And she got all snarky about Anne, too!
"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. Clearly, I'm not the only one. The film raked in $18.2 million on Dec. 25 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. The fact that viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles reminds us that, though we've seen gains in gender equity in politics and pop culture in the past few decades, old stereotypes still persist -- and, somehow, 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I live with this contradiction of outdated gender roles within pop culture every day.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 doesn't mean that you don't have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what's missing or what's 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." 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. In contrast, "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 Hathaway's 25-pound weight loss, you'd think she's the star.
But in "Les Miz," female characters are there only for the men to save, pity or forget. As Fantine, Ms. 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.
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.
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 Valjean's 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. "It's 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 Eponine in the movie, told The New York Times that she receives tweets from girls who say they relate perfectly to the character's longing: "Why am I always Eponine?" they write."