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.
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.
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