I was surfing the net and stumbled on these two reviews of the film Les Miserables, which is yet to be shown here in the god-forsaken, culturally decrepit wasteland of a country whose idea of film culture centers around pointless, plotless, story lines which feature vapidly talentless stars whose sole redeeming factor is face value. I digress.
Both reviews read the musical along the lines of feminist ideologies; the first review trivializes Eponine’s suffering when compared to the other female characters in the text, while the second argues that Hugo’s original text was revolutionary in its time for being overtly feminist and extolling the suffering of women under patriarchal powers.
The second review mentions that Les Mis is an operatic musical, and since the operatic tradition is driven by the female star, the roles of Fantine, Eponine, and Cosette dominate the musical. But does that make it a feminist text? If we root the musical in its operatic context and allow the diva to dominate the stage, does this truly push feminist ideologies?
The history of women on stage is not much different from that of women on screen: Mulvey’s to-be-looked-at-ness can still be invoked here. The spectacle of the coloratura soprano, for example, still drives audiences into the opera house to this date. Mozart married a soprano, and composed incredibly difficult arias for his singers, only the most skillful, most talented singers could pull of a proper Queen of the Night or a Constanze. Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, allows the lead soprano to cross-dress and act as a man to disguise herself in order to save her husband. Wagner’s operas required the most powerful dramatic voices, big and loud and immense: Brunnhilde, Isolde, Sieglinde. The Bel Canto masters drove their sopranos insane and made them kill themselves or their husbands: Lucia, Elvira, Anna Bolena. Verdi and Puccini basically kill off their lead females: Violetta, Leonora, Aida; Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Liu. Diva Maria Callas has become the end all and be all of any soprano to come after her, a sort of impossible model of the ideal soprano.
It is spectacle that makes these women powerful. Fantine gets her own wonderful aria, the tragic I Dreamed a Dream e(sadly popularized today by that one-hit wonder, Susan Boyle). Many other singers have sung this to better effect: Patti LuPone, Ruthie Henshall, Elaine Paige, even Lea Salonga. Anne Hathaway gives an arguably more nuanced, more tragic version than many of these women, perhaps it is the film’s emphasis on the drama of the woman rather than her spectacle. The same can be said of the entire soundtrack; with perhaps Eddie Redmayne’s divine light lyric tenor as the exception, the singing in the film is incredibly nuanced, almost as if the singing were secondary to the plot. Even Samantha Barks’ Eponine falls short of my expectations. She was wonderful in the 25th Anniversary Concert, especially when partnered with that most horrible of Mariuses, Nick Jonas.
This brings us to the problem of Eponine. As the Funny Feminist points out: “But by the time “On My Own” comes around, the revolutionaries are about to fight in the battle of their lives, the battle that might determine the whole future of France, when the poor folk rally against the 1 percent and the Mitt Romneys – and the play has to stop so a street urchin can sing about the boy she likes who doesn’t like her back.” That’s the thing about the aria, the entire opera has to stop to allow the singer his/her time to shine. Callas also points this out: in the middle of the second act of Tosca, while her boyfriend is being physically tortured and she mentally and emotionally tormented by the evil Baron Scarpia, all the action must stop to accommodate the soprano’s complaint to God, Vissi d’arte. This is part of operatic tradition. They don’t call it a show-stopper for nothing.
The problem I have with the Funny Feminist’s reading of Eponine is that she is shallow because she is in love and her love is unrequited. Ms Magazine actually equates her with Bella Swan, which is blasphemy in my opinion. At least no mention was made of 50 Shades of Grey. Eponine and Cosette are two tied characters: both young women, both abused by the Thenardiers, both pinning for the same boy, who just happens to fancy one and not the other. Now, I do not hate Cosette, but I simply do not see her character as very important in the text. She was poor, she was abused as a child, but she grows up, becomes rich and happy, and her character fades behind all the drama of the text. Meanwhile, Eponine tries all she can to impress Marius and make him notice her.
Is either character feminist? Not really. One disappears behind her adoptive father and then later behind the man she loves, the other ends up dead for a boy who barely notices her. But I would not trivialize the tragedy of unrequited love, as does the Funny Feminist. Remember that there is power in tragedy, there is power in this kind of love: It is from this, for example, that Medea draws her drive to murder her own children to spite her husband. That may be a little too extreme, but there you go.
Wow this post has a lot of links.