Monday, July 31, 2017

Feminism in Unexpected Places

I don't talk about being a feminist much - mostly because, unfortunately, some people have taken it away from my own definition of feminism (for example, I honestly despise some aspects of "radical feminism"). But the truth is, I am one. And I've been thinking this weekend about finding feminist messages in strange and unexpected places in media.

The Deadpool movie is a recent example - complete with non-sexualized teenagers (and female villains) and a guy in the exploitative "bearskin rug" pose.

But right now I'm thinking of a much older work that has a feminist message most people miss:

Cats.

Yes, I do mean the musical based off of a silly poetry book about a bunch of cats. Which I finally got to see on Broadway (the current revival closes December 30, so if you happen to be in New York...it's an excellent performance). I already knew the plot, I knew and had sung most of the songs, but nothing compares to seeing it on the stage.

Yes, that musical. That's basically a series of song and dance numbers with a thin plot as a framing mechanism.

Most, but not all, of the songs are taken from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The musical's signature song, Memory (covered over 150 times) is not, however. And the character who sings it, Grizabella, was cut from the original book for being too sad, with only a fragment of her poem surviving. The message behind her, thus, is entirely the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the director, Trevor Nunn, who wrote the extra lyrics.

The framing device used for the songs is that the leader of the Jellicle Cats, Old Deuteronomy, is selecting one cat to go to the Heaviside Layer (i.e. Heaven) and be reborn. At the Jellicle Ball, the case is made for various felines.

One of them is Gus the Theater Cat. Gus is the old, washed up actor, who mostly has only stories of his glory days but is, nonetheless, respected and adored as he talks at the stage door.

And the other, of course, is Grizabella the Glamor Cat. Who is shunned and despised by all of the cats. Why?

Because she's not beautiful any more.

Even as a child I sensed the unfairness, but I had to get into my twenties to understand what the unfairness was.

Gus is the old actor, respected even though he can't really do it any more.

Grizabella is...the former leading lady. Cats was first staged in 1981 - 36 years ago. And yet, we still see it going on. Harrison Ford looks fantastic, Carrie Fisher looked old and tired and sad. Women in Hollywood simply aren't allowed to age...once they do, they're put on the shelf and forgotten.

And yes, sometimes despised and hissed at.

Webber was, of course, a theater person. He had been writing musicals since 1965, although his first effort wasn't published until 2005. But he saw success in 1968 with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He must have known theater.

And he must have seen women pushed aside because they were too old. He must have seen the focus on looks.

So in Cats he takes Grizabella from a fragment of a poem, puts her center stage, shows us how she is treated and then literally sends her to heaven to be reborn.

But people still think it's a silly musical about cats.