Feminism in Musical Film

How have feminist messages in musical film changed over time? The musical film genre was first established in the early 1930’s and this classic sound was kept with it until the early 1950s. In 1953, Howard Hawks’ musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was released. In which singers Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw travel to Paris, pursued by a private detective hired by the disapproving father of Lorelei’s fiancé to keep an eye on her, as well as a rich old man and many other admirers. This film establishes women as being materialistic through the character of Lorelei, played by Marilyn Monroe and her song ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. This song is still very famous in the modern day but is still considered sexist by feminists.

The scene opens with cuts to different shots of all the backup dancers but when Marilyn begins to sing it is very rare that there are any cuts and there are a few zooms which brings her into focus as a character. She is objectified through the cinematography and mise en scene as she is wearing a lot of diamonds, she shakes her hips in a tight dress that shows her curves, all while tracking and wide shots are used as she is surrounded by men. Although some feminists may argue that her repetition of the word ‘no’ as she sings and hits some men with her fan could make her be seen as liberated as she has the right to say no. The shot of her surrounded by young women shows her as a mother figure as she says ‘he’s your guy when stocks are high but beware when they start to fall’ is a comment on the Great depression as well as the divide in old and new values of the female role in American society.

The messages surrounding the change in societies values is portrayed through the relationship between Lorelei and Dorothy as it is described by feminist blog thefword.org.uk as being  an ‘affectionate, mutually mocking relationship between the two leads is really the core of the film, with the men orbiting around them.’ This relationship is central to the narrative as Lorelei represents old societal values as she still believes in marrying for money but Dorothy believes in marriage for love which it was strange for women to not care about being ‘looked after’ as Lorelei often refers to it.  Overtime though, the representation of relationships between women still remains paramount to the narrative, as seen in Hairspray and Frozen.

Hairspray is a musical that focuses on equality for race in the 1960s but there are underlying feminist messages in the film. In the scene, ‘Welcome to the Sixties’ the relationship between Tracy and Mother Edna is exposed as a bonding point over the stereotypically feminine task of clothes shopping. The song features lyrics that show a change in society as Tracy sings, ‘Say hello to the love in your heart, yes, 1 know that the world’s spinning fast now, you gotta get yourself a brand new start’ which appears to go against what we are expecting to see, and we feel like there has been a pivotal point in the narrative where women aren’t looked down on for their appearance.

Our expectations are juxtaposed as the femininity is portrayed further through the name of the shop, ‘Mr Pinky’s’ but then diminished as being a place of shame as it’s called ‘Hefty Hideaway. This presents the ideology that women who are of a bigger size should be ashamed of their body shape. ‘Fat Feminism’ is a movement which is a primal contextual factor to the relationship between Tracy and her mother as well as their rivalry between Velma and Amber Von Tussle.

The rivalry between the two pairs of mother and daughter are shown at the end of the ‘Welcome to the Sixties’ scene as Velma said that Edna would ‘stop traffic’. It is also shown in the reprise of ‘Big, Blonde and Beautiful,’ where it is made evident that Velma looks down on Edna for her size as she sings the line ‘bet you’re tired of heavy lifting, get your hands on something small.’ This shows Velma as a sexually promiscuous woman, with the Blonde, tight, red dressed stereotype that is twined with the representation of Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Frozen on the other hand, deviates from the stereotype as it is a musical made by Disney for children. This film has been depicted by feminist critics as a feminist film as I it brings to light loyalty within sisterhood.

Frozen’s narrative surrounds sisters Elsa and Anna as they are separated due to Elsa’s curse. Feminists could argue that this film is against women having power as Elsa appears to be punished for having the powers that she was born with. When their parents die, Anna tries to reconnect the broken bond with her sister which isn’t achievable until the closing scene. The closing scene is what makes the film overall film a feminist film as Anna is the first Disney princess who arguably isn’t saved by a prince.

Disney have always been known for their adaptions to classic fairy tales but since the start of what is referred to by Empire Magazine in their review as the “Tangled Era” they seem to breaking a lot of conventions in their musical take on fairy tales. Frozen is an adaptation of the classic story of the Snow Queen but in tradition the Snow Queen is a femme fatal and not the hero. The Tangled Era is also notable as the title of the films no longer refer to the heroine as they did in Disney Classic’s such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast.

In the closing sequence of Frozen, shot reverse shots are used to display the distance between Christoph and Anna and then again with Elsa and Anna. The closeness of Elsa and Anna is mimicked through this as Elsa a shorter distance away than Christoph. Although, by this point the unsuspecting audience has already assumed that Christoph is the true love of Anna, she turns away and appears to sacrifice herself for her sister.