Not Too Lesbian for a Kids’ Movie – Where The Prom Went Wrong

Let’s talk about The Prom. Specifically, let’s talk about Emma.

Emma’s the main character of Netflix’s 2020 musical special The Prom, a story about a lesbian teen in small town Edgewater, Indiana who just wants to dance with her girlfriend at the prom. Based off a true story, the star-studded production retells Emma’s conflicts with her high school’s PTA and the bigotry of her closed-minded community as four washed-up Broadway actors meddle self-righteously. In the end, of course, she gets to go to a prom (of her own invention) and dance with her girlfriend, partying her little heart out with all her new adult friends. Alyssa, Emma’s girlfriend, resolves the homophobic conflict with her control-freak mother, and the film closes on a kiss between the happy couple. What’s wrong with all that? A whole lot, it turns out.

On the surface, the concept sounds charming, and even a little progressive, considering the current state of the film industry and the film as a Netflix Original special. And while a lot of things went wrong with this movie, the core of the issue sits on Emma, and the film’s treatment of her.

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Alyssa’s mother, PTA president, cancels the school prom

The movie opens on the PTA’s cancellation of the prom, a few lines from the PTA president (who is, spoilers, Alyssa’s mother!) blaming Emma for the decision, and a shot of Emma looking . . . blank. She doesn’t have any look on her face, and while you might chalk it up to shock, it’s one of the most expressive moments we get from Emma throughout the film. It’s also the first time we get to take in Emma’s costuming: this time, mustard pants on black with a knee-length tweed jacket. Do I dig it? Kinda. Is it fashionable? I’m pretty sure it’s not, and the rest of her outfits are only further from the mainstream. It’s neither subtle nor remarkable, but from the very first time we see her, Emma is defined by a stereotyped and kitschy image, shoehorning her into the role of a stock-character lesbian. She’s odd, she’s an outsider, she’s unfamiliar; that’s how the film wants us to understand her situation. Yet when the film calls on caricature to outline its lead, that characterization becomes dangerously predictable. 

In fact, Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of Emma falls flat due to the same caricaturization, this time, not in costume, but in expression. Oddly enough, be it an actor’s preference or a directorial decision, Emma smiles straight through the film. A perpetual smile on the face of the girl who is facing her town head-on. The girl who is hated by her peers, not only for her sexuality, but as being to blame for prom’s cancellation. At the end of Act I, Emma (spoilers!) is tricked into attending a sham prom. The event is thrown together by the school’s PTA to avoid a civil rights fiasco and to feign inclusivity, when the real prom is secretly held off-campus. At the climax of realization we see Emma cry and begin to break down, and her smile falters slightly. But one cut away, the misguided and (supposedly) comedic set of actors arrives with ice cream to cheer her up. She tearfully tells the story of her rejection from her parents. She tells of the hurt she’s endured, of the pain and weight of the way the world sees her . . . all through an ironic smile.

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Emma smiles as she talks about being kicked out of the house by her parents

In that absurd grin, the film dismisses the hardships and pressures that young queer people go through. There is no display of the hate directed against them and the anguish that can result, no honest insight into the struggle of a young midwestern lesbian. It’s not just light and silly, it denies the queer community of all pain and outrage, invalidating those who can’t just keep smiling. An attempt at representation has failed as soon as it has dismissed the lived experience of those it claims to represent. And what happened with this happy-go-lucky lesbian, complete with a smile plastered straight to her skull? Exactly that. Whether Pellman’s acting was naturally inexpressive or directorial choices restricted her portrayal to a flat caricature is irrelevant; the finished piece should have included a more humanizing and complex expressiveness to the character whose identity was being capitalized on.

We’re starting to see the concerning direction that creative choices took Emma’s character in. From costuming, acting, and even story choices, Emma is robbed of genuine trauma, of indignation and anger, and framed as a character who does not want or need justice beyond the film’s close, and will by no means demand it. At every turn, the narrative frames her passively, where principals and parents and famous Broadway stars step in wanting to make things right and Emma just wants to go to prom and dance with her girlfriend. Emma wants to be normal, but doesn’t care if the people around her change. She wants to be accepted, but never in the film does the audience get the sense that Emma really wants the bigotry in Edgewater to end. It’s a key aspect of Emma’s relationship with viewers, especially white heteronormalized viewers, that she lacks anger towards the hateful people who put her in the position she came to be in.

