The Sound of Sexism

By Jaclyn Munson

Last night, NBC aired a live production of The Sound of Music starring, most notably, American Idol alum Carrie Underwood as Maria, Stephen Moyer as Vampire Bill- I mean, Captain Von Trapp and the legendary Audra McDonald who killed- KILLED!- every single song she sang.

I typically scoff at attempts to buff up classic productions in an effort to modernize and legitimize their relevance for a new generation. Sometimes we should just leave well enough alone (here’s looking at you, Arrested Development and Cinderella on Broadway). But as Carrie Underwood was singing about a few of her favorite things (one of mine being Julie Andrews as Maria) and Rolfe was telling Liesl that she needs an “older and wiser” man telling her what to do, the modernized production showcased what women’s rights activists have been saying for years: we still have a patriarchy problem.

Take Maria, for example. Her character challenges rigid monastic rules. She’s outspoken and exerts free will which results in her coming back to the Abbey late one day after spending some time in the mountains. The Mother Abbess encourages her to explore the secular life and that’s how Maria ends up as the Von Trapp children’s governess. Captain Von Trapp runs his home like a military barracks and his attitude towards her at first is harsh and dismissive, and that’s putting it lightly. He treats his corporate president fiancée Elsa with the same disregard, who he claims he cannot imagine sitting behind a desk. Von Trapp’s attitude about women in the corporate workplace mirrors the reality of corporate America where only 22 women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (and nearly all of them are white. Ursula Burns became the first female African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company this summer when she took the helm at Xerox). Maria’s gender role duality as both a caretaker and postulant questioning her devotion to God are at odds but she is treated first and foremost based on her gender in two patriarchal systems: the Von Trapp household and the Church. One of the first songs in the musical asks “how do you solve a problem like Maria?” and asserts that patriarchal systems view women who operate outside their gender roles and challenge oppressive hierarchies are just that: a problem.

And then there’s Liesl. Her love interest, Hitler youth Rolfe, singings cooingly to her that she’s only 16 and since he’s “older and wiser,” (ONE YEAR OLDER, I might add) it’s his job to tell her how to live.  He opens the song by calling her a “little girl” and later:

You are 16 going on 17

Fellows will fall in line

Eager young lads

And grueways and cads

Will offer you fruit and wine


Totally unprepared are you

To face a world of men

Timid and shy and scared are you

Of things beyond your ken


You need someone

Older and wiser

Telling you what to do

I am 17 going on 18

I’ll take care of you


[insert stink eye here]


Liesl goes on to assert Rolfe’s claims that she’s unprepared for face a world of men and asks, what does she really know about men who drink brandy and what not? The slut-shaming in this song is pretty astounding. She’s encouraged to believe that it is somehow her responsibility to work around patriarchal systems and learn to abide by their rules rather than challenge them. Men will drink and take advantage of you, so let me tell you what to do!, says Rolfe. If he’s part of that system, what good is that advice, particularly if it’s presented in the same misogynistic tone that he’s telling her to be wary of? And I won’t even get into the fact that some Hitler youth fanatic is giving life advice to anyone. Just…no.

Cue the thunderstorm scene. Maria is in her room which Liesl has just snuck into after her patriarchal sing-a-long with Rolfe so she won’t get yelled at by her father. A storm erupts and the Von Trapp girls, frightened of the noise, run into Maria’s room for comfort. Maria asks where the boys are and the response? “Boys aren’t scared!” Another loud clap of thunder and there are the boys, just as scared as the girls. Even the weather is gendered! Nothing about Carrie Underwood posing the same question as Julie Andrews 48 years apart is irregular, mainly because in dangerous situations, women are still expected to seek shelter and comfort and men are still expected to brave the elements.

Now, I’m not calling The Sound of Music a failure. It was a remake which closely followed previous productions. The central plot is not the liberation of the musical’s women from the roles to which they are bound, unless you are counting Maria’s leaving the church to marry Captain Von Trapp as liberating, and even still, the concept of marriage is wholly patriarchal, in my opinion. The real failure is society. We have failed to elevate women to the same platform upon which men stand. We have failed to elevate women of color to the same platform as white women. When we question Audra McDonald’s legitimacy in playing Mother Abbess, we fail. Some people have a very real attachment to the patriarchy because it works for them. It does not work for everyone and it was not made to work for everyone. We cannot pretend it is acceptable that systems work for some off the backs of others. We must do better.

For if the hills really are alive, they would know how much farther we still have to go.


8 responses to “The Sound of Sexism

  1. How would a non-misandrist have written this differently?

    She would have noted the lengths to which men go to shield physically weaker women from harm. The pulchritudinous handsomeness of Captain Von Trapp and Rolfe, and the way love conquers even the rigors of National Socialist Germany under Hitler, not so unlike the Democratic Socialism of Barack Hussein Obama.

