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.