She is safe. She is safe for passive people who are “cool with the gays” but not enough to stand up for gay rights. She is safe for conservative straight people who aren’t sure if it’s okay to be gay but “her life choices aren’t my business” and they’ll watch the movie anyway for James Corden. She is safe for anyone who identifies with the oppressors in the film, because the moment she has rage towards those people, the viewers will be uncomfortable. Nobody has to feel threatened, because Emma very clearly states in “Dance with You,” “I don’t want to start a riot, I don’t want to blaze a trail.” The viewers won’t have to deal with their own identity, and their role in the system of oppression. Viewers won’t begin to apply fiction to real life. That’d a painful realization and it’s not easy to market. It’d even harder to pretend that it’s just a minor player in what’s meant to be a comedic, goofy, family-friendly film.

Emma even refused a national-level opportunity to fight for justice in her community; she chose to sing into her webcam and focus on grassroots instead. Emma the fictional character is not required to take on that burden of national activism, but from the viewer’s perspective, it’s important to see that she does not challenge the status quo. She doesn’t even challenge the PTA (that was the principal’s idea), she refuses to go on the news, she simply organizes her own queer prom with famous people’s money. The audience is meant to see this as a victory, but in the end, the oppressors won. They kept her out of straight people prom and marginalized her, and she didn’t fight back. And that’s the core of the issue: our idealized lesbian hero is heroic not by the standards of those she stands for, but by the standards of those she stands opposed to.

Let’s look again at the end of Act 1: she’s having a dramatic phone conversation with her girlfriend Alyssa. She’s realized that there are two proms, realized she’s been excluded and that her girlfriend is with the straight people. There’s anger, but it’s barely there, and it’s all directed at Alyssa in this scene. It’s this same issue again, she is angry but not enough to feel dangerous. And, she’s not angry with straight oppressors, only with her lover and fellow queer person. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, when it comes to showing love, she has her hands tied by the film. In the entirety of the teen romance film, she gets one kiss, which is lackluster enough (but maybe not so remarkable, some movies do it that way already). The kiss is lost in a series of medium shots thrown into a frantic ensemble dance, the grand finale number.

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Emma and Alyssa kiss during the finale
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The principal and Dee Dee Allen kiss

Compare that with the long close-up of the two middle-aged (? Meryl Streep is 72 and Keegan-Michael Key is 50, where does that put their characters?) straight adults, and their kiss before the finale number begins. They allow the audience to glean greater emotional significance from their kiss than even the central romance. In fact, the entire straight romance is given similar presence in the film to Emma and Alyssa’s relationship. Emma and Alyssa are, of course, hiding their love from the world for the majority of the film, and with conflict between the pair for a large extent of the movie, we get most of our sense of their romance through “Dance with You,” their duet. This is the song that introduces Alyssa as Emma’s lover, and I have to say I was disappointed. This song emphasizes the message continued through the remainder of the film: Emma and Alyssa can love one another, but their sexuality is insignificant. They don’t kiss, or sway, or hold each other closely besides a quick glomp from Emma. They’re not horny teens, they’re infantilized gal pals. Yes, it’s meant to be a family-friendly film, so it’s going to be somewhat sex-free, but in a film about these women’s sexuality, there’s remarkably little sexual presence.

The Prom is a film adaptation of a stage musical, and in the end some of the criticism I’ve levied might not apply to a live production. This play is satirical and on the Broadway stage that can come through in a way that the film version could not capture. Perhaps some of my criticism is less that The Prom should have been better written than that it should never have been adapted, or should have been better adapted. Either way, when it comes to the film, it’s clear that director Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative team really missed the mark when it came to Emma. She was meant to be a queer hero for teens across the nation. We got a bland smiley-face sticker instead.

Katherine Deserved Better: How Newsies Fails at Feminism

I first discovered Newsies when I was fourteen years old and in the prime of my awkward years. I fell in love with the energy of the show– the kind of playful, energetic, can-do attitude of these kids as old as me who were changing the world. And they were men! Who could sing! And dance! That’s what teen girls do isn’t it? Fixate on good looking, talented men? What more could a fourteen-year old ask for in a musical?

