Stacy Wolf is a professor of theater at Princeton University and the author of “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.”
“Les Miserables” should have feminists like me up in arms. The musical takes the female characters from a 150-year-old novel about a French rebellion and makes them bit players — even though they figure prominently in the book (and in the marketing for the musical and movie). They exist not to drive the plot but to sacrifice for the men, the real stars of the show.
But I can’t help it: I love “Les Miz.” As a theater historian who studies gender and sexuality in the American musical, when women are abused or marginalized on stage, I notice. Yet “Les Miz” never fails to move me.
Clearly, I’m not the only one. The film raked in $18.2 million on Tuesday to become the second-biggest Christmas opener ever. The enduring affection for “Les Miz” isn’t just due to its engaging story; its popularity is also fueled by audiences’ nostalgia for the 1980s, when it became a Broadway hit. And the fact that viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles reminds us that, though we’ve seen gains in gender equity in politics and pop culture in the past few decades, old stereotypes still persist — and, somehow, we still love them.
I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day. Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.
In 1987, when “Les Miz” opened on Broadway, it was part of a cultural moment that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi labeled the “anti-feminist backlash.” Its popularity at the time wasn’t surprising: The late 1980s weren’t kind to ambitious women. Television didn’t allow single mothers — such as Murphy Brown and Kate and Allie — to live successful, fulfilling lives. They all failed personally or professionally.
In contrast, “Les Miz” idealized women through the persuasive, demeaning stereotype of the martyr. Twenty-five years later, little but the packaging has changed. Given the publicity surrounding Anne Hathaway’s 25-pound weight loss, buzz haircut and IMAX-size tears, you’d think she’s the star.
Spoiler alert: She sings one big song and is dead by the film’s 43-minute mark.
Because in “Les Miz,” female characters are there only for the men to save, pity or forget. As Fantine, a hooker with a heart of gold, Hathaway does little but receive generosity from unfairly imprisoned fugitive Jean Valjean, who agrees to raise her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. Like her mother, Cosette is window-dressing — objet d’amour of Marius, a revolutionary student who wavers between his love for her and his devotion to politics. Meanwhile, Eponine, a striving girl, pines for Marius, a man beyond her station, then dies for his cause.
The women of “Les Miz” trigger the men’s ethical struggles and bravery, but they don’t actually do anything. Instead, they emote, propelling others to action.
In the original French production of “Les Miz,” female characters had a bigger presence, but the English version deliberately plays down their roles. According to John Caird, co-director of the London and Broadway show, the “main meat of the story . . . is Valjean’s progress.” The politicized Eponine of the French production is transformed into a sad girl with a crush, a characterization echoed in the music that accompanies her. “Eponine is always introduced by the same instruments,” composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg explained. “It’s a shortcut,” he said, meant to telegraph a certain situation with just 15 seconds of music. In addition, the team rewrote her song “On My Own,” originally about poverty and hunger, to express unrequited love.
Audiences in the late 1980s accepted such gender slights, but what about now? Samantha Barks, who plays the rejected Eponine in the new movie, told the New York Times that she receives tweets every day from girls who say they relate perfectly to the character’s longing: “Why am I always Eponine?” they write.
Despite bigger, stronger and more complex roles for women in television and film and on stage, the smaller, diminished tragedies of “Les Miz” still resonate with viewers in 2012.
Why? Largely because they’re familiar.
The female stereotypes in “Les Miz” are deeply embedded in our culture — the mother who sacrifices herself to the death, the two women who love the same man, and the woman who desires a man in a different class. These characters are readily available, always recognizable and appealing in their familiarity.
A repetition of stories is part of how “Les Miz” became popular to begin with. In the 1980s, producer Cameron Mackintosh insisted on publicity overload for all of his shows, no matter how far in advance they were sold out. He wanted to keep telling the story of the value and importance of “Les Miz,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats.” These musicals had full-page ads in the New York Times and huge billboards all over Times Square, even when you couldn’t get a ticket for years. By saturating the market with the story of “You can’t get a ticket to this musical — but you must see this musical,” he made it true. It didn’t matter that his shows got mediocre reviews. The publicity machine outsmarted the critics.
There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it.
“Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching. In this form of sung-through musical theater, called a “poperetta,” a few melodies are recycled across characters and dramatic moments, creating a sense of familiarity within the production.
We understand ourselves and our identities because of the stories we’re told. When we hear the same stories about people — women, gays, the poor, Asians or African Americans — over and over, we start to believe them. If our culture tells us that women should sacrifice themselves for their children or for men’s careers, we find it unremarkable that the women of “Les Miz” do just that. We seldom notice that they’re largely invisible in a blockbuster film likely to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
But for anyone who thinks critically about gender, it’s unsettling.
Thankfully, we’re no longer stuck in a 1980s anti-feminist backlash. Depictions of women in today’s pop culture are varied and complex. The “Bridesmaids” characters dare to be outrageous, funny and obscene. Carrie Mathison on “Homeland,” even on the verge of nervous collapse, is tough and brilliant, as is sharp-shooting Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” and misogynist-killing Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” These women are strong, clever and, yes, vulnerable.
They’re human. They struggle. They take action. The plot isn’t just what happens to them but what they make happen. These women have lives.
Each year on TV and in film, new images of women are created, and more strong, smart, independent, complicated characters appear. More screen time is allowed for them to act, change, make mistakes and recover. These new female characters get added to the cultural repertoire — but the old ones don’t go away. They’re there, waiting to be played again in movies such as “Les Miz.” In some ways, that’s what’s so unnerving about these characters: They’re from such different eras, yet it’s so easy to call them up.
And check out “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms,” by Isabel Sawhill.