contacts, I jumped at the chance. And as I got older and my hair grew even frizzier with age, I adopted the painstaking routine of straightening it daily. I grew more confident in my appearance – but was it because I truly liked the way I looked better? Or that I had been so brainwashed to view certain looks as beautiful?

I don’t blame The Princess Diaries for this. Hell, I didn’t even think about The Princess Diaries as I slowly adopted these new practices. But the fact of the matter is this: the beauty ideals set forth by the film are the ones Western society has deemed essential for women. Popular media continuously dictates that every woman should meet (or strive to meet) these expectations, lest she fall into the curse of undesirability.

So as I settled in to watch the 1993 made-for-TV musical film Gypsy, I knew I was in for the same kind of beauty “propaganda” that The Princess Diaries toted. After all, I knew a brief background of the plot: it was the biographical story of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, from being sidelined from the spotlight as a child to her burlesque stardom. Surely such a story would inevitably require some instance of transformation: after all, how could a shy, background child star become a confident burlesque queen?

With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (adapted from his book of the stage musical Gypsy, which in turn was adapted from Gypsy: a Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee herself) and music by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (composer and lyricist, respectively), Gypsy follows the story of the dysfunctional Hovick family and their increasingly desperate attempts at achieving stardom, as forced by matriarch Rose. Rose, played by Bette Milder, is a classic “stage mom,” obsessed with seeing her children become famous so she can live out her dreams of stardom vicariously. She totes her two daughters around the Vaudeville circuits with a cutesy routine starring “Baby June” and the obviously less talented Louise, a clear contrast established within the opening scenes of the film.

June (played by Lacey Chabert and later by Jennifer Rae Beck) is the perfect picture of expected femininity for a young girl. With her bouncy blonde curls, frilly dress, squeaky voice, and bubbly disposition, baby June dazzles audiences with her infectious happiness and dedication to entertaining the crowd. Yet, just steps behind her stands her sister Louise, who will one day become the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise (played by Elisabeth Moss and later by Cynthia Gibb), in contrast, is stripped from her femininity. Unable to model the cutesy feminine persona of her sister, Louise is barred from being feminine at all – instead, she is resigned to the chorus, where not only is she barred from her sister’s spotlight, but she also is dressed as boy, referred to as a boy, and in one performance, even forced to wear a beard to embody Uncle Sam.

Such an exile from female identity is unnecessary– despite her lack of talent, there’s no reason the act couldn’t have been “Baby June and her Newsies,” or some other gender-neutral term rather than “Baby June and her News Boys.” Why does Louise have to lose her female identity simply because she lacks the feminine persona of June? The answer is simple: women who fail to meet expectations of femininity are barred from it. If Louise can’t properly “behave” in the way young girls should, then she shouldn’t get to be a “real” girl at all – at least, not in the way June is. Sure, Louise is still expected to be submissive, demure, and nurturing (of course, as all girls should be), but she is barred from other aspects of femininity, such as beauty and courtship (by a male, of course. Yay heteronormativity!).

This is further highlighted as Louise and June age, but the act remains the same. Now a grown woman, Louise is still stuck in her sister’s shadow, but this time, she is now literally dehumanized in her new role as Caroline the Singing Cow. Face covered and voice removed (with the exception of a few “moos”), Louise is hidden by her mother simply because she does not live up to the standards of femininity embodied by June.

Ah, but remember – by the end of the film, Louise will transform into the beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee. And while the film needs to make clear her original deviance from femininity, it can’t go too far, because of course, she will still need to be attractive at the end of the film, despite her shaky beginning. So alright – she can’t be sexy and “beautiful” yet, but we still need viewers to know that she’s Still A Girl (and still available for heterosexual desire) – so we’ll throw in a random song to show her feminine, nurturing side! Let’s give Louise a baby lamb and have her sing “Little Lamb” so the audience knows for certain she’s still a girl under all of those male costumes and cow casting. After all, only girls have that nurturing, mothering instinct, right?

Though just in case any viewers start getting the wrong idea, the film makes it quite clear that Louise is still NOT beautiful or desirable (at least not yet). When one of the actors, Tulsa (played by Jeffery Broadhurst) fantasizes about breaking away from the act and starting his own, he sings “All I Need Is The Girl.” Despite being completely alone with Louise, despite literally having a girl available to him, ignoring Louise as an option quite firmly cements her as not “girl” enough to be desired. And though Louise is able to perform the dance – the only real requirement Tulsa needs – he still does not see her as an option. Instead, Tulsa later elopes with June, the ultimate proof that in order to be desired by men, one must fulfil the expectations of femininity and beauty.

So what changes? How does timid and “not desirable” Louise become the gorgeous and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee? The answer, of course, obvious: a good old fashioned beauty transformation.

With the help of burlesque performers who coach Louise on how to captivate audiences (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), along with Rose’s insistence that Louise fills in for a missing performer, Louise is finally forced to mold herself to fit societal beauty standards. Following her mother’s directions – “young and girlish, pure” and “your hair’s all wrong – it can’t just hang there like spaghetti” – Louise dresses herself in makeup, a dress, and jewelry for the first time in her life. As she catches her reflection in the mirror, Louise stares in shock. “Mama, I’m pretty?” she wonders, as she traces her curves with her hands and smiles, finally concluding, “I’m a pretty girl, Mama.”

This – this is the moment where Louise disappears for good. Where the film makes a sharp distinction between acceptable and desirable femininity – the beautiful Gypsy – and the shameful, childish past of Louise. It is in this new identity that Gypsy’s worth and value as a woman is affirmed.

Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only receives love and acceptance after becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, and by extension, achieving the expected ideals of femininity? Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only becomes confident and adored after discovering that she too can be beautiful (with the proper modifications, of course)? And though Louise lacks a singular love interest throughout the film, the heterosexual desire of men is finally “granted” to her when she sheds her Not-Quite-A-Girl skin and fully dedicates herself to fulfilling beauty expectations. It is this heterosexual desirability – the male gaze seeing and accepting Gypsy and her appearance – that serves as the ultimate proof of femininity’s achievement.  

And so the cycle of beauty propaganda continues, timeless as always. And just as The Princess Diaries did to me, Gypsy communicates the same age-old message to female viewers: that you are undesirable in your cocoon, but one day, if you embrace femininity and transform yourself, you too can be a beautiful butterfly deserving of (heterosexual) love.

You too can be Beautiful All Along.  

Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.