Newsies was everything that I wanted, but nothing that I needed as a young, closeted queer woman. In a time where it’s critical to find positive role models, I attached myself to Katherine Plumber, claiming the character as my “ultimate dream role.” But Katherine is far from the pinnacle of positive feminine representation. Her #girlboss energy is superficial at best and performs several toxic tropes rooted in misogyny. And furthermore, her role in the musical serves little more than to insert a heterosexual narrative where none needs to exist, ultimately undermining the critical commentary on class Newsies claims to deliver. 

Most of my experience with (and therefore opinions of) Newsies comes from the original Broadway production, originally premiering at the Nederlander Theatre in 2012, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. The stage production is nothing short of spectacular, with Jeremy Jordan starring effortlessly as hero Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as spunky reporter Katherine Plumber, backed up by an ensemble cast of incredibly talented men. Notably, in this original production there are no female newsies (besides honorary newsie Katherine), though as the show has transitioned off Broadway and rights became available for local theatres, there have been an increasing number of productions that incorporate female newsies.

I’m spending time laying out the casting choices because I think the musical’s original intent to have a cast of all male newsies is significant, and ultimately defines the portrayals of masculinity and femininity that we see performed onstage. From the beginning of Carrying The Banner, we get a sense of the heavily masculinized camaraderie shared by these boys as they tease each other while getting ready for the day. Most of this teasing is physical, with lots of shoving, tapping, spit, and swagger. The energy that is created is very “boys will be boys,” a picture of stereotypical teenage behavior– this is the default of masculinity in Newsies. Each character is allowed some moments of depth and vulnerability (only if they have a name in the show book, though), which is a step towards showing a more rounded vision of what it means to a man. However, these moments are fleeting (Race in particular gets about thirty seconds of depth in the opening number), and by and large Newsies makes it clear to the viewer that there are more important things that make these boys men: just look at their swagger! Their bravado! This is masculinity!

Enter Katherine Plumber: Newsies’ female lead. She is not the only woman in the show (shoutout to Medda Larkin who has one of the best songs and costumes in the entire show), but she is the only one who receives any sort of depth. However, all of Katherines’ “depth” and development is related in some way to another masculine character. She is a reporter, yes, but she is a reporter for the newsies, she is the daughter of Pulitzer, she is the love interest of Jack. She is presented to us as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, as she says herself in Watch What Happens  (“A girl? It’s a girl! How the hell! Is that even legal?”). Ironically, though, the show never really allows her this success or this independence. The article she writes gets shut down by her father, and her brilliant idea to print papers for all the laborers in New York gets carried out by Jack and the other newsies, who get much more credit (and in Jack’s case, a sweet job offer) than she does. Katherine’s existence is inextricably linked to the men in her life, which makes her feminist attitude surface-level at best: it’s as if Disney wants to promote feminism without actually promoting feminism.

Katherine is only respected as a woman in the masculinized space of Newsies because she is able to be “one of the boys,” a tired iteration of the very tired “not like other girls” trope, which is rooted in misogyny and ideals of male desire. She attracts Jack because she is smart and witty, because she is able to hold her own against him: unlike the other women he has been with, who he seems to see as disposable (“Girls are nice/Once or twice/Til’ i find someone new”). This is inherently sexist– Jack is revealing to us that not only does he not actually respect women as anything more than romantic playthings, but he believes himself to be superior to them. Katherine is attractive only because she is smart and independent and therefore different. This pits her against other women and reinforces the idea that being a woman means being what a man wants, as well as presenting femininity as an inherently undesirable state of being. 

Amongst the other newsies, it is much of the same story. She gains their respect because a) she is helping them with the strike and therefore useful and b) she proves that she is more “boy” than “girl” (because girls are dumb and weak, right? Am I right, guys?). In King of New York, she engages in a competition of sorts with the other newsies. She begins with a simple tap sequence and is subsequently booed. So what does she do? She hikes up her skirts and taps ferociously, symbolizing to the newsies and to us that she can be “one of the boys”– which, again, is implied as being better and more desirable than being one of the girls. Not a great message to send to teenage girls (the main fan base of Newsies) who are already struggling to find their place in a patriarchal society. This is the irony of Katherine– she is both emblematic of the struggles of young women and thus relatable AND a portrayal of deeply sexist ideas about femininity. She has the potential to be such a powerful character, but the way she is utilized in the musical falls so flat as soon as you give the lyrics more than a cursory glance. 