    She would have noted there was no slut-shaming because there were no sluts, that no serious critic questioned multiple Tony winning Audra McDonald’s legitimacy in playing Mother Abbess, and that the women of Nazi-era Sound of Music are vastly happier than 21st-century women slaughtering 1,211,000 gestating babies annually.

  2. First, this was a well-written critique of a re-make of a movie I grew up loving and still love. I did not care to watch the remake only out of a loyalty to the original and my mantra that “some things should not be re-made.” I agree with Ms. Munson — there are little parts of me that cringe when I hear the “Older and wiser” song sung by Rolf to Liesl. But the part of me that loves Julie Andrews and all the spunk she exhibits keeps me loving this show and watching it every year at Christmas time. As for Mr. Green’s comment, how does examining the Sound of Music with a feminist’s eye equate to misandry? Yes, there are stereotypical portrayals of males and females in this show, reflective of the time period in which it was made. And we still have the same kinds of stereotypical portrayals of males and females all across 21st century media-land. Further, to say that “women of Nazi-era Sound of Music were vastly happier than 21st century women…” is ludicrous. Upon what do you base this? My step-grandmother grew up in Nazi Germany. Her brother refused to fight and was placed in a concentration camp, and died there. Another of her brothers was shot after the allegation that he spoke out against Hitler. Are those the REAL LIFE women of Nazi-era that you are referring to? As for slaughtering babies…take that to another site, this site is obviously not for you, Mr. Green.

    • Miss… I believe you are confused about the implications of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

      It’s satire. Rolfe sings about being a person to rely on and look up to, a common male role for the era, and in Liesl’s part she “confirms” this and ends with saying she’ll depend on him. However, when they’re dancing she stands above him as she says this, and plays with his hair (signifying she is really in control. Again, even the way he kisses her at the end and then runs away. The viewer is meant to sense that he is emotionally much more immature that the age he talks about.

      Watching the performance live and on film you can see that Liesl is clearly the dominant of the two. Broader picture, Rolfe succumbs to the pressures of the Nazi regime (it can be seen he’s too emotionally immature to personally identify with such behaviors; when he heils after being briefly questioned by Captain von Trapp this is more proof he sees the Nazis as an opposing power to suck up to more than allies) while Liesl, the stronger of the two, escapes with her family instead of giving in. Non of this confirms the gender stereotypes at the time, it mocks it. She could’ve done many cowardly things if she was really weaker, like joining him rather than going with her family to Switzerland, but she doesn’t.

      If hypothetically the lyrics were meant to be serious, then this would serve no purpose other than to entertain the audience and express their puppy love for each other, which is directly against Hammerstein’s personal belief that every song in a musical should contribute to the overall story. (This theory has actually improved theatre exponentially since The Sound of Music, as before the songs always came as breaks for the viewer’s enjoyment.)


      p.s. My grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp as well, and my family only survived with the help of a young Nazi soldier, in case you believed every Nazi was anti-semantic rather than the reality that many people were just weak, and fought for the wrong cause to save their own lives (like Rolfe did).

  3. I think you are preaching to the choir, or maybe arguing with it. The song was written as a lyrical irony, because in both the 1959 Broadway Play, and the movie, she was meant to be obviously more mature than he was. It would be absurd for any girl of16 to truly get advice on such matters from any boy of 17. In the case even more so, because you could already see by. The time of the song, in the movie and the play, that he was emotionally years junior to her. The song was meant to use that as a springboard to poke fun at the steriotypical male female relationships in marriage, not to idolize or glamorize them. So you’re criticism is misguided and you are ‘a preachin to the choir!

  4. I think you are preaching to the choir, or maybe arguing with it! The song was written as a lyrical irony, because in both the 1959 Broadway Play, and the movie, she was meant to be obviously more mature than he was. It would be absurd for any girl of 16 to truly get advice on such matters from any boy of 17! In this case even more so, because you could already see by the time of the song that he was emotionally years junior to her. The song was meant to use that as a springboard to poke fun at the steriotypical male female relationships in marriage, not to idolize or glamorize them. So your criticism is misguided and you are ‘a preachin to the choir!

    • Ok, that's the damned best looking chicken drumstick I've EVER seen. Hands down. And now I'm sad that I don't live in NYC anymore … so that I could get breathless over Ch#n9&a3g;s cooking!

  5. You are complaining because you completely missed the point. The song is sarcastic. It should be obvious when he is boasting about how he is ONE year older than her. He’s a Nazi for crying out loud, he isn’t supposed to be the best model for boys out there…

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