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Friday, February 1, A.D. 2013
Les Mis and an Occasion for Misogyny

{Some spoilers ahead}

Last summer, I expressed my delight and anticipation about the cinematic release of Les Misérables in “Les Mis on the Silver Screen.” I took my mother to see it when I was home for the holidays, and I was quite pleased. I thought that the cast carried the numbers well, especially Jackman, Hathaway, and Barks, though I found Crowe’s voice a bit weak. I appear to be in the minority with that opinion, but I love “Stars,” and I am somewhat finicky about songs that I adore.

I found the ending with its proto-Bolshevik heaven revolting. Somewhere beyond the barricade is not an endless revolution but the true paradise that all the misled radicals and ideologues ultimately seek. That is a fundamental idea and recurring theme in Les Misérables, and the imagery at the end confuses it. The passage of Valjean into the church—into the welcoming embrace of the bishop—is beautifully imagined and realized, though the following scene should have been otherwise. I sympathize, though, with the director Tom Hooper. The stylized stage with its blackness offers a better option for recondite scenes than a movie. How does one depict heaven cinematically? Still, the finale did not ruin the flick for me, as it was difficult to care much at that moment of catharsis. From the first time that I read the book in junior high to seeing the musical in the West End to each time that I watch it in the States, I always cry at the ending. With the film, I maintained until I saw the bishop, and then it was all over!

Elsewhere, though, Hooper is fabulous. The eye candy and craftiness of the temporal transitions are excellent. I especially appreciate Valjean’s soliloquist repentance sequence that ends with the flying ripped papers. The scene with Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is perfect!

As I noted in “Les Mis on the Silver Screen,” I read critics’ reviews after I see a film. I was thoroughly disgusted with the critics that dismissed the movie as over the top, preachy, emotional manipulation. Have they read the book? Have they seen the musical? Hugo’s sentimental moralism is the lifeblood of the story, and that is why people (“the people”) respond to it. Nihilistic critics who have surrendered all their humanity seem to appreciate nothing but snarky cynicism and leftwing political propaganda. Were the red flags of the revolutionaries not enough for them?

And yet there is always an opinion fouler to be found. Steve Sailer’s “Girlthink” presents a harridan’s harangue in “Why we love ‘Les Miserables,’ despite its miserable gender stereotypes” by Princeton professor Stacy Wolf. [I’ll adopt Auster’s convention of emboldened brackets for commentary.]

“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. [Because it is a great story and because, despite her crazy ideas, Wolf remains a human being who thankfully reacts in ways contrary to her Satanic ideology.]

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. [This is nonsense that could only occur to a musical theater buff. Les Mis reminds people of nineteenth century France; it is not The Breakfast Club or Red Dawn.] And the fact that viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles [The perennial obtuseness of “progressives”] 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 [Damn nature!] — and, somehow, we still love them. [Damn nature!]

I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day. [I feel sorry for the men in her life.] Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. [e.g. harpies] It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling. [Scratch a feminist, find a Puritan, and back it goes . . .]

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.” [For blacks, it is always Selma in March of ‘65. For Jews, it is always Cossacks at the door. For womyn, it is always the anti-feminist backlash of 1987.] 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. [Leftist academics live in small worlds and abridged ages.]

In contrast, “Les Miz” idealized women through the persuasive, demeaning stereotype of the martyr. [Demeaning stereotype of the martyr!?!? I suppose that such is true for modern religion.] Twenty-five years later [a veritable eternity for such shortsighted chauvinists of the moment], 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. [And Jesus Christ is a minor character in the New Testament.]

Because in “Les Miz,” female characters are there only for the men to save, pity or forget. [And this is why decent women face hostility from “feminists”—some “choices” are not real because they are not the choices that egotistical $%@! would ever make.] 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. [There is no greater love . . . Oh, wait, what a tool, Eponine!]

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. [Be careful about those glass houses.]

In the original French production of “Les Miz,” female characters had a bigger presence, but the English version deliberately plays down their roles. [The French are amateurs with musicals. Trust them in other fields, but musical theater is an Anglophone enfant.] According to John Caird, co-director of the London and Broadway show, the “main meat of the story . . . is Valjean’s progress.” [Which is why it resonates with the human heart.] 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. [Human tragedy and the ever present limitations that we face in our quest for fulfillment have been reduced to schoolyard tears. My misogynistic meter has already gone off the charts.] “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. [It is obvious that he means a leitmotif rather than intending anything disparaging about Eponine. Think of Wagner and his characters.] In addition, the team rewrote her song “On My Own,” originally about poverty and hunger, to express unrequited love. [Has this Wolf ever felt unrequited love? Well, that was a stupid question. Of course, she would not know . . .]