Another sticking point for me is Katherine’s seemingly forced relationship with Jack. She goes from completely uninterested to being in love with him in a matter of 40 minutes real-time and about 2 days show-time. This fast turnaround is unsurprising when we consider that this musical has been funded and produced by Disney, a company notorious for creating stories that center heterosexual romance at the expense of strong, well-rounded female characters. In Disney-verse, life is only worth living as a woman if a man is in love with you. In recent years Disney has been on a more positive trend of feminine portrayals, but Newsies was produced at a time where that hadn’t started to happen yet: the pre-Frozen era, if you will. That being said, while it is unsurprising that the producing corporation felt the need to tie the plotline up with a neat heterosexual bow, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. 

In my opinion the Jack/Katherine romance serves three purposes: 

  • To ensure the audience that though this is a musical about close relationships between men, there is absolutely NOTHING gay about it. No, really, we promise! Look how straight Jack is!
  • To soften the labor critique aspect of the show
  • To keep the production in line with Disney values and give the whole plot a happy ending (because sad musicals have never been successful… Les Mis, anyone?)

Disney is maybe not the most gay-friendly corporation (though I did get an excellent pair of rainbow Mickey ears pre-Covid, so that counts for something… right?). So it’s unsurprising to me that they’ve inserted a heterosexual romance into a story that genuinely does not need one. But honestly, Newsies would be better if there was some sort of non-heterosexuality explicitly written into the script. By forcing this narrative of heterosexuality, Newsies is implying that homosexuality is incongrous with masculinity– or at least their version of it. Would it really be so bad if Jack was gay? What is it adding to his character to make him explicitly heterosexual? What does it add to the plot, for that matter?

The more insidious answer is that the ultimate function of Jack and Katherine’s relationship is to undermine the labor critique that the plot is based in. Yes, we are supposed to feel bad for the newsies and root for them to take down Pulitzer, but I believe that Newsies (and by that I mean Disney) doesn’t want us getting any ideas beyond the action portrayed onstage. At the very end of the musical, Jack is gearing up to leave for Santa Fe. But he stays… in part for his brotherhood, in part for Katherine, and in part for the sweet cartoonist job that Katherine’s father, the man we spent the entire musical rooting against, offers on a whim. Notably, Katherine is the one who first questions Jack’s impulse to leave New York (“What’s New York got that Santa Fe ain’t?), therefore becoming the driving force that convinces him to stay. It’s implied that Katherine is an important part of his decision (though she does offer to travel with him), and thus she becomes a part of the reason that he accepts a job with Pulitzer. This acceptance of the job is really what undermines the labor critique that the entire plot thus far has built. Jack’s activism ends with the strike and he becomes a part of the same system that he just fought against. Therefore Newsies reminds us that though strikes are exciting fodder for a musical’s plot, Jack hasn’t really changed the system– and we shouldn’t either.

So, if Katherine as a character is being used to perform heterosexuality and create a happy, non-radical ending for the story, what does that say about women? Are we just men’s plot devices to make messy situations more palatable for a wide audience? Do we ever get the opportunity to exist apart from that purpose? The answer is yes… just not in Newsies. The more I’ve written about this show, the more upset I am about the missed opportunities for strong character development and an actually progressive message. There are plenty of other musicals that do these things so much better than Newsies. But as scathing as my words may have been, that has not stopped me from listening obsessively to the soundtrack for the past three weeks straight. It has not stopped me from attempting to learn the Seize the Day dance break, newspapers and all, and it has DEFINITELY not stopped me from crying tears of joy while recording Katherine’s part in Once and For All for the Original Cast’s semester revue. That is to say, Newsies may not have been what I needed growing up, but it remains a deeply important piece of nostalgia and a genuinely enjoyable show– as long as you acknowledge it for what it is, which is a piece of media produced by Disney whose commentary on gender, class, and sexuality is dubious at best. I’m going to go listen to the soundtrack again… but maybe I’ll skip Something to Believe In.