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Women’s Roles in Early Musicals Essay

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Updated: Aug 31st, 2021

The mid-1900s was a time of tremendous social change as women began to gain some real freedoms. Until the 1960s, women remained primarily confined to the house and within a specific ideal, held by both men and women, regarding a specific conception of ‘femininity’. With the success of the Civil Rights movement and other events taking place during the 1960s, women began to find their voice and assert their right to be heard. The films produced in Hollywood during this time reflected and led to new ideas concerning the proper role of women in society. Films such as “Singing in the Rain” produced in 1952 and “Funny Girl” made in 1968, reflect how thinking had changed regarding women during the intervening years.

To establish a base knowledge of the prevalent ideals regarding ‘proper’ female behavior in 1952, it is helpful to compare the two female lead characters Kathy Seldon and Lina Lamont. Lina is physically imposing, headstrong, powerful, famous, independently wealthy and influential, demanding that her voice be heard. This is compared to Kathy Seldon, who first appears in the picture as a completely respectable ‘regular’ girl, in white kid gloves and proper hat.

She is intelligent and, as the film proceeds, demonstrated to be vocally talented and sacrificing when the opportunity arises for her to save a friend, “the important thing is to save ‘The Duelling Cavalier’.” Although she is mortally hurt and furious with Don when he orders her to sing at the grand opening of “The Dancing Cavalier”, she is rewarded for her obedience even as Lina is disgraced for her headstrong insistence.

Many of the characteristics Lina displays in 1952 are also important elements of Barbra Streisand’s character, Fanny Brice, in 1968. Like Lina, Fanny is somewhat brash in that she comes from an uneducated and unrefined area of the city, she is headstrong and determined to do things her way and she is loud, insisting that men hear her. Both Lina and Fanny are even aggressive toward pursuing the man they want – Lina tells Don he can’t be in love with Kathy because “everybody knows you’re in love with me” and Fanny admits “this would have been awfully embarrassing had you reacted any way other than what you did” on her unexpected arrival on board his ship to Europe.

However, where these tactics only serve to bring Lina to her own destruction, they are precisely what gain Fanny her success, aided by a keen intelligence and a loyal heart, demonstrating that society had come to accept these attributes in a leading lady.

The degree to which these changing concepts of the feminine were accepted can be found in a comparison between the more traditionally feminine Kathy of 1952 with the bolder and louder Fanny of 1968. Both women have beautiful voices, a self-driven ambition to succeed and a truly kind and nurturing heart. The differences between them can be seen particularly well in their responses to men who tell them to sing. Kathy, ordered to sing for Lina by Don, tells him, “I’ll do it Don, but I never want to see you again, on or off the screen” and then proceeds to sing beautifully for the false star. This is contrasted with Fanny’s confrontation with Ziegfeld regarding the bridal number finale.

She does her best to express her opinion, but when he doesn’t listen to her, she appears on stage on opening night as a pregnant bride, putting an ironic twist to the words Ziegfeld told her to sing “as they were printed” that changed the production into a comedy. Her failure to live happily ever after as Kathy does is less the fault of her actions as it is a failure on the part of the male lead to change his definitions of ‘masculine’ in response to the changing definitions of ‘feminine.’

Don Lockwood is seen as the ideal man of the 1950s in that he plays one in his films. He is well aware of his role as a man, careful of women but gently asserting himself as the superior. Confident in his ‘manliness’, he is also capable of opening himself up to his friends, as is seen when he runs to Cosmo after his first encounter with Kathy. Don admits his insecurities to Cosma freely when he tells his “keep telling me that [that he’s good] from time to time.

I feel a little shaken.” Don is also able to allow Kathy to help him save his career despite the sacrifice she’ll be making thanks to this confidence. This is significantly different from Nick Arnstein’s position in 1968. A full-time gambler, Nick’s masculinity depends literally on the luck of the cards and is easily threatened by the more stable and lucrative livelihood earned by his wife. At the same time, his ability to be a successful gambler is threatened because of the spotlight on his wife’s personal and public life. He has no one to confide in and cannot make himself vulnerable in any way to his woman, even if it is the only means by which he can save himself.

In conclusion, it appears while women gained power and voice in the world outside of the home, men began to feel more threatened by this freedom and more pressure to maintain a superior status. The idea that women’s voices were becoming more acceptable is seen in the way that many of the unacceptable, unfeminine attributes condemned in Lina’s character are prized in Fanny’s character 16 years later.

At the same time, Fanny’s character managed to retain many of the more favored attributes of the ideal feminine demonstrated by Kathy. Fanny’s failure to find the kind of everlasting love and career happiness hinted at in Kathy’s story is the result of Nick’s inability to compete with her for head of household, a concept of masculinity supported by Don. However, Don had the added ability to confide in friends and females because of his security in his masculinity, something Nick never had.

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