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 cant 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, Im not the only one. The film became the second-biggest Christmas opener ever. The enduring affection for Les Miz isnt 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 And the fact that viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles reminds us that, though weve seen gains in gender equity in the past few decades, stereotypes still persist – and we still love them.
I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day.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 doesnt mean that you dont have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see whats missing or whats 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. 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 Hathaways 25-pound weight loss, buzz haircut and IMAX-size tears, youd think shes the star.
Spoiler alert: She sings one big song and is dead by the films 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 damour 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 mens ethical struggles and bravery, but they dont 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 Valjeans 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. Its 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 characters longing.
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 theyre 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 couldnt get a ticket for years. It didnt matter that his shows got mediocre reviews. The publicity machine outsmarted the critics.
Theres 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 doesnt reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when its 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 its repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if its our first time watching.
We understand ourselves and our identities because of the stories were told. When we hear the same stories about people – women, gays, the poor, Asians or blacks – over and over, we start to believe them. If our culture tells us that women should sacrifice themselves for their children or for mens careers, we find it unremarkable that the women of Les Miz do just that. We seldom notice that theyre largely invisible in a blockbuster film likely to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
But for anyone who thinks critically about gender, its unsettling.
Thankfully, were no longer stuck in a 1980s anti-feminist backlash. Depictions of women in todays 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.
Theyre human. They struggle. They take action. The plot isnt 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 dont go away. Theyre there, waiting to be played again in movies such as Les Miz. In some ways, thats whats so unnerving about these characters: Theyre from such different eras, yet its so easy to call them up.