Quite often feminist critiques of popular culture are insightful, but sometimes they are simply insufferable.
The latter description is apt when describing the comments of Princeton theater professor Stacy Wolf regarding the musical Les Miserables. I happened to see the new cinematic depiction of the popular musical this past week and was moved, as I always am, by this magnificent work. The story of the saintly Jean Valjean is inspiring on many levels. And the female characters in the musical are as strong and compelling as the male characters, though the story is mostly about Valjean’s redemption.
Wolf, on the other hand, sees “outdated gender roles” and “old stereotypes.” In her view, “the female characters are there only for the men to save, pity or forget…They don’t actually do anything. Instead, they emote, propelling others to action.”
So, in Wolf’s eyes, sacrificing oneself for one’s child, as Fantine does, is just “window dressing” and not really “doing” anything. And poor Eponine, who bravely fights and dies alongside her fellow revolutionaries, isn’t actually doing anything, either, I guess. This is feminism? Given the world in which they lived and the constraints they faced, are not their actions incredibly heroic and laudable? Wouldn’t any reasonable person—a category that academic feminists apparently do not belong to—see them as true heroines, as great as any in literature, historical or modern?
Consider the following from Professor Wolf:
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.
Two points are crucial here. First, are not the fathers who sacrifice to the death for their children, or two men who love the same woman, or the man who desires a woman of a different class, also stereotypical in our culture? Is Wolf’s vision so obstructed by her feminist blinders that she fails to see these types among men as well? True, the primary protagonist and antagonist in this particular story are male, but any honest critique sees heroes and villains among both genders here. These stereotypes Wolf mentions are no more female than male.
Second, even if they were female stereotypes, do they deserve this derision? Fantine was so desperate that she was driven into prostitution. Wolf writes off Fantine as a “hooker with a heart of gold,” as if she were merely a 19th century version of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. In reality, Fantine does everything she can to avoid this fate. There is no romance or charm about it. It is hideous. And Fantine realizes this more than anyone. Wolf, though, does not seem to get it.
A value of feminist criticism, it seems to me, is to point out how traditional roles than women have played—sometimes by choice, sometimes by force—have tremendous social value and that that value is often negated and diminished by a male-dominated world. To value women’s work and women’s choices is not to condone the oppressive social structures that shape that work or that constrain the choices women may have in a given society. Wolf diminishes women far more than Cameron Mackintosh ever has.
Fantine sacrifices her body, soul and, life for the benefit of her child. Her choices were dreadful because her options were dreadful. Many mothers and fathers would be willing to make such a sacrifice, and Valjean makes tremendous sacrifices of his own on behalf of Cosette, his adopted daughter, and would clearly give his life for her. But to the extent that such self-sacrifice is more typical of mothers than fathers, isn’t this something that women deserve praise and credit for, rather than the contempt that Wolf heaps upon them? That Wolf sees Fantine as someone who doesn’t do anything but provide window dressing is a stunning commentary on the morally bankrupt state of academic feminism. No one in the story, including Valjean, does anything more noble or more worthy of respect than what Fantine does. And this isn’t because she is a woman playing a stereotypical role. It is because she is a strong woman making a terrible sacrifice. Wolf’s dismissive attitude towards her (and, it bears mentioning, towards Eponine) is hardly better than that shown to the prostitutes by their unfeeling clients.
Wolf closes her piece by identifying characters from modern pop culture that are apparently worthy of her respect. Almost unbelievably, these include the trashy characters in the film Bridesmaids, who “dare to be outrageous, funny, and obscene…These women are strong, clever and, yes, vulnerable,” according to Wolf. So, this is the strange, feminist universe that Wolf resides in. Just because female characters can now debase themselves in the latest self-indulgent vulgarity from Judd Apatow equally as well as the male characters, we consider them “brave?” Amazing.
I know very little of 19th century French political history and have no idea whether I would have admired the real-life versions of the revolutionaries portrayed in the musical. But I don’t really care about that. The fictional story is about fighting for a better world where neither men nor women face the type of misery depicted in the story. If those revolutionaries had been able to see the brave new world envisioned by Wolf, one wonders if they might not have bothered.