Audiences in the late 1980s accepted such gender slights, but what about now? [How human nature seems to change every ten years.] 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. [Wow! Obviously, the educational bureaucrats have been failing terribly at their jobs of cranking out numbed corpses. They should never have let that dead white woman remain on their antiquated reading list.]

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. [Not that sacrifice or love has any deep connection to the human condition or anything.]

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. [As opposed to the joyful feminist.]

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. [Another case of the public’s lack of taste. I mean, Les Mis doesn’t even depict incest or champion bestiality—it’s clearly a token of the masses’ false consciousness.]

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. [And people are usually much wiser when they cease to regurgitate the feculence that has been crammed down their throats during their “education.” These programmed folks are more sensible when they answer honestly based on their own experience and emotional judgments.]

“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. [This is what I like to call menstrual logic. Don’t question the contradictions; just go with the flow.] 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. [It also has to do with something alien to a leftist professor, namely, order. Intelligibility and order go together, and the mind delights in understanding that intelligible order.]

We understand ourselves and our identities because of the stories we’re told. [And those stories have nothing to do with reality—ever. Except this particular story that I am telling at this very moment.] When we hear the same stories about people — women, gays, the poor, Asians or African Americans — over and over, we start to believe them. [One never fashions an understanding from experience. The world is just words, words, words, swirling about like a mephitic Foucaultian orgy in the opium den of the void.] 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. [God help us.] We seldom notice that they’re largely invisible in a blockbuster film likely to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards. [It is rather hard to see invisible women, but I struggled and just barely made out the bland women from the following critically derided and forgotten movies that never earned a major award in the film industry: Alice from You Can’t Take It With You, the unnamed (!) wife from Rebecca {her namelessness is surely a misogynistic slight that has nothing to do with her juxtaposition with the dead but ever present Rebecca}, Peggy from The Best Years of Our Lives, Maria from West Side Story, Sophie from Tom Jones, Eliza from My Fair Lady, Maria from The Sound of Music, Alicia from A Beautiful Mind, Elizabeth from The King’s Speech, or Peppy from The Artist.]

But for anyone who thinks critically about gender, it’s unsettling. [Indeed]

Thankfully, we’re no longer stuck in a 1980s anti-feminist backlash. [Gaia be praised!] Depictions of women in today’s pop culture are varied and complex. [As opposed to the two dimensional sticks with tits in the aforementioned films.] The “Bridesmaids” characters dare to be outrageous, funny and obscene. [I did like the puppies.] 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” [Butt-kicking babes are all but unknown in Hollywood. I am glad that Katniss has finally shattered the Arena’s glass ceiling.] and misogynist-killing Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” [Those Swedes . . . They castrate with knives while we Americans simply fantasize about it with words. Just kidding—real Scandinavians are too pussified to pick up a blade.] These women are strong, clever and, yes, vulnerable. [Give this broad a job at Lifetime!]

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. [So, protagonists must be women or the story is “unsettling.” By George, I have found an instance of feminist consistency. A woman must always be the center of attention; otherwise, it is bad (boring, unjust, “unsettling”). Female narcissism is amazingly steady among feminists. That oddity almost makes them interesting.]

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. [These profound insights get Wolf published at WaPo!]

Sailer’s readers had some decent comments on the story:

RS:

> I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day.

unbelievable what the human spirit can bear up under…

Anonymous:

It should be mentioned that one character she references as a positive female role-model, Carrie Mathison from Homeland, is a bipolar woman whose career at the CIA is repeatedly threatened when she becomes manic (and hysterical).

She is also a functionary and tool of an oppressive police state. Funny how that seems to appeal to feminists.

Maya:

You know which recent movie is really sexist? The Hobbit! Only one girl in it, and even she is only allowed to talk with her mouth closed. The book was probably even more misogynistic. It’s been almost 2 decades since I read it, but as far as I remember it had no girls in it at all. Shreck had a girl dragon, at least. No such luck here. The dragon in The Hobbit is male, and a real jerk too. Thankfully, the king of dwarfs is really hot.

And, finally, the obvious anonymous winner:

Stacey fails to realize that what she and others like about the women in Le Miz is something enduring, and compellingly attractive. It goes by the name of “love” which is shown in ones ability to sacrifice for others and requires great strength of character. The women in Le Miz are heroes every bit as much as the men, but because they aren’t narcissists, they aren’t all about power and recognition.

And that is why Professor Wolf sees them as non-persons. They do not follow her Luciferan template of self actualization.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 1, Anno Domini 2013
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